Aliran held its third webinar for the year on 24 June 2021. Its title: What’s the future like for Malaysian youth?
Announced as a “Sembang Santai Khas” (special chill out and chit-chat), to be held in Malay and in English, the event aimed to be an informal roundtable chit-chat, rather than a serious academic-like seminar featuring a panel of experts.
Unlike the previous two public webinars, this session was confined to members and invited friends. In a memo sent out to all, the president, Anil Netto, reached out to all younger Aliran members to come to sembang. By restricting the session to Aliran members and invited friends, it was hoped that the young presenters would be comfortable to speak out critically. They did!
Youthful moderator and speakers
Dr Azmil Tayeb, originally from KL, is 40-something, no longer a youth but not quite a “full-fledged adult” either, at least in spirit and demeanour! He prefers to ride his big motorbike, runs in marathons all over the world and is still single! He was the right person to be moderator for the webinar.
He is also Aliran honorary secretary and has taken part in many webinars over these past two ‘shutdown years’. He has a PhD in politics from the Australian National University and has taught political science in Universiti Sains Malaysia for five years now. His book Islamic Education in Indonesia and Malaysia: Shaping Minds, Saving Souls (Routledge 2018), which compares how Islamic education is taught and passed on, oh so differently, in these neighbouring countries, has been praised for its comparative insights. Check it out.
As moderator, Azmil prepared three questions (see below) to kick off the discussion. And who were these five young(er) Aliran members who spoke at the roundtable?
Norhidayah Nadila, in her early 30s, is an anak jati Kampung Matahari Naik in Teluk Kumbar, Penang. Dila read law at Multimedia University, Malacca. She has been working with the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC), Penang, since 2015 and has been an active in Penang Forum on Aliran’s behalf. Dila is also an Aliran executive committee member.
Wan Atikah, a 20-something originally from Kelantan, studied anthropology in USM, graduating in 2016. She is a member of Arts-Ed Penang, where she conducts arts and culture education programmes and, through the arts, promotes community engagement. In 2019, Atikah was awarded a CrossCulture programme fellowship to participate in a curation and programme design project in Germany. Returning to Malaysia, from June to October 2020, Atikah participated in the Kongsi Bumbung cultural worker residency programme where, with others, she reflected on the concept of ‘living space’ in a time of pandemic.
John Fong, a 20-something Penangite, graduated in social science from Unimas in 2018 and with a masters from USM. He majored in political science and his thesis compared the process of regime change in Malaysia and the Philippines. Alas, he has been unemployed since graduation. So, he has been doing casual research work and indulges in Star Wars games when he isn’t. When the universities reopen to the ‘new normal’, and if he still cannot find meaningful employment, John might do a PhD. He is an Aliran executive committee member.
Dineskumar Ragu, another 20-something, is from Bukit Mertajam. He studied political science and communication studies in USM from 2013 to 2017. He then worked as a programme-cum-research officer for the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli) and for Global Bersih. Currently unemployed, he spends much time on social media, where his YouTube channel Political Macha Comments discusses national politics. Dines is also an Aliran executive committee member.
Zikri Rahman is a cultural and arts worker affiliated with Buku Jalanan, LiteraCity and Pusat Sejarah Rakyat. Zikri is currently enrolled in a master’s in social research and cultural studies programme at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University in Taiwan. He is currently based in Selangor.
In what follows, I summarise the main points raised in the roundtable. However, I shall not attribute particular points of views to particular speakers (partly because I forgot who said what!).
In a few places, I shall also add some additional data and draw some analyses that the speakers might not have raised directly but which I believe is in the spirit of what they discussed.
Question 1: How do you categorise youth in Malaysia? Is it a useful category to have in the context of Malaysian politics?
It is possible to try to categorise a youth as someone aged from, say, 18 to 30. Perhaps the most critical years of our youth are when we are 20 – 29. All speakers were critical of stretching the category of youth to include people in their 40s, like the political parties do.
Often, the head and office bearers of Umno Youth, MCA Youth or MIC Youth were in their 40s. For the speakers, this was most patronising of the oldies, for in holding on to these posts, these 40-somethings were simply denying the Youth the opportunity to lead or to show how that they can perform better than the 40-somethings.
That said, all our speakers felt it was more important to define ‘Youth’ subjectively – ie do you feel young or old? – rather than ‘objectively’, according to one’s age.
Being a youth, a couple said, is to “be in a process of becoming”. For Youth are essentially a cohort group that is in transition – no longer a carefree adolescent but also not yet a full-fledged adult with responsibilities. One of the presenters said the notion of habitus can be useful in helping us to define the state of being a youth. Put simply, this is a cultural orientation and feeling which distinguishes the individual as being in a process of transition, in a process of becoming.
The following point did not emerge from the roundtable, but I would like to elaborate on the habitus of being a youth, and contrast that with the habitus of being an adult, especially what I call the “full-fledged adult”.
We have the impression, and I believe we can show empirically, that the Youth are more prepared to try new things, go against the norm, to protest and to rebel more readily than the adult.
However, circumstances change drastically when one begins to “settle down” and become a full-fledged adult. For as adults, we begin to get attached to a particular partner, and once one gets married and has children, one has responsibilities towards the spouse and children, in addition to oneself. That also means one begins to set up one’s own home (not a bachelor’s pad, or continue staying with mum and dad), perhaps acquire a vehicle and save up for the children’s education, to buy a house, or for that rainy day.
When one assumes such responsibilities and needs to earn enough money for an entire family, for sure, one is less prepared to try new things, go against the norm, to protest and to rebel. This is the habitus of the adult, especially a full-fledged adult. Put another way, the Youth, unlike the adult, might have “nothing to lose, everything to gain”. So he or she is prepared to attempt new things, take additional risks, and be more liable to rebel. It is such a cultural orientation, derived from certain predictable responses to certain challenges, that shapes the habitus of the Youth.
When prodded by Azmil, our five speakers elaborated that there was no one particular type of politics that can be described as “Youth politics”. In fact, Youth involvement in politics is not necessarily progressive. It can be, as one of them put it, “double-edged”.
Yes, the Youth can be politically conscious, progressive and critical. In that case, Youth politics can take after the example of the Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API), led by Ahmad Boestamam, in the struggle for independence.
Or it can take a conservative turn and be associated with the struggles of the Mat Rempit who is also frustrated with the social restrictions he is subjected to, yet cannot break through except by expressing himself by defying road safety rules in dangerous death-defying motorcycle races.
Or, we can have Youth advocating “old-fashioned” reactionary ethno-religious politics that discriminates against people of other ethnic and religious backgrounds. They might be Youths but their politics takes after the politics of their older leaders who preach exclusive politics.
Indeed, we cannot talk about a single type of Youth politics. Youth politics, like current politics in Malaysia, is contested and can be “double-edged”. However, it is in the nature of being a Youth to challenge the dominant power and the mainstream narrative. But the protest by Youth is not automatically progressive. Nor is it automatically conservative.
Question 2: There is a serious issue of unemployment and underemployment among youths in Malaysia now? It is also a trend that parallels the expansion of the ‘gig economy’ and the weakening of workers’ rights. What are your thoughts on this matter?
A so-called gig economy refers to a labour market that is characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or free-lance work, as opposed to permanent jobs. No doubt, this gig economy has been growing and evolving for more than a decade now.
More and more people, especially the Youth are being caught in the gig economy. In fact, many youths, especially those trained in the social sciences, humanities and mass communications, have been drawn into it when they are employed on a short-term project basis as well, eg helping to organise the George Town Festival; writing articles for local or foreign online publications on a piece-by-piece basis; and conducting household interviews for the 2020 census. Some of these youths were also employed by local NGOs to advance their causes. Several of our young speakers are actually operating in the gig economy. They are employed on a project-by-project basis.
Involvement in the gig economy is not necessarily a bad thing, from the point of view of our Youth. For there is a preference among some, to be employed freelance, in a less formal setting like in NGOs, where one has more control over how the job needs to be done, rather than being tied down to a specific job and job description determined by the big boss. In the latter situation, often, one has to dress up to go to work and to follow office hours strictly. Like it or not, this gig economy is here to stay. Many tasks in NGOs will be conducted on a project-by-project basis for the foreseeable future.
The important point is to ensure that the Youth who choose to be involved in this sector do not get exploited by the employers. Usually, responsible NGOs follow the provisions of the Employment Act so that the Youth receive health coverage, days off on public holidays, sick leave and annual leave, perhaps even annual pay increments and overtime for the long hours they put in (the last item is not common).
If all these are forthcoming, it is understandable why Youth might be drawn to the gig economy. But it is not likely that employment on a short-term contract basis, without clear prospects for the future, will continue to be attractive when the Youth begin to settle down and make the transition to a full-fledged adult with responsibilities to a spouse and children.
Notably, it is only the gig economy that has expanded during this pandemic shutdown. Two of our speakers are currently unemployed. All of the speakers have friends who are graduates who are now performing casual jobs like food delivery or helping out in online shopping to help them make ends meet.
This brings us to the negative aspect of the gig economy. In the eyes of the delivery companies, they are not workers but ‘independent contractors’. So, the provisions of all the worker-related legislation – the Employment Act, the Trade Unions Act and Industrial Relations Act – do not apply whatsoever. Accordingly, they are not entitled to Socso benefits, overtime pay, days off on public holidays, let alone sick leave.
That being the case, the government authorities need to step in. Our speakers think it is right that the authorities in the UK stepped in to rule that Deliveroo handlers and Uber drivers are workers and are therefore entitled to the usual employment benefits. For these people, like the unemployed graduate friends of our speakers, have been forced into the gig economy at the lowest levels, unlike those who choose to enter the gig economy because they prefer the casual work style.
One of our presenters expressed concern that in the factories, more and more, workers including the Youth, are being employed through third-party contractors nowadays. In this setting, the factory owners are not responsible for the wages and welfare of the workers who work in their factories. The employers believe they need not deal with the trade unions since the workers are not direct employees of the factories. Rather, it is the third-party contractor who is their employer.
This system of employment has been used increasingly at the expense of those seeking employment desperately. Once upon a time, third-party contractors handled migrant workers. These days, local workers, including youths from a lower social stata, get thrown into this exploitative relationship as well. Our speakers agreed this was an area that needs to be explored thoroughly by the authorities, the trade unions, and perhaps the NGOs too. But that topic is for another day!
Question 3: Education is an issue that is closely related to the previous question. What are your thoughts about the oversupply of university graduates, the apparent stigma of vocational educational, and the government student debt from study loans (PTPTN), accrued from financing university education?
Alas, at this point, when the economy has contracted severely and few jobs are available, the Youth, whom we often view as though they are a single group, are forced to compete with one another as never before. Both the private and the public sectors are not hiring. Yet we continue to produce about 250,000 graduates each year! And all are looking for jobs!
Two of our speakers are unemployed. The other three are in casual employment with NGOs, one of them with more than one NGO! Yes, all were greatly concerned that yet another batch of students are about to graduate soon!
The speakers traced the problem back to the Mahathir years. They are right. In 1996, the Private Higher Education Act and two other related acts were passed. The new act allowed for the licensing and establishment of local private universities and private twinning colleges for the first time.
In effect, the new law allowed for the privatisation of higher education in Malaysia, in line with how Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, were privatising many other public sectors and assets (like Telekom, the National Electricity Board (now Tenaga Nasional); broadcasting, Malayan Railway, the airlines, water treatment and supply, sewage treatment, the ports and the highways).
Here’s some statistical data useful for our reflection on this third question:
In 1990, there were only nine public universities. By 2013 there were 20. After the conversion of several technical and teacher training colleges to universities, we now have 26 public universities. In line with a new turn to technical and vocational education and training (TVET), the government also established another 32 polytechnics and 84 community colleges that were publicly funded by 2013.
Meanwhile, the private tertiary sector had grown even more. In 1995, there was not a single private university. By 2001, 16 had been licensed. In 2013, 47 private universities and university colleges dotted the country. Another 390 private colleges had been registered by that year, most of them conducting courses that awarded certificates and diplomas, not necessarily degree programmes.
No doubt, the number of student numbers enrolled in tertiary education exploded. According to the Ministry of Education’s own statistics, the total number of students enrolled in private and public institutions increased from 170,000 in 1985, to 230,000 in 1990, to 550,000 in 1999, to 1.3 million in 2012. That year, almost 584,000 students enrolled themselves in public universities, teacher training colleges, the polytechnics and community colleges for degree, diploma and certificate courses.
More than that, Malaysia began to tout itself as a regional educational hub and took great pains to recruit fee-paying students from Indonesia, other Asean countries, China, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, all parts of the Middle East, and East and West Africa.
One of our unemployed presenters felt pressure and competition from fellow students, not just from those Malaysians in his cohort but from foreign students too. No wonder it has become increasingly difficult for the Youth, with or without a degree or diploma, to find long-term employment.
The presenters thought that the private tertiary education sector should be cut back. From advertisement, you can see these institutions still trying to recruit more students during this lockdown period. Yet the economy is contracting, and there are no jobs. But curbing the private sector is easier said than done.
Perhaps our speakers did not recall why the rapid expansion of tertiary education in Malaysia was egged on, some three decades ago. In fact, the private university sector was allowed to be established to provide opportunities for Malaysian students, particularly the non-bumiputera, to attend university. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, much ethnic tensions developed, derived from competition to get into the few public universities, which offered limited places. Following the adoption of the New Economic Policy in 1971, strict quotas were imposed for entrance to public universities and for much sought-after courses like medical, law and engineering.
Thanks to privatisation of higher education, which also saw private medical, engineering and law universities and colleges being established, that ethnic tension has dissipated.
This is not to say that privatisation of higher education has not created new problems. It certainly has. First, we appear to have produced and are producing too many graduates nowadays. We cannot even create permanent positions for the young doctors who have been recruited to serve as “front liners” in Malaysia’s fight against Covid-19. Those young doctors are now threatening to go on strike or hartal.
The discussion did not touch on the quality of our many universities – public and private – whose standards, no doubt, have been compromised as a result of rapid ‘massification’ of tertiary education. Whereas once upon a time our handful of public universities held their own against the other regional universities – from Delhi and Calcutta, to Chulalongkorn and Thammasart, to Singapore and Hong Kong, to Tokyo and Kyoto, to Seoul National and Korea National Universities, nowadays, not a single one of our 26 public universities and 47 private universities and colleges, are up to scratch. This is also a question for another time and occasion.
More apropos to our roundtable, all five speakers lamented the absence of any attempt to restructure the educational system to give higher priority to vocational and technical education. At present, the stigma associated with vocational education – as somewhat less important than liberal studies – prevails.
The fact that salaries of those with vocational training lags behind has not been looked into either. Azmil and Wan Atikah, who had both spent time in Germany, shared how, in that country, a comprehensive vocational and technical educational section was developed and promoted. So, most German students who are not academically inclined opt to continue their tertiary education in vocational and technical colleges. Because the mechanics, plumbers, chefs, electricians, masons and carpenters and others can earn good salaries, often as high if not higher than the graduates, many Germans readily choose to enter this steam of education.
There was mention that Dr Maszlee Malik, who was education minister under the Pakatan Harapan administration, was keen on revamping our education system, including giving a much-deserved lift to the vocational and technical colleges. Alas, the backdoor coup occurred too quickly.
Lastly, we considered the issue of the PTPTN debts. All five, including Azmil, were keen that there should be an amnesty on PTPTN debts. The loans that students took to attend universities should be scrapped or slashed. At the minimum, a moratorium should be granted during this period of pandemic and economic contraction. This contentious matter had already been discussed prior to the 2018 general election and PH had promised to look into this.
Regardless of who is in charge, the government should take up this matter immediately, all our speakers thought. After all, many countries provide tertiary education free to their citizens.
Reaching out to the Youth
In a way, this webinar is related to an initiative we took up a decade ago to reach out to and recruit youths into Aliran. No epiphany, we simply realised the average age of Aliran members, including those on the executive committee, was climbing, as we ourselves aged!
So, we held discussions with youth groups to understand their concerns and interests, what kinds of events attracted them, and how ‘oldies’ could work with the young to usher in a better Malaysia, ie how to rejuvenate Aliran with fresh blood and new energy.
One issue the Youth raised when we dialogued with them, time and again, was how Aliran could maintain first Aliran Monthly for some 30 years and then the Aliran website: “How do you manage to write and write for so long?”
In fact, not all Aliran members write and write; only a couple dozen do, and we started writing when we were still ‘young’, or at least younger than now. Maybe that’s why it appears we have been going on and on.
Taking that comment seriously, we applied for some external funding several years ago to organise a few two-day Young Writers workshops, in the Klang Valley, Penang and Ipoh. The aim was to help youths understand Malaysian politics and society better and to hone their writing skills. For starters, we encouraged them to write for our website. Many did. Later, we organised more workshops using our own funds.
Perhaps we need to have more writing workshops when we enter the new normal. Maybe we should have a series of youth webinars, on different themes, as a follow-up to this third webinar.
Just before the 2018 election, I wrote a piece “The Youth will set us free”, extolling the different efforts of young Malaysians to usher in change and regime change in Malaysia. The article was in response to several commentators, including some academics, who had unfairly generalised and criticised the young in the mainstream media. They had blamed the youth for not registering to vote and for lack of interest in the crucial polls while unnecessarily highlighting the opinions and traits of particular youthful individuals who were planning to boycott the elections. I argued, instead, that the Youth was not the problem, but a major part of the solution. Check out the article.
There are points made there that can help to elucidate on Youth in politics in Malaysia. Also, check out another article by a younger scholar and Aliran member Haris Zuan “Youth in the Politics of Transition in Malaysia” (M Weiss and Faisal Hazis eds, Towards a New Malaysia? The 2018 Election and its Aftermath, Singapore: NUS Press, 2020, pp 131-48). Happy reading.Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
7 July 2021