Are Our Kids Alright? Youth Trends in Penang


Penang is home to 481,440 youths.1 It’s a demography with rapidly changing needs and wants. And with fast-evolving technology and the digitalisation of our everyday lives, the speed and impact with which these changes occur will only increase. Penang Monthly takes a peek into this world with a survey that collects the thoughts and sentiments of 146 youths all around Penang.

Some findings were rather surprising.

Do We Know Each Other?

According to most of the youths surveyed, yes, we do – on average, at least. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being Very Harmonious and 1 being Least Harmonious, 107 respondents ranked ethnic relations in Penang at 3. Five gave it full marks, with 24 and 10 giving it a 2 and a 1, respectively.

Penang is home to 481,440 youths.

Though not discouraging, their perception contrasts with the reality of solid contacts across ethnic lines, which appears to be even more heartening: Out of 146 respondents, 140 had close friends from different ethnic groups; while 84 of them – which is more than half the total of respondents – could speak more than two languages.

But is it really that puzzling? The comments around social media are a good indicator of where this disillusionment could stem from. Hate speech is rife; and police reports are made ever so often about a comment or another on social media.

We still have a long way to go in terms of changing perceptions, but it’s comforting to know that we can call each other friends.

Are They Happy?

With 89 respondents rating living conditions in Penang as below satisfactory, things seem dismal. Thirty rated it as average; while only 27 considered it satisfactory. Ironically, Penang is one of the best places to retire to in the world, coming in at sixth place on the global list of 10 best places to retire abroad based on a recent survey conducted by CNN Money in 2016. Penang’s enviable reputation has also been repeatedly backed by other media giants such as Forbes, CBS and Conde Nast Traveler.

In this multiple answer question, 139 respondents cited the lack of variation and diversity in job opportunities in Penang as their main worry; while 132 respondents were unhappy with college tuition fees that they deemed were unaffordable. Low job wages were another factor, along with high living expenses, lack of efficient public transportation and unaffordable property prices.

The results of the survey hint at a sense of pessimism among the respondents. In fact, 109 respondents stated mental health as a factor that worries them. This is hardly surprising, though – after all, the number of Malaysians with mental illness is on the rise, with an astounding 4.2 million people diagnosed as mental health patients according to the 2015 National Health Morbidity Survey, equivalent to 29% of Malaysia’s total population. On top of that, mental illness is projected to become the second-largest health issue affecting Malaysians after cardiovascular diseases by 2020.

“In a fast-developing city such as Penang, the most common factor that gives rise to the soaring number of people with mental illness is the failure to balance their high expectations with their actual financial ability to cope with their demanding lifestyles,” says Dato’ Dr Lai Fong Hwa, one of the leading psychiatrists in Penang specialising in child and adolescent psychology. “When expectations in our lives, which may also come from our parents as well, are not met, we will feel a significant increase in stress levels.

“The sedentary lifestyle which is prevalent among today’s youths is also a contributing factor towards the rising number of depression cases among the younger generation. Other than improving our physical health, sports and outdoor activities are also scientifically proven to be very beneficial to our mental well-being,” says Lai.

One of the most common habits that we have when indoors is scrolling our Facebook newsfeed. However, according to Lai, there are certain aspects of social media which we need to be aware of: “Excessive usage of social media will have a negative effect on our mental health. When we check other people’s Facebook statuses, we are likely to have a feeling that their lives are much more enjoyable than ours, and that is when a sense of inferiority starts to dominate our minds, which might result in depression. We shouldn’t feel inferior at all as these posts are, more often than not, a constructed image of their lives that they want people to see.

“Certain aspects of social media which are seemingly insignificant, such as the number of likes on your status, may also lead to depression among youths – I have come across this in several patients,” says Lai.

“I always advise students to be more actively involved in extracurricular activities by joining societies and clubs of their interests which will enable them to have more friends outside of virtual reality. The younger generation should also participate in more social service activities which aim at improving the livelihood of underprivileged neighbourhoods in Penang, as an effective way to boost their self-esteem and widen their social circle,” says Lai.

On the bright side, Penang’s clean environment was high on everyone’s satisfactory list, with 120 respondents selecting this answer. Seventy-seven marked that Penang was safe to live in; 57 were happy with its food; and 48 enjoyed living here because it allowed them to be close to their friends and family.

Returning to the factors that youths are dissatisfied with in Penang, efforts are being made, or have been made, to address these. For example, the state government has initiatives to reskill or upskill our workers, such as those that are currently being conducted by the Penang Skills Development Centre (PSDC) and German Dual Vocational Training (GDVT). PSDC offers a wide range of engineering programmes aimed at school leavers, which are tailored to fulfil immediate and forecasted industrial needs and demands.

Apart from that, more than RM80mil has been invested to equip PSDC with world-class educational and training facilities. It also partners with some 200 international and domestic companies, thus ensuring a 99% rate of employability for their graduates. In terms of strengthening and widening their scope of technological research, PSDC is also affiliated with numerous globally renowned universities across Malaysia, Australia, Germany and UK.

Its workforce transformation and GDVT programmes were also created to upskill the employees of participating companies, as well as interested students, so that they may be on par with the latest developments in the field of applied and digital engineering, among others – all essential knowledge to transition to Industry 4.0 and, more importantly, to increase student employability in the job market.2

On unhappiness with the lack of an efficient public transportation system, the recent launching of the Pas Mutiara, in addition to the CAT initiatives and the upcoming Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP), are expected to inject more dynamism into the state. Pas Mutiara, which was recently released by Anthony Loke, the Minister of Transport, along with Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, will allow commuters to enjoy unlimited access to commuting services provided by Rapid Bus and Rapid Ferry in Penang for a duration of 30 days for just RM50. This latest initiative helps to reduce the financial burden of residents who fully utilise this offer.

What Worries Them?

Surveyed youths also held a pessimistic view of the economy in Penang and Malaysia as a whole – 133 respondents selected economic stagnation and recession as a worrying factor.

This can mainly be attributed to the current state of the global economy, which is projected to go into recession over the next 18 months.3 This recession, which is largely caused by a sudden slowdown in global trade as a result of the ongoing US-China trade war, has also greatly impacted the local front.

While Malaysia has often been cited as one of the top beneficiary countries of the trade war in South-east Asia apart from Vietnam and Thailand,4 the growing unpredictability of the wider global economy can be said to impact youth outlook in Penang.

Rising property prices came second, with 128 respondents selecting this answer. But while they may see property prices as exorbitant and that owning their own house might be nigh impossible, at the same time a slew of projects and policies are in place to encourage first-time home buyers to purchase their own property.

“To date, there are 102,335 affordable housing units which have been or will be built in Penang,” says Jagdeep Singh Deo, the Housing, Local Government, Town and Country Planning Committee chairman.

“When I came in as the state executive councillor for housing development in 2013, I introduced several cooling measures which included a moratorium on the sale of low-medium cost affordable housing properties. An amount of fees is imposed on speculators who sell their properties within three years of purchase to deter them from doing so as it would cause market prices to increase significantly, and that includes foreigners who intend to purchase properties in Penang,” he says.

The state government has also been actively promoting its affordable housing scheme by conducting 11 series of Affordable Housing Expo, with the tagline “Mission: Home Possible”, since 2014. It also collaborates with organisers such as PenEvents for the annual Penang International Property Summit, as well as the Home Ownership Campaign co-organised by various developers and property websites. At the national level, the state cooperates with professional agencies such as the Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association (REHDA) as well as the Malaysian Institute of Estate Agents (MIEA) in their respective events.

“The high demand for such housing in Penang is reflected in the sale of units, which are all 85% to 90% sold out most of the time.” Apart from that, the scale and quality of residential units constructed under the affordable housing scheme have also gone through tremendous transformation in recent years. Take I-Santorini as an example: its quality and standard can even compete with some other high-end condominiums, and it’s only RM300,000,” Jagdeep says.

Apart from benefiting urban dwellers, the affordable housing scheme is a catalyst for the development of rural and semi-urban areas in Penang as well. The Suria 1 project in Batu Kawan recently wrapped up, while Dua Residensi in Teluk Kumbar and Quinton in Balik Pulau are expected to be completed soon.

“In line with our Penang2030 vision, I am targeting for 180,000 affordable housing units to be built throughout Penang,” adds Jagdeep – good news for those shopping for a home for the first time.

Unemployment Woes

While relatively few respondents were worried about the unemployment rate in Penang (which in 2018 was at a mere 2.2%), 139 thought that the lack of English language proficiency was the biggest factor that contributed towards unemployment among youths.

This result is in line with studies on unemployment among fresh graduates in Malaysia in the past decade, which consistently indicated the lack of English language proficiency being one of the biggest factors. According to a survey conducted by the Malaysian Employers Federation in 2016, 90% of the total respondents, which comprised multinational companies, indicated that the English language proficiency of Malaysian graduates needs to be significantly enhanced.5

As much as this relies on the shift of the Malaysian academic syllabus towards a more English language-oriented mode – at the same time maintaining the significance of Malay language as the national language – it also largely depends on the initiative and, more importantly, the willingness of individual students to learn and polish their English in order to better qualify themselves for the job market.

Besides that, according to Azman Seri Haron, president of the Malaysian Employers Federation, 73.2% of the respondent companies participating in the 2016 survey also indicated that graduates lacked communication and problem-solving skills, which are also equally crucial.6 This was also reflected in our survey – poor communication and interview skills were selected by 120 respondents.

Racial discrimination in the workplace is another cause for concern, with 114 respondents indicating it as one of the major factors causing unemployment among youths in Penang; while 112 respondents selected unrealistic salary expectations from employers. A recent survey conducted by the Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) on the employment market for youths showed that fresh graduates have a very low reservation wage, starting from a meagre RM1,550 a month.7

The recent cost of living report, “The Living Wage: Beyond Making Ends Meet”, published by Bank Negara Malaysia in March 2018, concluded that RM2,700 is the minimum amount required for one person to survive in most major cities in Malaysia,8 making the minimum wage demands of fresh graduates justifiable.

However, the survey also found that low wage reservations have prompted most of today’s fresh graduates to move between jobs much quicker than in previous generations – in short, fresh graduates shift jobs to seek better prospects or higher pay.

Urban and Rural Divide

Some 90.8% of Penang’s population is urban.9 Even so, our survey results reveal that an overwhelming 143 respondents think that youths residing in rural areas are much likelier to face hardship in their daily lives compared to youths living in urban centres.

On top of more housing projects, respondents indicated a desire to see more commercial offices constructed in the rural areas to provide job opportunities to the surrounding communities, as well as products and services.

As many as 120 respondents also indicated that they would like to see more vocational skills training centres built in rural areas to provide youths with more opportunities to equip themselves with essential technical skills, such as vehicle repairing, electrical work, metal welding and so on. An equally significant amount of respondents (108) would also like to see more private and public learning institutions built in rural areas.

The GDVT programme aims to upskill rural youths by introducing and subsequently incorporating the training course into the various existing vocational schools in rural areas. The recruitment drive to seek out potential participants in this course, which was launched by the Penang state government in 2016, has been focusing not only in Penang, but throughout the northern region as well.

The programme is expected to produce a sizeable technologically talented workforce to meet the rising demand for highly skilled workers by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and multinational companies in Penang. It was started by the Penang state government with a RM2mil fund; trainees also receive a monthly stipend of RM1,000 which is borne by participating companies.10

Apart from GDVT, the Penang Education Council (PEC) – which was formed under the State Executive Council for Education to facilitate input from educationists on how to assist the state government in developing and positioning Penang as a prominent centre for learning and education – initiated a children’s learning programme known as Creative Learning for Communities, which targets children living in rural areas in Penang, on both the island and the mainland.

PEC aims to educate children living in rural areas through informal methods of learning, such as writing their own stories and singing English nursery rhymes, which would indirectly help them to enhance their proficiency in English. Many of the children, according to PEC, were shy about interacting with one another initially, but eventually became inseparable friends – regardless of race – by the end of the well-received programme.

On top of that, the children were also taught to identify actions that would constitute sexual abuse, and how to prevent and report them.

Birds and Bees

As many as 134 respondents indicated that they have active sex lives. Nearly all the respondents – barring one – indicated that they first learned about sex through the internet. As we know, the internet is full of uncorroborated information – as well as pornographic videos which are more often than not unrealistic and are produced for commercial purposes, and which do not educate viewers on safe sex and STD prevention – and if we want our children to grow up respecting boundaries, then sex education in our schools must step up.

According to research done in 2014 by the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, adolescents who surf pornographic websites might also stumble across paedophilic pornography, and might risk becoming paedophiles themselves after being exposed to such explicit content.11 Considering all the dangers that can result from teenagers venturing into the world of human sexuality without proper guidance, the implementation of appropriate sex education in national schools is of utmost importance.

Political Engagement

The lowering of the voting age to 18 by the federal government entails more political empowerment for our youths – 126 respondents exercised their rights as citizens by voting in the previous general election. However, an almost equally significant amount – 120 respondents – indicated that they would not get involved into politics, with a majority of them citing lack of opportunity as the main deterrent.

In terms of knowledge about state government initiatives, the Penang Digital Library is the most well-known, with 112 respondents indicating that they were aware of it; other initiatives that received high feedback were the affordable housing scheme, Penang Green Initiatives and Penang2030.

The survey found that 122 respondents indicated that there were not enough channels for youths to voice out their grievances and suggestions to the local authorities. State government engagement with youths was rated an average 3 out of 5.

Most of the respondents preferred public forums and roadshows as the ideal platforms for the state government to engage with youths and to promote awareness of youth initiatives. It can be inferred that youths in Penang prefer to participate in public dialogues compared to other means of state engagement, with leaflets coming in last.

On top of that, when asked what the state government can do to empower youths in Penang, 136 respondents chose youth leadership programmes; job fairs came at a close second with 135 respondents, signalling the continual worry about their careers in a world that is fast changing and disruptive. If the state can reign in youth insecurity and pessimism through understanding their concerns and needs, it could benefit from creating a generation of dynamic, creative and confident workforce.

But all in all, our kids are doing quite alright.

12019 data, author's own calculation.
2PSDC Home Page, Penang Skills Development Centre, accessed 27 August 2019
3A ‘sharp correction’ is brewing for the next 18 months, strategist says, CNBC, accessed 15 August 2019 sharp-correction-brewing-for-next-18-months-strategist-says.html.
4Malaysia the 4th biggest beneficiary of trade diversion — Nomura, The Edge Markets, accessed 14 August 2019 https://www.theedgemarkets. com/article/msia-4th-biggest-beneficiary-trade-diversion-%E2%80%94- nomura
5“English Proficiency Critical to Enhance Employability of Graduates” MEF Press Release 24 November 2016, Malaysian Employers Federation, accessed 20 August 2019 pr_article.aspx?@ID=20.
6MEF Press Release 24 November 2016, Malaysian Employers Federation, accessed 20 August 2019 pr_article.aspx?@ID=20.
7“Do fresh grads expect unrealistic salaries? This survey says no” published 12 December 2018, Malay Mail, accessed 15 August 2018 unrealistic-salaries-this-survey-says-no/1702500.
8“The Living Wage: Beyond Making Ends Meet” published by BNM Monetary Policy Department on March 2018, Bank Negara Malaysia, accessed 17 August 2018 publication&pg=en_work_papers&ac=62&bb=file
10“Providing rural students with technical skills” published on 21 June 2016, The Star, accessed 19 August 2018 metro/community/2016/06/21/providing-rural-students-with-technicalskills
11“Examining Pedophilia: Causes, Treatments, and the Effects of Stigmatization by Ariana Olshan” published May 2014, International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, accessed 15 August 2019 Pedophilia_-_White_Paper_FINAL_27_May_2014.pdf

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