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The Case for Investing In Malaysia’s Youth: Tackling Unemployment and Political Apathy

Photograph of Malaysian flag flying in wind amongst blue sky
Source: Unsplash

Daniel Filippi

A considerable component of sustained economic growth is the consolidation of a capable, efficient and productive young workforce. Youth employment and active economic participation are crucial to a strong economy and inject a sense of faith in a country’s long term sustainability visions and goals.

Systemic and pervasive problems, including a high rate of youth unemployment and rapid urbanisation are hampering Malaysia’s economic and political future and are leading to youth disillusionment towards political institutions. These issues are inextricably linked to one another and feed into the anxieties for the future of Malaysia.

Youth unemployment : graduates and skills mismatch.

At the most conservative estimates, 10.5% of people aged 15 to 24 are unemployed, and the severity of the issue is compounded by the fact that per annum 57,000 of 173,000 tertiary graduates remain unemployed for 6 months or longer. In the wider population, 9.6%, or 204,000 of those unemployed had graduate or tertiary qualifications. This indicates that the problem is pervasive and complex, calling for more than just improved education standards, as would usually be the course of action.

The problem is that there is an apparent difference between the demand and supply of skills - the skills which are sought after by industries aren’t readily available from graduates. A key reason for this ‘skills mismatch’ is the lack of interest or incentive to pursue a degree in a field with greater employment prospects. Going forward, there needs to be a concerted emphasis on labour mobility through technical training and courses through TVET schemes.

Malaysia compares meekly to its regional and global peers in these training schemes, seeing only 6% of secondary students enrolled in TVET schemes whereas Indonesia and Singapore see around 17% and 12% respectively. Malaysia could seek to emulate overseas policies and adapt them to Malaysian frameworks such as the ‘Industry Skills Council’ which invites industry stakeholders and major companies to convene and provide insight into which skills are in demand and what forms of training are most desirable to best suit the needs of the industry.

The government needs to act as an intermediary between the employees and employers - a bridge of communication. By supporting youths with an array of in-demand skills, Malaysia can look to reconcile its youth unemployment problems - ultimately serving to provide a foundation upon which the country can secure long term growth.

Where Malaysia moves towards a tertiary economy, urbanisation follows.

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted a significant number of youths to move towards urban municipalities for work. This urban migration has further aggravated the skills mismatch amongst young work searchers, as the rapid urbanisation in Malaysia means that manual skills and knowledge, which are a necessity in rural areas, are losing uptake as youth engage with the increasingly tertiary sector focused economy.

As Malaysia develops at an increasing rate, rural populations must not be alienated and, as such, a robust approach to youth unemployment needs to be implemented in rural areas to both avoid escalating urbanisation and to invest in skills required for rural development. This should involve accessible, cheap and remotely available training in order to bolster Malaysia’s rural workforce and ensure steady employment in rural areas.

Malaysia needs its youth to spearhead its future, but this needs to be organised with inclusivity and the country’s wider rural demographics in mind in order for it to have significant and tangible economic benefits in the long run.

Youth’s growing apathy and detachment from political institutions

A problem which is seldom discussed is the growing apathetic sentiment from the youth towards political processes. A survey conducted on a group of young Malaysians found that 71% of them felt as though they had no influence on the government whilst a further 70% noted that they weren't interested in the country’s politics. This underscores the issue that there is a division between the young and the predominantly older political institutions and public servants, and that this divide has fostered an aversion to politics as a realm of change.

If the young no longer have faith in their institutions to guard their interests and work to better their situation, then the future no longer seems to be in the hands of the young. There needs to be a concerted effort from the government to remind the youth that they have inalienable rights and entitlements as Malaysians. A proposition which has gained significant traction in recent years is the implementation of grassroot levels of engagements such as youth branches in universities, youth rallies and civic education as a part of the curriculum. By encouraging political interest and participation at these early stages, youths will once again feel empowered to demand change - change which will lead to a government that works for the people rather than against them.

Malaysia’s political and economic future can be consolidated through concerted efforts towards youth employment opportunities. In spite of Pakatan Harapan’s initiatives such as the Wage Subsidy Program and the National Jobs Task Force, the youth remain disillusioned and discontent and are demanding changes beyond basic wage provision. The government can be held accountable for its policies geared towards youth unemployment - this accountability, fuelled by political involvement from youths, will undoubtedly yield a framework for sustainable quality job provision in the future. Young voters have proven their ability to sway politics, this ability needs to be channelled effectively towards a consensus for the country’s future.

Industrial Revolution 4: an opportunity and a solution?

Former Minister of Youth and Sport, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman - the youngest ever Malaysian minister - has stressed the importance of the changing landscape in regards to Industrial Revolution 4 (IR4). Notably, he states that Malaysian youths are best positioned to capitalise on the modernising world.

Under the umbrella of IR4, lies the potential of the gig economy - forms of temporary employment intended to give people flexibility when they find themselves between jobs. These roles include food delivery drivers, hail-car/bike drivers, and parcel runners. These jobs didn’t exist as a legitimate profession ten years ago but can now provide independence and autonomy to people whilst also ensuring some avenue of income.

IR4 also provides the opportunity of honing in on new skill sets and providing government funded or incentivised training schemes. These skills and professions include coding, entrepreneurship, digital marketing amongst many other forms of newborn industries and jobs. Whilst working in tandem with government policies of educational and vocational reform - the government can and should place a focus on these opportunities. The economy is opening up and the youth are the best suited and most adaptable to make the most of it - these opportunities offer the government a chance to show its faith in its youth whilst also diminishing the long term impacts of youth unemployment.

Conclusion: prospects for the future

Youth unemployment has lasting indelible effects on income and employment stability, and we are seeing that a lack of early experience, credentials and training breeds a mindset of over-reliance on government subsidies, lack of adaptability, confidence and ambition. This could be highly problematic for Malaysia.

However, by amalgamating youth concerns with government action - be it through vocational education, faith in politics or policies harnessing the potential of the gig economy - we can suggest that the future of Malaysia, bolstered by youths, is a bright one.


Daniel Filippi is a Malaysian student in their final year at the University of Melbourne studying Politics and International Relations, with a minor in Islamic Studies. Their previous work and interests are in youth development which was harnessed through an internship under the Minister of Youth and Sport Malaysia.



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