MALAYSIA'S vision of attaining developed nation status by 2020 may have appeared somewhat ambitious when it was proposed five years ago. But Prime Minister Dato Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad's dream is on course. Kuala Lumpur has joined the ranks of Asian 'boom towns' and appears to be sprouting new shopping malls and apartment complexes every day. The most common expression heard about the capital these days is: 'You would not recognise it any more.' Even quaint and sleepy Penang has awoken, while Johor is beginning to bear an uncanny resemblance to Guangdong; growing rich on development overflow from wealthy but space-restricted neighbour Singapore. The big question, then, is not if Malaysia will join the developed nations - the qualification is currently a per capita income of US$10,000 by 2020 - but whether the target will be reached early. The Commissioner for Malaysia in Hong Kong, Mohamad Khalis, said: 'I think it is quite likely that some fast-developing areas will qualify earlier, probably by 2005. 'The Klang Valley of Kuala Lumpur is an obvious contender. 'But the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia is still lagging, along with Sabah and Sarawak. 'On the whole, I think the 2020 target is realistic. We are working hard to achieve it. 'Of course, there are shortcomings. 'We are short of manpower, particularly in the fields of science and technology. To be a successful industrial nation you need technicians and inventors.' To integrate quicker into the international sphere, Malaysia is encouraging the use of English rather than Bahasa Melayu, the national language. 'To be a global player, English must be the common medium,' Mr Khalis said. Despite these shortcomings, however, Malaysia is progressing well. Economic growth has averaged an impressive 8.8 over the past seven years - an enviable performance. The strong economic performance is reflected in a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) survey which last year ranked Malaysia as the world's 17th biggest exporter and importer - up from 40th in 1980. The World Economic Forum (WEF) also placed Malaysia 17th in its latest World Competitiveness Report. Among non-OECD countries, it was ranked third. Effective and increasingly open government policies have been hailed by the international business community. Even more heartening news came in this year's budget with the abolition or reduction of import duties on 2,600 items from bulldozers to washing machines and food. The WEF said the other advantages were an educated and skilled workforce, a well-developed infrastructure, good communications and efficient bureaucracy. These and other factors (including relatively cheap land and labour) have convinced 3,000 manufacturers from more than 35 countries to choose Malaysia as their offshore production base. Between 1990 and 1994 alone, approval was granted to 4,309 manufacturing projects - involving investment amounting to US$49.4 billion - of which more than half was foreign. Taiwan was the largest foreign investor, with projects worth US$6.1 billion. Japan's investments were worth US$5.6 billion. Other major investors were the US, France, Singapore and South Korea. Hong Kong investors have been relatively slow to move in. In 1993, the territory's entrepreneurs invested in projects worth only US$36 million, with textile manufacturing representing nearly two-thirds of the enterprises. But, last year, as foreign investment in Malaysian rocketed by 197 per cent, Hong Kong investors, particularly in the field of electronics, also began to move in. Tourism continues to play a significant role in Malaysia's economic development. In the 1990s, tourism earnings have nearly doubled to M$8.3 billion, in line with the number of visitors - seven million a year. Arrivals from Hong Kong were up 14 per cent last year to 136,000. Sarawak recorded the most significant growth - a 47 per cent increase in Hong Kong visitors last year. This led to Dragonair and the national carrier, Malaysian Airlines System, to introduce a new non-stop service to the state capital, Kuching. From a mere 12,800 visitors in 1991, Kuching lured 96,000 tourists last year. Hindered by restricted access to Hong Kong's overcrowded Kai Tak airport, MAS is expected to increase flight frequencies to Kuala Lumpur and other destinations when Macau's international airport opens at the end of this year.