MAY 27, 2020
[REFSA DISCUSS #6 x UNDI18]
Post-COVID-19: What lies ahead for Malaysian Youths?
The COVID-19 cohort, like the 2008 Global Financial Crisis cohort before them, will have to contend with a challenging start to their career as the economic outlook is set to look bleak. Already, Malaysian youth is faced with acute job search and huge financial stress, with rising cost of living, depressed wages, burdensome student loans, which will be accentuated with COVID-19. This could lead to other “knock on effects” such as depression, delay in setting up a family, and poorer health.
The nature of education, work and businesses will change for some time to come, for better or for worse. Thus, it will be important to understand how these changes will take place so that we are better able to adjust to the “new normal”. Given that the economic impact of Covid-19 will be felt over a considerable period, the government must also be prepared to reorient policies accordingly, so that this generation of youth is not left behind.
What kind of future lies ahead for Malaysian youth post-COVID-19? With the future job market looking to be tough, what alternatives does the youth have? What kind of policies should youths demand to help ease the transition into this new economic outlook? Jointly organised with UNDI18, these are the questions that our sixth webinar will hopefully provide answers to.
Dr. Melati Nungsari, Assistant Professor of Economics at the Asia School of Business noted that there should be a distinction between paper qualifications and skills. Malaysia produces many students with paper qualifications, but not necessarily with many skills that may be needed in a dynamic economy. Dr. Melati also notes that there are other alternatives to entering the labour force, such as entrepreneurship. She discussed briefly applying the MIT model of entrepreneurship training in Malaysia in the form of the Rapid Youth Success Entrepreneurship (RYSE) Program, which targets 600 people and provides them ten thousand ringgit to start a small business; programs like this provide an alternative to the typical Malaysian youth experience of going into stable jobs in the formal sector or less secure jobs in the informal sector. On the issue of brain drain, Dr. Melati notes that the crisis may become a significant push factor for Malaysians abroad to come home due to a lack of opportunities globally, as well as poor medical emergency responses to the crisis compared to Malaysia.
Pn. Shareen Dato Abdul Ghani, former CEO of Talentcorp began by noting that crisis is equal parts danger and opportunity. Although the crisis has greatly reduced consumption demand, it has also opened the discussion for reforming labour practices and has pushed the government to create a stronger safety net. Working from home has now become an acceptable alternative, but much more, such as protections for gig workers without stifling their flexibility, needs to be looked into. Digital technology as an industry will be the next big economic wave, and labour force policies will have to shift in order to ensure that workers are dynamically skilled to meet the future demands on skilled labour. She also noted however that the upskilling of workers will require that “the right talents come in at the right time and at the right places”; currently, mismatch between labour demands for skills and the supply for qualified labour has become an acute problem, in line with Dr. Melati’s views.
Mr Mohd Amirul Rafiq bin Abu Rahim, a research associate of Khazanah Research Institute, stated that the unemployment rate before the pandemic was already high (in 2019, 508,000 were unemployed and 60% of the unemployed were youths). Many youths have also been in the gig economy and they have limited access to labour opportunities and social protection. Contrary to common beliefs, youths rank salary as only the fourth most important considerations in taking up a job and on average settle for pay that are below their respective reservation wages. Factors such as work-life balance and interest in job trump salary considerations. He stated that this contradicts employers’ complaints of youths having unrealistic wage expectations. Two, young people should not be labelled as ‘choosy’ as many are overqualified for their job. He stressed that ‘the future is bleak for youths’ post Covid 19 as more youths are likely to remain unemployed for 6 months or more.
The speakers agree that in the short run, there is a need for youths to keep their options open. Uncertainty throughout the crisis will mean that youths will have to adapt and be flexible to find every opportunity available, whether it be via self-improvement via upskilling and vocational work, or via entrepreneurship. On the other hand, the speakers also agree that the government needs to provide a cushion during this crisis to provide some semblance of certainty and stability in order to stave off potentially long-lasting economic consequences from mass lay-offs.
In the long run, REFSA believes there must be more work set out in a collaborative setting between government, private firms, and the labour market to rethink the inherent structural failures that underpin the current economy. As the speakers noted, government policy that is centered on maintaining a labour comparative advantage to remain competitive has led to depressed wages. This paradigm must shift and give way to a greater emphasis of giving each Malaysian worker more human and physical capital to greatly improve the quality of their jobs and wages.
Media coverage of the webinar:
The Malaysian Insight (English), read here
The Malaysian Insight (Malay), read here