By Joachim Ng
Judging by recent comments from business owners, it seems that Perak’s economy will suffer an epileptic fit without foreign workers. Why is there such continuing dependence when last October the Government had announced the need to attract locals by providing better work facilities?
The Perak chapters of various chambers of commerce, hotel associations, and business networks have said that the manufacturing, construction, hotel, and plantation sectors depend on foreign labour to get the job done. Restaurant associations in Perak have also complained about the shortage of foreign workers for eateries.
Employers claim that locals won’t take up jobs labelled as 3D (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning) even for RM100 a day. However, labour groups have counter-claimed that foreign workers are preferred because they eagerly do overtime shifts and can tolerate deplorable living conditions such as being housed in cramped, unsanitary and badly ventilated dormitory rooms.
Restaurant owners in Ipoh have long complained about locals rejecting offers for jobs as servers and kitchen helpers, but many eateries fail to attract job seekers because the norm is a 12-14 hour workday stretching from breakfast to dinner.
There are also complaints by employers across the board that local workers lack dedication, take frequent medical leave, and love job-hopping. In contrast, foreign workers have a strong sense of purpose, and that is, to work hard and earn money for their families back home.
A pull-and-push dual approach needs to be fast tracked. On the pull side, 3D jobs must be rebranded to make them attractive, such as by engaging temps for the late hours instead of requiring the full-timers to put in daily overtime. Spruce up the jobs with better designations, upgraded technology, a more diversified work scope and higher pay.
The State Government must also compel all companies to hold annual family day workplace visits so that spouses, children, and parents get to visualise the job environment and requirements. Local workers get to feel more committed to the job after such a bonding event, as they want their families to be proud of them.
The push approach is equally vital. Job seekers need to be pushed into blue-collar vocations, and the educational system requires a big overhaul to re-orientate students towards acquiring practical skills instead of seeking deskbound work. Re-label the 3D jobs as jobs in Demand requiring Dexterity and Dedication. Instead of burdening students with academic learning, focus primarily on teaching them skills and attitudes that have a direct impact on how they live.
Recently, famous Ipoh son Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye commented that in the course of his work he travelled all over Malaysia to attend meetings or seminars but found that facilities were in deplorable state — toilets, roadside drains, roads, back lanes, public parks, bus stations, taxi stands.
“While we are good at developing projects and providing state-of-the-art buildings and equipment, we are often found wanting when it comes to their proper maintenance and functionality.” He said: “Maintenance and service have never been the country’s forte.”
Good habits, such as using public amenities responsibly, refraining from littering, being more safety conscious, and caring for the environment should be instilled and nurtured from young, Tan Sri Lee emphasised.
So what have our primary and secondary schools been teaching — or not teaching? What they don’t teach should be a cause for grave concern.
Schools are not teaching the global ethic of living for humanity. Hence, students grow up selfish with no care for public hygiene or the upkeep of public amenities. In adult life, as motorists they double park without a care. As motorcyclists, they beat the red lights and zigzag up one-way streets to shorten their travel time.
Students are not taught how things work in their lives, and so they yearn for easy degrees to get sedentary desk jobs. Last May, MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong revealed that 86% of graduates lacked a vocational background. “The low supply of skilled workers with vocational skill sets may affect economic growth in both short and long terms,” he warned.
The solution is to turn every primary and secondary school into a school of hard knocks offering a combined “pelajaran dan kemahiran” curriculum. Every school should have one machine room for every age level for the conduct of machine learning of the human kind. Have one lesson a day where teachers and students take turns to bring machines and materials to learn their workings and upkeep.
Here’s one suggestion: bring eight portable electric cookers to the machine room, with a wide assortment of vegetables, cereals, and other food ingredients. Give the students an assignment to cook the tastiest dish and divide them into eight competing groups. You will find many students wanting to become chefs as a career.
After the cooking contest, return to the classroom for a history lesson and explain the development of agriculture since 12,000 years ago. Result? Students begin taking an interest in farming — spurred by knowledge of history taught the right way.
Three months ago, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim asked the Education Ministry to find ways to stimulate children’s interest in subjects related to science and technology as their interest is deteriorating with adverse consequences for the economy.
There is a simple and effective way to accomplish this task: stop streaming students into arts and science. Get every student to learn art & design, maths & finance. But also get every student to peer into an electron microscope.
Lay a piece of litter under the electron microscope, and the students will be thoroughly shocked to see that 1mm of litter contains thousands of germs and viruses — enough to make one person sick. With this shock, they may stop littering. And they will also get more interested in science.
Combine SPM and SKM exams into one SPKM exam — Sijil Pelajaran & Kemahiran Malaysia, keeping to a minimal number of compulsory subjects. This combination will get 50% of school-leavers going for academic diplomas or degrees, and the other 50% going into technical higher institutes to graduate as fix-it experts.
If you are a technical grad, you actually have a tremendous advantage over the fellas with arts or religious degrees. You can become an entrepreneur determining your own salary or an intrapreneur with a big say over how much you should be paid.
Famous “Rich Dad” author Robert T. Kiyosaki has written that the concept of being an employee is a fairly recent phenomenon, as for most of recorded history people have been entrepreneurs running their own small businesses as farmers, bakers, or candlestick-makers. Do notice that all of them have technical skills.
If you are skilled, you don’t need to worry about being jobless or forcing yourself to work at a low-salaried job that doesn’t pay enough to cover all your basic necessities such as housing, utility, transport, and food. You also needn’t spend the rest of your life riding a motorbike delivering food.
Every house needs a plumber, electrician, aircon serviceman, or painter occasionally. Every office needs a computer repairer at times, and every car needs servicing or repair. Thus, technical jobs are a-plenty. To uplift the status of blue-collar work, pass a law to compel all technicians to be certified at diploma level before they can obtain work in the M & E (mechanical and electrical) sectors.
The number of workers in Malaysia who are financially unstable or living from payday to payday total 64%. Salaries in a capitalist economy are kept low because the profit take is slanted towards the large investors of businesses. Capital takes the cake, and labour takes the crumbs. In the services and manufacturing sectors, only 5.4% of the revenue is paid out as salaries.
The way to get and keep experienced local workers is to convert them into intrapreneurs. Give them just one focus: profit-making customer satisfaction performance. Instead of the boss shouting orders, let the intrapreneural employees design their own jobs, define their own work scope, propose innovations, and get paid according to a salary formula based on profit margin and productivity.
It is time for Malaysia to begin the shift away from the capitalist economic model wherein capital is the boss giving the orders and labour is the servant without a voice. Shift to a model wherein capital and labour work as senior and junior partners.
But ironically, while Malaysia remains heavily dependent on foreign workers, Malaysians are flocking to Singapore for work of every kind because of the republic’s expanding economy and robust exchange rate of RM3.4 to a dollar.
Restaurant cooks from Perak are heading to Singapore, even if the salary they get paid is just a low $2,000. As it translates to RM6,800 they can save RM1,000 a month for the family. Which job-seeking Malaysian wouldn’t work in Singapore if given the opportunity?
Another devastating effect of the ringgit’s poor exchange rate is that it will set back Malaysia’s intellectual and health development. Increasingly we are trailing behind other developing nations in science and innovation, because scientific equipment and science journals have doubled in price from ten years ago because of the progressively worsening exchange rate. Fewer Malaysians are now reading up on science or venturing into scientific work. Medicines have also doubled in price, forcing patients to go for cheaper alternatives that may not be as effective.
Allowing the ringgit to keep sinking is a bad policy that benefits a handful of product exporters at the expense of the vast majority of Malaysians. Economists argue that there is a trickle-down effect from export profits, but has any money trickled down to you? Most likely no, unless you are selling goods or providing services to exporters or you are a manufacturer of such goods.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo