How a foreign degree is no guarantee of a good job in Malaysia anymore

How a foreign degree is no guarantee of a good job in Malaysia anymore
Many Malaysian graduates, even those from foreign universities, are underemployed and underpaid. Source: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

In Malaysia, it is easier to get a job without a university degree than it is to get one as a graduate. Myra, 29, knows this struggle all too well. Like many graduates, she finds getting a job with decent pay in Kuala Lumpur a serious challenge and one with serious risks to her physical and mental wellbeing.

Animated, sharp and with a strong command of English, Myra holds a Masters from the University of Brighton, sponsored by a scholarship she won from a local organisation. Yet, in all her eight years of working in Malaysia, she’s never been able to get a job that pays her more than RM3,600 (RM1 = US$0.25) a month despite her postgraduate qualification and years of experience.

“I am so, so upset and disappointed,” she said.

None of the jobs she’s managed to land are meeting her needs. After quitting a 50-hours-a-week job that paid her RM3,500 per month, she’s now freelancing, earning between RM1,000 to RM2,000 per month. It’s barely enough for her to survive in Kuala Lumpur.

“It is totally unacceptable that our Prime Minister says we can live on this wage,” she said.

These are tough times for graduates in Malaysia. Many, like Myra, earn below the relative poverty line in the city, despite holding degrees. Even a foreign degree like Myra’s, once coveted and sought after, is no longer a guaranteed path to a well-paying job. 

Cost of living, from food to transport, is the main source of concern among Malaysian youth. Source: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

In Malaysia, that means anything that pays at least RM2,700, the living wage recommended by Malaysia’s Central Bank. This ‘living wage’ figure is the income level needed for a single adult to achieve a minimum acceptable standard of living in Kuala Lumpur.

More than half of Malaysia’s graduates, however, are paid a monthly wage of RM2,000 or less. 

For Myra, her underemployment is having a “crazy impact” on her quality of life. Her single mother lives in another state, so the option of moving back home and not paying rent is not possible. Her health has gone downhill as she neither has the time nor money to eat or prepare healthy food.

She says she’s been hospitalised twice from overwork. It has not been easy.

“Is this the type of life I want to have? With no time for my friends and my health going down the drain?” she said.

What happened to the Malaysian government’s promise to create 3.3 million jobs? According to Prime Minister Najib Razak, the nation added as many as 2.26 million jobs since 2013.

The economy is booming too, he says, with low inflation and the average household income growing at more than 6 percent each year. Last year, government revenue hit RM220.4 billion.

These figures appear to show a prosperous Malaysia where its citizens are high income-earners with the ability to afford comfortable lives and seek satisfying careers.

They appear to portray a country where its cream of the crop, especially the ones toting foreign degrees, have their pick of any job they want to fulfill their potential.

But under-reported jobs numbers shatter this mirage of a prosperous country. Of the millions of jobs created, only 23.5 percent are high-skilled positions suitable for university graduates. Unemployment is higher among youth with tertiary qualification than those without.

Overall, there are three times more (10.7 percent) jobless youth than the national average (3.1 percent).

For those with jobs, nearly two-thirds (65.2 percent) of graduates are poor. Like Myra, the majority of them earn several hundreds of ringgit below the minimum income level to afford them an acceptable standard of living in the city.

And wages are stagnant. Last year, wages went up by RM17 on average after deducting inflation. That’s the price of one latte at Starbucks.

There is a mental health cost to all this. Kenny Lim of Befrienders KL, a non-profit providing mental health support said his centre has been receiving calls from distressed graduates struggling to find jobs.

“It can make a person feel very insecure and anxious, not knowing how the future is going to be, how long more does it take before finding a job or a good-paying job,” Lim said. Pressure comes from their feelings of being unable to repay their parents and loans, support their families or meet their commitments.

It doesn’t help that society labels them as “lazy” or “useless” either, he added.

It’s true graduate attitude get a lot of flak. The millennial generation is lazy, pampered and entitled, the accusations go. If “kids these days” would just be more dilligent and industrious, they can easily land jobs and climb the career ladder, employers and government officials say.

But consider the situation of 24-year-old Desmond Lee. Lee is a law graduate from the University of Leeds and has been admitted to the English bar as a barrister. He has an enviable string of internships under his belt at these places: one each at a Malaysian law firm, political party and investment bank; and one at the anti-money laundering department of an Emirati bank’s London office.

Lim believes RM2,000 for a degree-holder is a good base salary to start. Source: Instagram/Desmond Lim

He returned to Malaysia to train to be an advocate and solicitor at a top law firm in Kuala Lumpur. From Monday to Friday, he spends an average of 12 hours in office and frequently clocks out at midnight or later.

For this, he is paid a monthly salary of RM2,500, a figure he describes as “justifiable” though he would welcome a higher amount “considering the long hours required for this job”.

Employers see this figure as fair too, citing fresh graduates’ lack of experience and employable skills as factors that justify this amount. Indeed, employers have considered paying less than RM3,000 a month to fresh graduates as fair for two decades now.

And it doesn’t look like that is about to change anytime soon. The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) recently said it is “unrealistic” to pay employees more at this stage as companies are “bogged down by escalating costs”.

“However, if the workers are proactive and upskill themselves to increase their productivity, then I do not see any reason for employers to refrain from offering higher pay packages,” Shamsuddin Bardan, MEF’s executive director said to local daily

For many, however, to blame graduates for being “spoilt” and having”bad work ethics”,  is to deny the reality of Malaysia’s job market today.

The 2014 Labour Force Survey show more than 1.1 million of the 3.5 million tertiary-educated workers are are employed in mid or low-skill occupations that did not require an education level beyond that of high-school. Source: Penang Institute

What the data, government or otherwise, shows is a worrying mismatch between job qualifications and type of available jobs – the number of high-skilled jobs just has not kept pace with the number of graduates entering the workforce.

It’s caused Atikah, a recent graduate from a local university, to sell murtabaks – a type of local stuffed pancake – for a living instead fulfilling the potential of her design degree.

To make ends meet, Atikah wakes up at 5am everyday to make around 200 murtabaks to sell at morning markets around the city. In the evening, she scours supermarkets to find discounts for the ingredients. Things are going up everywhere, she says. 

By many measures, Atikah and the other workers forced to drive Ubers as a second job for more income, or the engineering graduates relegated to selling nasi lemak in makeshift stalls, deserve praise. They show tenacity and their can-do spirit is obvious. Yet, their qualifications and virtues appear to hold any value in Malaysia today.

When asked what she feels about this, Atikah sums it up in three words: “Yeah, it’s hard.”

Liked this? Then you’ll love these…

Why you should take Malaysian universities’ rankings with a pinch of salt

Poorest children in Malaysia’s capital suffer educational barriers – Unicef report