Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Gangnam style and the Malaysian graduate

By Karim Raslan, Published TODAY, 18 Feb 2013

Singaporeans think Kuala Lumpur is cheap. But the world’s sixth-most expensive city as recently ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit is hardly the best point of comparison.

Spare a thought, rather, for young Malaysian graduates — especially those pouring out of the country’s 20 public universities and 50 or so private institutions of higher learning. For them, the job market is extremely challenging.

A 2011 Graduate Tracking Index released by the Ministry of Higher Education last September revealed that at least 40,000 of these graduates were unemployed 12 months after they had completed their studies.

Furthermore, this large and increasingly noisy demographic has become a prized constituency that both major political coalitions (the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat) are seeking to woo in the run-up to the 13th General Election.

There are now more than 5 million young people aged 20 to 29, most of whom are first-time voters with no clear political loyalties and whose thought leaders are graduates.

Johari (not his real name) is a recent graduate from the International Islamic University (IIU) in Gombak. The IIU, with its lavish suburban campus just outside Kuala Lumpur has become a leading tertiary educational institution, in part because the coursework is conducted in the English language.

Working at a non-profit, Johari earns a seemingly comfortable RM3000 (S$1,300) a month. However, as he explains, his take-home pay is very quickly reduced to a far more modest sum.

“I’m very lucky that my parents live within commuting distance of the city. Friends from Terengganu or elsewhere have to fork out another RM400-500 on accommodation. Having said that, I spend about the same amount on my transport, leaving home every morning by 6.15am. More often than not, I only get back to the house by 10pm or 11pm.”

Transport is a big chunk of Johari’s monthly expenditure. He would like to buy a car but he knows he cannot afford to run it and, more especially, pay for parking in the city.

Separately, he resents Malaysia’s inflated car prices — a legacy of the Mahathir era, especially that of the national car project, Proton.

“I go on the Internet and compare prices for cars in Malaysia with Thailand or elsewhere. We’re paying so much more for the same models because of the duties.” In fact, he has read the opposition’s criticisms of the Malaysian automotive policy, and agrees.

However, Johari stresses that he does not necessarily agree with all of the opposition’s populist rhetoric. For example, he rejects their more radical views on student loans dished out by the PTPTN (National Higher Education Fund Corporation).

“I believe we should be responsible for paying for our own tertiary education. However, I would add that if we’re good students and get better grades, this should reduce our repayments.”

At the moment, he has accumulated some RM28,000 in student loans that he is paying off at the rate of RM100 per month. He acknowledges that he will not settle this debt until he reaches 40.

Housing is a further source of complaint and he says: “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a house in the Klang Valley.

“I imagine that I’ll have to settle for a small flat somewhere. Saving enough money for a deposit will take a very long time and that’s before we even talk about marriage!

“As a graduate, I should be able to bring mas kahwin (dowry) of at least RM12,000 to RM15,000. My last girlfriend was quite straightforward about her expectations. Status really matters.”


All this is not to say that Mr Najib Razak’s administration has not been trying to address the concerns of these young graduates. No government wants a large pool of overqualified, unemployed graduates, recognising the destabilising potential of such a group.

Indeed, the Prime Minister has launched initiatives like the 1Malaysia housing schemes known as PR1MA, a vast urban transport system for the Klang Valley, and many others including special smartphone subsidies.

However, only a handful of Mr Najib’s policy initiatives are specifically designed to address this demographic, which could be a strategic flaw.

The Prime Minster’s broad reformist sweep has also been hampered by vested interests and sluggish implementation.

Others would argue that Malaysian graduates are overly ambitious, given their second-rate degrees and poor grasp of English (still the main commercial language), and that a culture of entitlement has meant that they fail to see the connection between work and reward.

Whatever the case, this demographic could well determine Mr Najib’s future — which might explain the high-profile appearance of Korean YouTube sensation, Psy, at a Barisan Nasional Open House event in Penang over the Chinese New Year period. With so much at stake, any edge is needed, even “Gangnam Style”.

Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.

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