MARCH 7 — It perplexes. Every year the overall results of our secondary school leaving examination, SPM, only powers on even stronger. Come what may, pandemics be damned!

Yet, them passers find life hard to pass as they struggle for good and promising jobs

Repeat to reinforce. The kids are on paper smarter by the year, seemingly heading to the stratosphere of achievement! But the job market kids with them indefinitely. Horrors!

Exclamation marks abuse aside, the situation is dire.


If before it was easier to hit a datuk if you toss a rock randomly at a random crowd, now the probability is much higher to hit an ex-student with 8As.

Gunung Rapat students collecting their SPM results at the school hall in Ipoh in 2023. — Picture by Farhan Najib
Gunung Rapat students collecting their SPM results at the school hall in Ipoh in 2023. — Picture by Farhan Najib

But don’t ask the random Malaysian high school graduate to calculate the differential between the two, it will give them an aneurysm.


Cynical much?

Well, here comes the Khazanah Research Institute’s (KRI) report on skilled talents, and the numbers do not lie — or probably do, but who is bothered to unravel them?

The report indicates young graduates — those from those super-performing SPM cohorts — more than half of them end up with low promising careers since it’s either self-employment, part-time or temporary/contract. So, the national unemployment level is super low, but those graduates are more likely than not, in plain language, to hold jobs beneath their station — their academic papers render their current occupation menial by comparison.

Like asking Formula 1 drivers to be Grab drivers assigned to Perodua Bezza automobiles. They can do it, they do it exceedingly well, but they were meant for greater things. And yes, with Grab pay and no fashion endorsements.

Daily at their cubicle they feel, “Oh, what am I doing, this is too easy, too easy I say,” and then turn to their four-hour daily TikTok habit to feed their intellectual hunger. Work is not cutting it for them but tender mercies those insightful minute-long videos explain the universe.

Worse, it leads to conclusions. For instance, that unscrupulous employers bent on profit not people, have taken advantage of the many, many graduates the country churns out at record pace, and pay them pittance.

The KRI report is free and paid for by us, funded by our sovereign wealth fund, big-brother Khazanah. Pore through the 220 pages when you have the time.

Staring down at this oblivion

Evil forces harming the innocent angle is one view.

But what if base assumptions are untrue?

What if the negative news is examined with a different set of eyes?

Right off the bat, overseas scholarships.

The government of Malaysia spends an inordinate amount of money compared to its Asean neighbours, except Singapore, on foreign education. Khazanah and many other GLCs, and the government directly pay for a small number of excellent students to study abroad, with a sliver of them in elite universities.

Most return to better employment. Adored by the market, except for the minority with mediocre language levels and grades still routed through mediocre institutions in exotic locations to get the prized degree — which is a whole different quagmire.

The point being? Our local institutions by policy are not the place to train our finest, in the minds of national leaders. Posit that as one anchor.

Prior to tertiary education, there is primary and secondary education. How well are they working?

Open secret that parents in the know — middle-class tiger parents — queue through rain and sun to get spots at the better public schools; boarding, MRSM or premier city schools.

Those parents’ behaviour indicates what they think of the general delivery in normal public schools, where the other 95 per cent attend. Not good enough for their offspring. Increasingly, parents prefer private or independent religious or international schools, according to their budget and values.

If hyper-parents are unreliable barometers of the general education at our secondary schools, there are those dastardly OECD people with their PISA score, rating literacy, numeracy and scientific knowledge for 15-year-olds.

Last year, Malaysia dropped to 47th, far behind our cousins Singapore at number 1.

If parents only rate elite public schools or privates, and external agencies’ assessment of our students underwhelms regardless of SPM accolades, the higher education intake is suspect. A disproportionate number of weak candidates.

So, the buck is passed to local colleges.

Currently with the surfeit of institutions, with even polytechnics offering degrees beginning this year, all colleges — famous or not — cannot risk low enrolment because they are strict on academic performances.

There is political pressure too, every government prefers to brag about their overachieving undergraduate in exchange for votes rather than lecture to voters that their children and themselves are poor candidates.

To further disjoint the intake quality conundrum, the higher education ministry now accepts students who fail SPM into college.

Colleges are in academic purgatory as financial and political realities demand they give papers to almost all who attend, which is almost anybody who wants to. The bell curve can hide all kinds of sins.

There is a subplot, the grapevine acts as a counterweight. So many average youths hear about systemic underemployment or straightforward unemployment for our graduates, they rather not bother about higher education. Better not study and still end up as a KK Mart cashier. Be a cashier earlier, bypass the student loan burden, collect pay during those purported study years and advance through on the job training and experience.

Job had less to suffer

How well do these alternate views do in your mind?

Public schools are hamstrung, but those in charge rather plaster over the cracks. Higher education institutes rush them students along to degrees.

There are quality graduates but they are severely outnumbered by those who should have never been in university, or should have been trained and tested better before being shepherded to campuses.

Our policy makers believe the degree defines the individual, rather than the degree reflects the individual’s capacity.

Occam’s Razor would suggest if everyone is passed on to graduations regardless of performance or the quality of previous primary and secondary education, and measured purely by their willingness to take on student loans to pursue education in the most questionable of institutions — colleges compete on which of them present less obstacles — and then put into the jobs market, a large number of them would not be up to snuff.

The research reflects what the industry thinks of our talent. A straightforward read.

But I can see why the good people at KRI won’t say that. Not a point the politicians want to hear, those in power or those seeking power.

Everything is hunky-dory they will say.

To them, we are always a congress away from solving our problems. One small adjustment to greater success. One repeat MOU to bring the direct investments from the West.

The graduate jobs mismatch is definitive proof there is a core problem in our education system, from primary to the ivory towers.

Government can turn it around, but not overnight. Time will be necessary.

The first step to overcoming a problem is to admit there is a problem, not turn it around and blame it on a perceived injustice.

Industry is agnostic. It’s colour-blind, and history ignorant. It sees productivity and snaps it up when presented to it. Unless the government changes its tune, it may abet in generations of Malaysians missing the train.

How about these graduates in a lurch. Manning cash tills, filing documents and working for an app?

They may wait for the world to change, thinking they’ve changed enough through 16 years of education, except they have not. The fact they cannot measure their inadequacies is confirmation of their fate. Though, all of these unfortunate findings do not excuse those who wilfully designed the system and ignored the signs for their own gain.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.