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Malaysia: Education policies need to start thinking about robots taking our jobs away

Source: Reuters/Greg Munson/MegaBots Inc./Handout

Economists are calling for a greater emphasis on critical thinking in Malaysia’s education policies as the era of automation dawns upon us and with it, the threat of massive unemployment as humans get replaced by robots.

Panellists at an iMoney forum discussing the country’s Budget 2018 this afternoon said there are obstacles in the country’s education policies and universities that hinder educators from shaping the country’s students with higher-order thinking skills.

“The best thing you can do is teach a child is how to learn,” says Nurhisham Hussein, Head of Markets at Employees Provident Fund, a Finance Ministry body that manages the retirement planning for the country’s private sector workers.

“And how to think,” said Dr Ong Kian Ming, a local Member of Parliament and also head of local think tank Penang Institute Kuala Lumpur.

The two panellists were responding to the forum moderator’s question on how Malaysia should deal with the rise of automation threatening to make most of today’s middle-class jobs redundant in the future.

Many, from government leaders to Silicon Valley, have warned the same, given the rapid development of artificial intelligence, robotics, software and automation.

The scale of job destruction is massive, according to research. One study showed that up to 47 percent of the jobs in the United States will be threatened by automation – in other countries around the world, the figure goes up to 85 percent (Ethiopia).

The prediction for the Malaysian labour market isn’t as devastating as Ethiopia’s, but bleak all the same. An international Labour Organisation (ILO) report in 2016 found more than half (54 percent) of the jobs in Malaysia are at high risk of being displaced by technology in the next 20 years.

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Automation isn’t the only reason Malaysia needs to change its approach to teaching. The rising lifespan of its citizens will necessitate them to be able to switch between different job types in one lifetime to keep up with the changes in technology, Nurhisham cautioned.

“We can’t think of which jobs that will be popular 10 or 20 years from now. Life spans are getting extended, the possibility of having two, 3 jobs in a lifetime rises. Rather than saying you have to do coding, or you have to do this, you have to do that, I would rather teach them how to learn and they will do that themselves,” Nurhisham said.

Ong identified Malaysian university and pre-tertiary institution lecturers and their lack of academic freedom as one of the “major challenge” standing in the way of such imparting such higher-order thinking.

“Teachers themselves are not encouraged to think critically. Lecturers that think too critically, maybe certain sectors would not like that,” the Serdang MP said.

“How can they pass on those higher-order thinking skills to students if they themselves are caught in that trap? That’s an important issue that has not been addressed in our education policy.”

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