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Syed Saddiq: On Education Reform, The Gig Economy And His Vision For A Future Malaysia

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“It’s the young Malaysians who are the biggest disruptors in Malaysia,” declares YB Syed Saddiq, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Muar, adding, “It’s not just the same old billionaire class dominating the country. If anything is changing, it’s the top 10% that will change.”

The word ‘disrupt’ on its own without context brings about the exasperation of introducing a disturbance to the status quo. Being resistant to change often translates to the mentality of ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ But the current sentiment in Malaysia is that things are very much broken and are in dire need of fixing.

That depends on who you ask though. To the old guard, that word is an unwelcome one. But to this 29-year-old politician, disruption and thinking outside the box is exactly what the country needs in advancing forward. This is highlighted in both his ability to rally for youth involvement in civil service and society, as well as advancing the transition of our country’s policymaking and decision making into younger hands.

“I think there’s a misconception among the older generations that we have it easy, but I take the opposite viewpoint,” he says.

“Young people today are expected to work two or three different jobs to earn a decent living as the average wage has stagnated for the past ten to 20 years, while inflation has only gone up.”

Syed Saddiq’s own personal relationship to money is a straightforward one – with a relatively low cost of living and little debt, he is able to live a comfortable life with his salary as an MP. This ultimately frees him up to make investments into his party MUDA (“it’s run like a political startup”) and another startup called COOX, a Cloud Kitchen.

The President of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) speaks to Smart Investor about his thoughts on education reforms, why he would (probably) never stop working and how he is optimistic for Malaysia’s future.

Risks & Safety Nets: Future-Proofing Malaysia

“As a country, we must future-proof ourselves and prepare for the future,” says Syed Saddiq.

What does that look like? It would need a holistic approach, both from structural reforms, to being agile and adaptable as the world shifts towards new systems. For example, the alternative finance industry has proven itself to be inevitable, causing most of the world and other countries to surge forward. Malaysia has yet to keep up.

“We cannot ignore it. I believe it’s better to legalise and regulate than to ban, because banning presumes you can’t control it in totality,” Syed Saddiq opines.

“We need to allow for the industry to bloom.” “Unlike other countries, our institutions are still run by those unwilling to adapt to the future,” he says.

“To put it bluntly, it’s run by the same old guys – and I don’t just mean in politics, it’s happening even in the corporate side of things,” he adds.

Tech giants like Amazon, Alphabet and Meta, as well as traditional industrial companies are beginning to adopt the practice of hiring younger employees. “Diversity is not just about race, religion or gender. It’s also about age. The level of diversity and new ideas bring a unique value add,” Syed Saddiq says.

Structural Reforms In Education: Micro-Credential, TVET & Laptops

However, to become more forward-thinking requires taking risks and having some skin in the game. That goes back to being dynamic enough to change what does not work. For Syed Saddiq, solving this problem begins with education. Specifically, equipping Malaysians with the right skills to make a decent wage, which would ultimately create a seamless advancement into sustainable work.

“I feel very passionate about education, but let me start off by saying that throwing money at it is not the solution,” he begins to explain.

“Based on PISA rankings, a 15-yearold Malaysian has the same educational value as a 12-year old Singaporean. We are three years behind on average and that’s a stated fact,” he says.

“Not only are we three years behind our competitors, but we also outspend per capita when it comes to education!” he exclaims.

According to WorldBank data in the year 2020, Malaysia recorded a 3.9 % GDP spending on education per capita, significantly higher than Singapore at 2.5%. (For further context, Japan as a higher populated country, recorded GDP spending on education at 3.1%).

With that, “before new financing comes in, there must be structural reforms on education”, Syed Saddiq adds.

For example, the expectation of a four-year degree being the only type of qualification that matters is what needs overhauling.

“I think the government needs to start subsidising a lot more for micro credentials, instead of just looking at four-year courses. Even global companies have adopted the practice of moving away from only looking at traditional degrees,” he states.

If the point of getting an education is to be able to earn a decent wage while utilising your strengths, and that is achievable with a micro credential diploma or TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training), why are we still fixating on the need for a university course that is both expensive and time consuming? With micro credentials, you are also able to achieve hard skills.

More than just subsidising micro credentials, the other end of the spectrum also could use some updating to their system.

“Traditional courses must trim the fat, and this is not something new. A Malaysian engineer will have to compete with an engineer graduate from IIT Bombay, where they graduate earlier.”

Comparatively, the education process in Malaysia from secondary school to tertiary education is a stretched out process. A bachelor’s degree is usually four years; thus, the journey for a Malaysian graduate is already at a disadvantage due to their age and experience.

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