The recent new norms in school learning remind me of those days when I was teaching in a tuition centre. A child of primary six threw me a random question: “Teacher Iris, I am puzzled. Why do we need to learn the Malay language but not them learning our mother tongue?”. I was stunned with that sudden question and at one point my mind went blank. But right away I came to grasp that golden opportunity to convey a rightful message to him: “It is not a matter of who learning what language, but rather the advantage(s) of learning an extra language to diversify our communication tool as a preparation for work in the future. This is vital for us to survive in a multiracial-society nation.” Perhaps, the little child could not seize the comprehensive meaning behind my answer. But deep in heart, I felt the minute impact I have left in this little soul. Since then, I whisper to myself: an educator does not only spread inspiration within an affiliated institution, but it could be done anywhere and anytime. In other word, education is a subtle art of inspiriting others, even in a very minuscule manner that takes an infinity of time.
The aspirations of Malaysian youth are essential to their human capital investment, educational choices and labour market outcomes. With the emerging of new norms due to the COVID-19 pandemic waves, young people, who make up 28% of the Malaysian population are expected to attain in a changing labour market. However, the heightening of the predicted youth unemployment rate at nearly 14 per cent in 2020 has adjourned Malaysian youth of their career aspirations and to be hit with tougher school-to-work transition. This pandemic has triggered a massive disruption to the economy and labour markets with disproportionate impacts on youth employment in Asia and the Pacific. Even before the pandemic, youth in Asia and the Pacific had been highly impacted by high unemployment rates, with large shares of them excluded from both school and work. According to International Labour Organisation (ILO), the regional youth unemployment rate in 2019 was at 13.8 per cent compared to 3.0 per cent for adults. In other word, four in five young workers in the region were engaged in informal employment and one in four young workers was living in conditions of extreme or moderate poverty.
What is missing for our young generation in cushioning the weather of shrinking labour market and sceptical human capital investment? The answer is education that comprises knowledge-based and value-based elements that would shape their personalities and worldviews. In fact, looking from a cultural perspective, our children are taught to learn in a structured education system that emphasizes on scoring flying colours based on academic merits, engaging with good jobs or careers pathways, succeeding a good living and eventually enjoying a retirement life. These are those rigid and overly structured chapters in the education syllabus that our schools teach our children – which often overlook the essence of unleashing real-life concepts and lessons. Subsequently, our children realise that there is an invisible large gap in between what is taught and what is threw to them in the real world, especially when they graduate and begin to face the real labour market, and understand how the economy, society and humanity are interrelated to our daily livings. Most of the youth are quite shallowly equipped with these two key components of learning; knowledge-based and value-based, which are highly paramount in determining their perception and attitude towards work and money – thus, they ought to be taught that they shall not work for money but instead, keep learning to sustain life with knowledge and value. With regards to this, a knowledge-value based education could play a central role to prepare the youth with the working competency, while embracing their aspirations as much as they could.
Moving forward, there are several key steps in education that would be beneficial to the Malaysian youth. Firstly, there is a need to promote an early exposure of career aspirations of young Malaysian as early as the age of seven. The New Zealand’s “Inspiring the Future” programme is an exhilarating initiative to be replicated by Malaysia’s education system. A series of the programme was launched to expose young children aged seven to twelve on the ways that unconscious bias, gender stereotypes and a range of other push factors influence the way they think about their future jobs. Worth mentioning, realising the importance of early exposure at young age as a stimulant for the young children, this program was initiated in the elementary and intermediate school level in order to introduce the aspirational thinking that can support career decisions and goals when these children enter secondary school. Not only that, researches from British Organization Education and Employers also show that children’s career aspirations are shaped at a young age and are largely influenced by their gender and the people surrounding. Therefore, with a wide range of collaboration between stakeholders in such initiative, informative career aspirations could be conveyed to young children to broaden their horizon on future work decisions.
Secondly, there is a need to address the youth not in employment, education and training (NEET) and scrutinise courses to be in line with the need of the labour market. Current move by Malaysian government, including TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) is still facing a widespread apathy among students, together with a pool of problems including mismatch of courses with market demand and lack of competitiveness among graduates in the global arena. To avoid talent wastage among our young generation, exposure to TVET should be instilled as early as in elementary school instead of secondary school, followed by a supplementary of knowledge-based education by the trained educators and certified institutions.
Lastly, education development from family, community and society needs to be executed in a very delicate and precise approach. Values like empathy, resilience, integrity, proactivity are crucial to be instilled into the daily experience of young children. Parental education, community values, role models, and peer perceptions are debris that complete a youth’s personality. COVID-19 and the new norms shaping the global human race today have provided a golden opportunity to act as an educational tool for the youth to learn to unlearn what they were taught especially when digitalization era has surpassed the conventional way of work and employment.
A recent survey by a recruitment firm, Talentbank in October 2020 has revealed a pick up by majority of employers to hire fresh graduates from public and private universities in 2021 as well as 2022. The survey aimed to assess job market conditions for fresh graduates in the new normal and found that 73.41 per cent of respondents from senior management level or employers themselves intend to hire graduates from these higher learning institutions in the year to come. Such survey findings undoubtedly raise a silver lining to the downpours of economic outlook resulted from the fluidity of current global economic storms. Moving forward to 2021, the young Malaysians shall buckle up to embrace the new norms and discover new routes to be aspirational in line with the nation’s ambition to achieve a high-income nation status.
Lastly, I am personally captivated by a quote from Robert Kiyosaki, the author of the well-known book, “Rich dad, Poor Dad”:
“If you are going to build the Empire, the first thing you have to do is to dig a deep hole and establish the foundation. If you just want to build a small house in the suburbs, you only need concrete, and 15 cm of foundation is sufficient enough. Ironically, when most people try to get rich, they always try to build the Empire on 15 cm thick concrete.”
Education is the foundation and aspirational educational support is the concrete foundation needed by our nation. Education can be conducted in any dimension and space, and be leveraged through any form of language, gesture and ideas. Most importantly, the enhancement of knowledge-based and value-added elements are needed to be encompassed at the school level in order to equip the youth with whole-rounded personalities and skills to keep the economic wheel rolling when their time comes to dominate the labor market.
Iris Ng Pei Yi is currently working as a research officer at Merdeka Center. This essay is part of the writing campaign Aspirasi Malaysia 2021 by Merdeka Center and Naratif Malaysia to encourage young people to share their ideas and hopes for the future of Malaysia towards producing a more harmonious, developed and prosperous society.