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No reason for joblessness in Sabah
Published on: Monday, December 26, 2016

By Datuk John Lo
On 27th November, Sabah’s Minister of Human Resource and Information Technology announced that unemployment in Sabah is growing each year.

Reasons he gave were [a] Institutions of Higher Learning and other skill institutions are producing too many graduates for jobs available in Sabah.

[b] Graduates are not fond of 3D jobs [Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult] and are too picky.

With due respect to the Minister, the reasons he has given are very simplistic. Unemployment in general and especially among graduates is very complex and solutions should be found in a holistic manner.

Young Sabahan are the same like youths all over the world. Who likes to work any 3Ds job when the pay is also the very lowest?

Every sensible person will shun “low-pay-low-social-standing” jobs. All 3Ds jobs in the advance countries attract a “bonus element”.

Most of these jobs pay better than those for new graduates. Which parents would encourage their children to go for 3Ds job? Who likes to be unemployed after graduation?

These are just normal expectations in human behaviour that political leaders should expect and provide solutions.

Political leaders should know that most graduates and youths are not joyous of being unemployed if they can help it.

In fact, the social stigma attached to unemployment is very demoralising.

To presume graduates are choosy or averse to 3Ds jobs is glossing over this serious social and economic problem.

If not attended to adequately and urgently, it will be a political problem for the state government as it has already become at the national level. The most fundamental question is why has the government allowed the universities to keep on producing unemployed and some unemployable graduates?

If I may be permitted, I would like to make some suggestions here. Where is the starting point? Quite simple really.

Pay attention to these few basics:

[a] Sabah’s population is small compared to its land mass and size of economy.

[b] Many employers are crying out for good, disciplined and well trained workers. They are quite difficult to recruit in Sabah. In simple language, there is demand for good staff.

[c] There is sufficient educational institutions for our population. They must be made to understand that quality of graduates is always more important than sheer numbers.

[d] There must be a sensible ratio between graduates and technical/vocational persons in our society.

[e] Lastly and most importantly, we have Musa’s economic development framework called Halajutu which the Sabah Ministers, parents, under-graduates and graduates and institutions of higher learning can take the cue of where is the State Government’s economic direction heading.

Halajutu is a sound and well thought out strategy for the present stage of our economic development. Where the State Government goes, there you will find the best prospects for employment [also business opportunities!].

Not much point to go outside the Halajutu economic parameters for there are already plenty of good opportunities within.

Unemployment cannot be solved by making vague and/general political statements or indulging in the “blame game” on the graduates and youths like the Minister has done. This serious economic, social and political problem will not be solved like this.

Solutions can only be found in effective co-ordination of solution-orientated policies and implementation of these policies among the various ministries, agencies, institutions of higher learning and private sector employers.

The relevant ministers must take the lead and take charge to solve this problem. They cannot be bystanders or “talk-talk” only.

Take for example, it is obvious that there is a serious mismatch between supply and demand of graduates for the simple reason that the Ministry of Human Resource and Information, institutions of learning and employers are not in sync with the perception of unemployment, requirements of employers and reality of the real world.

Neither do they know what makes young Sabahans tick! Incumbent for them to iron out the types of courses that are in demand and what to avoid.

It is a serious waste of resources to train graduates in courses that do not command any value in the labour market, besides wasting their young lives.

First and foremost, Sabah must not and should not follow Federal Government policy on reliance of cheap labour! I am very glad that the Sabah Government has stood firm and rejected the importation of Bangladeshi workers by the Federal Government recently.

This obsession with cheap labour reliance has eroded Malaysia’s competitiveness and aggravated the graduate unemployment and would have worsened the situation for Sahahan job seekers. Simple example is no Sabahans would want to work like the Indonesians in the palm oil plantation for such low and unrewarding pay.

Even the Indonesians don’t want estate work these days for they have better options in their own country now.

The plantation companies which have been racking in hundreds of millions each year must assist the Sabah Government to help themselves to address this issue. They must stop expecting cheap labour all the time.

Let’s look at job prospects in the context of Halajutu. The 3 pillars of Halajutu are manufacturing, tourism and agriculture.

I have not much feel in manufacturing these days so I will leave it for others to comment.

There are plenty of prospects in tourism and agriculture remain untapped. Of the two, tourism has, by far, been more successful in generating employment [and business opportunities] for Sabahans.

This industry is maturing very well at the present level but there is still much scope for growth in size and sophistication.

When tourism moves up its value chain, the employment generated will be even more substantial and rewarding.

Two “game changers” are in the works but the “hype”, which is overdue, has yet to start. Datuk Musa has made a pivotal decision to construct the “Sabah International Convention Centre” at a cost of something like RM600m.

Many more millions will be spent on sales and marketing SICC. We must make, in our own interest, every effort to ensure its success. Imagine if KK can become the “convention city” on the whole island of Borneo! He must have great faith in tourism to invest this huge amount in this project.

Construction is progressing rapidly and when completed, it will uplift the tourism industry to a much higher level when MICE tourists [ MICE stands for Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Exhibitions] start to flow.

Each of these sectors have huge growth potentials in terms of expertise and employment. Consequent to this will be many investment opportunities also.

Now is the time to produce a strategic roadmap of opportunities before others from outside grab them all.

I hope there is a co-ordination body looking into this new and exciting tourism prospect. Penang is struggling to claim the “2nd aviation hub” status in Malaysia. KKIA is busier and the prospects for airline traffic growth is far better.

The “2nd aviation hub” idea, when fully implemented combined with Sabah International Convention Centre will provide numerous rewarding employment and business opportunities for Sabah.

The challenge is how can we work out the complexities of supply and demand in manpower for the exciting times ahead of us. In tourism, it is not unemployment or lack of jobs. It is the mismatch and failure of being unable to see the “value add” opportunities by all concerned.

Agriculture is an important economic pillar of Halajutu. Musa has put in place the economic compass and the necessary land reform by coming up with the implementation of “community title” to preserve land ownership for rural Sabahans.

Already in the pipeline is the formation of the Sabah Tapioca Board. To encourage planting of this “easy-to-grow” crop, there is a RM5 million allocation in 2017 budget.

Already there are some Sabahans, on their own initiatives, wanting to plant tapioca in Tawau because Tan Sri Harris has invested in a tapioca starch factory in Balung. Little reason that there should be poor farmers in Sabah.

They can quite easily enjoy a good life style if people entrusted with the implementation of Halajutu can switch their focus from swooning over big palm oil plantation companies to boosting participation by small holders in selected suitable agriculture crops.

Small can be beautiful. Agriculture can be an exciting sector like tourism if some of these ideas can be implemented: [a] Sabahan political leaders must stop being obsessed with palm oil. It is no longer the “golden crop”.

It is not “sexy” any more. Sabah must, as a top priority, diversify from palm oil. It demands too much land and overtly labour intensive.

[b] Big Palm oil companies have failed to deliver employment and little spin offs for Sabah. Some companies don’t even source their “run of the mill” supplies from local traders and are buying direct from W Malaysia. Just because they pay taxes to Sabah Government is no big deal.

Sabah can get much better deal if some of the palm oil land is redirected to planting crops with better economic/social yields.

[c] There are many crops that can give better returns per acre and less land demanding, like herbs, essential oil plants or high value fruits like avocados.

[d] These crops can be grown by small holders provided there are “post-harvest facilities” for them to sell their products to.

The private sector can invest in setting up these facilities like the tapioca factories.

Repeating platitudes that graduates are selective and averse to 3Ds jobs won’t solve unemployment and its attendant political, social and economic problems.

The people entrusted by Musa to create employment in various economic sectors in the context of Halajutu need to think “out of the box” aggressively and go into detail analysis of where are the unexplored areas to be tapped.

Unless this is done, there will never be a solution to the ballooning unemployment as stated by the Minister.

There are plenty of employment opportunities to be created within tourism and agriculture.

We just need some sharp eyes and innovative brains to connect the dots!

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