Updated: Mar 11, 2020
Dear Dr. Mohd Radzi, one of the biggest disappointments for me in the tabling of the recent Budget 2020 was how funds were allocated to or diverted from the heart of this nation's prosperity - education.
Although the budget is presented by the Finance Minister, it's derived from input by the various departments and agencies. It is then fine tuned by the cabinet and the Prime Minister. Therefore, the education department and you play a vital role in the budget for education programs.
In my industry - the real estate market - the majority of people were waiting with bated breath to see how issues like affordability, overhang, and RPGT were addressed. Most of us also know that the economy drives the property market. Therefore many of us were interested to see how Budget 2020 stimulates the economy.
But what drives the economy?
Human Capital is the True Wealth of the Nation
Discussions on this inevitably lead to fiscal policy, investments, and other financial metrics. Rarely do we discuss human capital. This, I believe, is the most important long-term driver of the economy and by extension the property market.
Malaysia is blessed in that it has ample natural resources and sits on one of the most strategic locations in the world. Good government initiatives and a healthy, growing population has in the past, amplified economic prosperity.
We're now reaching a point where population growth is plateauing and birth rates are declining. Our demographic is on a trajectory towards ageing population.
This means population growth will not drive our GDP like before.
We have to make productivity increase the main thrust for economic growth. Our productivity per capita must increase. This is where the degree to which our human capital is developed plays a vital role.
Education is the lynchpin for the development of our human capital.
That makes you one of the most important persons in this country.
The policies of the ministry which you helm will shape the future of Malaysia. A future which is losing shine at present.
What Does Malaysia Need In Its Workforce?
We must address this question to understand the overhaul that our education system is in need of.
As an employer who has interviewed hundreds of local candidates and hired a good portion of them in the telecommunications, real estate, and service industries, I've noticed that a very large portion of our workforce are lacking in many basic skills.
Chief amongst this is a lack of productivity that is underlined by a "tidak apa" attitude.
This is exacerbated by a lack of "education" even amongst graduates.
To illustrate, many years ago we were looking to hire an accounts executive. My partner at that time interviewed one candidate who was a graduate from a local university. She had 9As for SPM and graduated with 1st class honours. In the interview, she was unable to explain the difference between fixed and variable costs.
When thrown curveball questions like, "is electromagnetic radiation a wave or a particle?" to graduates with electrical engineering degrees during interviews, a good portion of them would be stumped.
What these examples demonstrate is that there is a structural problem in our education system. We have schools, universities, teachers and lecturers but students are not becoming learned.
What Malaysian employers need are productive people; employees who can achieve more in less time. This requires 3 main ingredients:
We don't need more rent seeking policies in the form of licences and permits. Or cash handouts to hire more people. We need policies in the education system that spark the 3 main ingredients above. We need an employable workforce.
Give Malaysia this and not only will our GDP grow, but employment opportunities will increase by leaps and bounds because entrepreneurs will have the human capital they so badly need. International businesses will also gravitate towards Malaysia.
Do you know that Malaysia is one of AirBnB's fastest growing markets in Asia? In Southeast Asia, it is THE fastest growing market for them. AirBnB hosts can operate here with almost no major restriction, yet don't you find it odd that AirBnB's HQ for Southeast Asia is in Singapore? (AirBnB is banned in Singapore).
This is only one example from possibly hundreds of others.
We Also Need Better Values
Values like coming to work on time, going the extra mile, delivering results in a timely fashion, time management, and aspiring to excellence are missing in abnormally high quantities.
These values should form the core of our education system.
However, they simply cannot be drilled into our young with copious amounts of "kelas pendidikan moral" and "kelas pendidikan agama."
Students learn through observation. It is therefore vital that the entire education department comprising everyone from the Minister and Director-General all the way down to the lowest paid general clerk espouse such values.
I was once a committee member in the Parent Teacher's Association of my eldest son's school. I was dismayed at the leadership skills of the headmaster, teacher attitudes, and the laid-back, "I don't care" culture that permeated through the chain of command. I'm sure you already know that this exemplifies most public schools in Malaysia.
Students see this. It forms an impression on them.
Teach them all the "moral" and "agama" you want but it will be to no avail if they don't see leadership by example. "Do as I say, not as I do," will never work.
So please get the ball rolling with intensive efforts to create a world-class culture within your Ministry. We don't need grandiose plans with funky acronyms. We simply need people within the education department who are trained, equipped and rewarded in a "Google-like" ecosystem.
Please demand a budget for making better teachers. Reward their performance with better incentives. You don't need to pay employers RM300 a month as incentive to hire unemployed graduates. Channel the money towards better remuneration for quality teachers.
JAKIM does not need an additional RM100 million because we don't need more "do as I say, not as I do." Channel the money towards better remuneration for quality teachers.
Please demand for this in the next budget.
Employers will make much more than RM300 per person if they have a more productive workforce.
JAKIM's effort will not be compromised if it does not get another RM100 million increase for it's annual expenditure of RM1.3 billion. In fact, if our education system excels at transmitting good values to our students, part of JAKIM's work is already done.
How Does the Economy Improve with More Productive Malaysians?
I've suggested that the education system needs to focus on providing specialised knowledge, encouraging innovation, and developing creativity.
This means we need a syllabus that is modern and responsive towards trends and developments in global markets. The depth and breadth of study into mathematics, the sciences, finance, process automation, and other relevant skills should be increased.
These skills must include making YouTube videos, social media management, time management, self management, public speaking, debating, and an orientation towards impeccable service.
Out-of-the-box thinking must be encouraged from young. For this, we need teachers who are not only comfortable at being challenged by their students but who also push the boundaries of critical reasoning. There is no place for dogma in learning centres.
How will this impact the economy?
More productive employees will in turn increase the output of the businesses they work for. More output is good for business. It usually translates into more revenue. Very quickly, incomes will rise.
Rising incomes in turn translate to increased spending. The wealth starts to infiltrate the economy. It also means higher tax revenues for the government.
International companies will find the country more alluring because of its highly productive workforce. This means more jobs. More jobs mean less unemployed people. Less unemployed people again translates to greater spending, increased incomes, and a larger tax base.
In a nutshell, the country will be more prosperous. Isn't this incentive enough? You are the key person who can make this happen, Dr. Mohd Radzi.
How to Formulate a Plan for Better Education?
Fortunately, you don't need to create a plan from scratch. You just have to look to our southern neighbour across the causeway.
I travelled to Singapore very recently.
In Changi airport, their innovativeness is "in your face." The latest addition to the airport called "Jewel" is a marvel. All this pomp is not just decorative. It is fortified by a talented workforce. Immigration officers are service friendly and speak very good English.
I looked hard for airport staff who were chatting and doing nothing but I could not find any. Everyone was manning their stations, delivering service. Imagine the productivity.
This is a result of good education. Yes, I’m simplifying but I’m a firm believer of the Pareto Principle.
Singapore's education system is one of their greatest assets.
Public schools here are better than private schools by a far stretch. There is no real difference between an international school and a public school except for price. The latter is a fraction of the price and therefore the favourite choice.
There's the roadmap for you, Dr. Mohd Radzi. A mere 60 minute flight away. You don't need to send your department heads on costly 11-hour flights to Finland. Just increase bilateral cooperation with Singapore on education. Heck, you could just copy them from afar if they don't want to cooperate.
Add focus on specialised knowledge, innovation and creativity to the mix and we'll have one heck of a roadmap.
Dr. Mohd Radzi, Malaysia needs educational reform. This reform should be tied to productivity increase. It will transform the people and the economy. It is the single best investment the government can make. Will you make history?