The Executive Director of the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) Shamsuddin Bardan has recently argued that the poor command of English is the main reason why Bumiputera graduates find it hard to get jobs in the private sector.

This is not a novel idea and indeed, Shamsuddin made this exact same argument in response to what was virtually the exact same question in 2018.

I do not deny that competency in the English language is a crucial skill that all Malaysians need. It is valuable in and of itself. And I also do not deny that it is a problem facing many Malaysian graduates—Bumiputera or otherwise.

But it is just one component of the problem. It may be a very big one, perhaps the biggest—but again, it is just one piece of the puzzle.

The danger is that we rely on simplistic assumptions in trying to understand a complex issue, especially if it involves blaming the real victims of a problem.

The fact is that the Malaysian job market has become more challenging in general over the last couple of years.

Indeed, it is no stretch to say that it has collapsed, and this will likely be compounded by the recession created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jobs can be created, but if there are not well-paying, or rather, if they don’t provide opportunities for growth, no one—except perhaps cheap migrant labour—will take them.

You cannot demand workers surrender to perpetually low-paying jobs they can never escape from—which leaves them nothing to save or build families with.

On the other hand, academic studies such as 2016’s seminal “Degrees of Discrimination: Race and Graduate Hiring in Malaysia” by Dr. Muhammed Abdul Khalid and Dr. Lee Hwok Aun has shown that there are real instances of private sector discrimination against Bumiputera graduates.

Moreover, Shamsuddin contradicts himself when he reportedly said that: “There’s no need to be afraid or shy because when they improve, they will benefit from it, too. Companies can then teach them other skills.”

But how are Bumiputera graduates supposed to get such on-the-job-skills when they won’t even be hired in the first place because of the English issue?

Am I saying English is unimportant or should be ignored? I am not. Should employers be forced to hire mediocre workers? Of course not.

But the point I am trying to make is that there are nuances to the Bumiputera graduate unemployment issue than just a case of poor English skills. The same can be said for the challenges facing graduates of all races in Malaysia.

Solving this dilemma requires holistic solutions—including overhauling our education system, ensuring just wage growth and incentivizing companies to constantly upskill as well as develop their workforces to boost productivity.

But these won’t happen if we are stuck in the belief that the onus is only on the workers to improve themselves without any aid from the government or private sector. This is simply not realistic and will hurt all sides—including business owners—in the long-run.

The MEF’s stand is hence tone deaf. But it is also par on course when one considers that this organisation, perhaps unsurprisingly, has always resorted to blaming workers for their plight rather than confront the real issues at hand.

It would be very unfortunate if the current government takes such wrong-headed and dangerous ideas seriously—if it ever gets down to formulating serious and much-needed policies to address our deepening unemployment crisis.

NIK NAZMI NIK AHMAD
KEADILAN PARLIAMENTARY SPOKESPERSON ON EDUCATION
SETIAWANGSA MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT

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