Seri Talks

The Labour Shortage Forum was held on September 23, 2010.

PENANG'S LABOUR SHORTAGE

Penang's efforts to move towards a high-income economy are experiencing a host of deep-rooted problems. Among these are the high turnover rates of local workers, the difficulties faced in recruiting and retaining skilled human capital, the pressing need to hire foreign workers and a dearth of skilled talent across fields.

Malaysian employers prefer foreign workers because domestically, the employment situation is inherently and structurally "foreign-worker" orientated (geared towards low-cost/low-pay, low productivity and redundancies).

Many employers claim that their business activities will come to a standstill if they are not allowed to use foreign labour because the jobs in those fields are perceived to be dirty, difficult and demeaning to the average Malaysian. Some have even threatened to uproot and relocate if their demands for "low-cost" foreign workers are unmet.

There are adverse effects with the hiring of foreign labour. Their huge remittances to their home countries have negatively affected balance of payments and furthermore, many will bring their skills back to their respective countries. They have also slowed down growth in productivity, displaced local workers in some industries, depressed wages and released the pressure for upgrading skills and technology, thus impeding human capital development and delaying Penang's economic transformation.

There has also been much discussion about the role of universities in bridging education with real practice. Studies have concluded that formal university curriculums only provide 30% of the expertise needed for effective job performance. With a postgraduate degree which further supports and complements the skills transformation process, the percentage increases to about 50%. The rest comes from job experience and exposure to the applied and practical areas of the field.

Local companies complain that universities train workers poorly, but most of their complaints stem from their own unreasonable expectations of looking to conveniently recruit "plug & play" employees freshly graduated from universities. This is due to their own incapability to train their new employees.

"For a very long time, the approach has also been to pretend that wage levels are not really connected to the issue of labour shortages facing the economy today. But the connection cannot be denied, and the question is how wage structures can be realigned for wages to be used as a dynamic pull factor to bring in skilled labour, from Malaysians overseas or foreign talent." - Ajit Singh Jessy, chairman of the Penang State Human Resources Liaison Committee.

Deputy Chief Minister II Prof Ramasamy giving his keynote address at the Labour Shortage Forum at the Caring Society Complex, Penang.

Dr Chan Huan Chiang (left ) and speaker Yoon Chon Leong.

DEMOCRATIC DREAMS IN ASIA: OPPORTUNITIES AND OBSTACLES

As part of its 2nd Asian Century Lecture Series, SERI organised a lecture on "Democratic Dreams in Asia: Opportunities and Obstacles" on August 14, 2010 at Wawasan Open University. Dr Bridget Welsh, an associate professor in Political Science at Singapore Management University was invited to talk about the future of democracy in Asia.

According to Dr Welsh, the five obstacles to achieving a greater degree of democracy in Asia are geopolitical transformation in Asia, increasing inequality in Asia, worsening situation of elite dynamics, weakening political parties and challenges to liberty. The rise of China and the relative decline of US-Japan relations will raise China's importance in the region. She sees it as a very negative force for democratic change as China reduces checks and responsibilities within governments by providing grants with no conditions attached.

As for the level of inequality, the number grew from 0.30 in the 1980s to 0.45-0.5 in the 2000s. Based on the latest Gini Coeffi cients, Singapore stands at the top with the highest level of inequality, at 0.51 while Malaysia is lower at 0.48. Elite dynamics in terms of resistance from the present government can be seen in the military rule in Thailand.

From left to right: Dr Bridget Welsh, seri executive director Liew Chin Tong and chairperson Tunku Abdul Aziz.

Dr Welsh still sees potential in the development of democracy in Asia, saying that there are several factors in the current situation which will contribute to democratisation. First, the liberation of technology will create more platforms for dialogue. Second, she believed that youth surges in many Asian countries can also help as these people usually come with new ideas.

The most entrenched problem in achieving greater degree of democracy is institutional. Despite the opportunities that are present, Dr Welsh remains pessimistic of the future of democracy in Asia and in Malaysia as she felt the rollback trend of the past few years will continue to dominate the region.

PROTECTING AND MANAGING OUR WATER CATCHMENTS

Ir Jaseni Maidinsa, CEO of Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBAPP), delivered a presentation on the importance of protecting and managing one of the most basic but often overlooked necessities to our existence: water. "Port cities would never have been cities without a steady supply of potable water," he said.

The water catchments in Penang provide only 20% of its needs. Furthermore, as much as 14% of gazetted water catchment areas in Penang are in private hands. The other 80% of Penang's water is derived solely from the Sungai Muda River in Kedah. "It is not good risk management for Penang to depend so heavily on a single water source."

Ir Jaseni Maidinsa.

The average per capita consumption of water in Penang is the highest in the country with 286 litres per person per day as compared to the national average of 205 litres per person per day.

"Water is a resource essential to life as it permeates not only through the fabric of our existence but in all that we do. Without water, development and economic growth will stall while industry outputs will fall. Adelaide, Australia has capped and limited development in accordance to its water carrying capacity."

Unrestricted development without afterthought of the carrying capacity of water will have dire consequences. Penang, and the rest of the world, would do well to heed this warning and plan ahead in this regard.



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