The Educational Origins of Penang’s Skills Mismatch and Brain Drain

By Ooi Kee Beng

January 2023 EDITORIAL
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EDUCATION IS REGARDED as a human right today. Therefore, most modern states, barring those who expressly consider public education to be a threat to their continued exercise of political or religious power have felt duty-bound to provide some level of formal schooling to every one of their citizens.

But nation building in young countries tends to be more formalistic than substantial. This is understandable; the way it is understandable that state institutions in such countries are often constructed as part and parcel of modern statehood, following a manual, as it were. You adopt a constitution and you put into place a parliament, a president or prime minister, a military, a central bank, a customs authority, an immigration authority, a police department and an education system.

Notionally, you talk about social justice and equality, distribution of wealth, democracy, peace and harmony, citizenship rights, law and order and national progress.

As with all models, how adaptive the nation-building project is to local conditions and how consistent its goals are, tend to decide how it succeeds. As a rule, the more centralising and top-down the approach, the less it is able to adapt to local conditions.

Now, let us focus on Education – on what this is supposed to offer the individual, and on the phenomenon of National Education itself.

Many Functions

Education is often called the great leveller. Most countries immediately put into place a national school system open to all citizens; few, however, consciously market this service as a socio-economic levelling mechanism. Education thus fulfils somewhat different functions in different countries, Singapore, for example, expressly defines its version of nationwide meritocracy through examination results and the status of the educational institutions attended.

Common functions of a school system, apart from eradicating illiteracy, include fostering a national identity; fostering discipline, be this in the name of self-development and leadership training or for attaining factory-floor readiness early in life; and the general socialisation of citizens into national discourses.

We have primary, secondary and tertiary levels in schooling as the general path for modern education. Students are to successively gain theoretical knowledge and progress up the ladder, to a limited extent, in their own chosen subjects. But then, this is far from being the whole picture.

As we may note in the path-setting Razak Report (formally the Report of the Education Committee 1956), these three levels are given detailed consideration. But revealingly, a relatively short chapter called Technical Education—in today’s parlance Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) — dealing with a vital educational phenomenon that does not quite fit into the earlier reasoning, is tagged on just after the major chapters.

This distinction between what I would, tongue-in-cheek refer to as the General Theory of Modern Education (the general Primary-Secondary-Tertiary Model), and the Special Theory of Modern Education (TVET practical courses), is an interesting one. Dwelling on it can stir up interesting discussions about the function of education as it applies to national general interests, on the one hand, and in forming the career options of individual citizens on the other.

Questioning the Traditional Path

While general national education aims to provide general knowledge about the world, beyond the basic need to create a public equipped with ground-level literacy, it also invites students to aim for a profession that a completed tertiary education would begin to provide. However, the practical value of this model is in doubt today. First of all, it is very expensive, secondly, it takes too long, and thirdly, it is too academic in the bad sense, i.e., it tends to create graduates with little worldly knowledge.

In short, it is not for everybody. Also, as a one-size-fits-all model, it does not meet the needs of different societies and different economies.

As a general model, it can be wasteful and ineffective, mainly because it does not adapt well enough to the diverse income levels and interests of individuals. In a phrase, the national school system tends to school citizens more than educate them, thus raising generations that lack curiosity and critical thinking.

Let’s take a quick look at the case of Penang, within this framework.

Penang’s economy was largely port based, and its early industries and services sector grew out of logistical activities and its entrepot nature. Education was through on-the-job training in many cases. In today’s terms, a natural TVET model was dominant, while general education tended to end before the tertiary level for a majority of the young inhabitants, who would then get jobs where they learned skills only after being employed.

When the free port status was taken away in the late 1960s, unemployment shot up in Penang, and it was only in the mid-1970s that hope of a new sector of employment appeared. Penang's port culture was now overlayed with economic activities that were industrial and factory-based. Its economy began pulsating again.

What should have happened thereafter should have been for the economy to advance into high-end services, to white-collar professionalism and so on. Instead, the state’s services sector became tourism-based, due to the attractiveness to tourists of the remnants of its traditional port culture. These include its famous food, its organically-evolved cityscape and its geographical insularity.

Training Brains for Others

While Penang’s children continued largely to be educated in the general model for professional positions that the state’s economy could not offer, and its on-the-job training tradition began fading away, the brain drain out of Penang naturally grew worse, benefiting other cities instead. Penang’s economy was not growing in a way that suited its educated young. This mismatch, exaggerated by general parental dislike of TVET education as low-end, naturally led to young Penangites, feeling trained for jobs best found elsewhere — in KL, Singapore and further afield — to leave, however reluctantly.

After 50 years of industrialisation, it is indeed time to consider how this process can help transform Penang towards higher-end activities and broader creativity.

Given the economic trend of development, TVET courses should have been invested in and promoted, and its social stature raised by various means, in order to sync education with job opportunities. This was not an insight lost to all, but most of the interventions, for example among the factories or by PSDC, to promote TVET interests have been, in the larger context, more damage control than proactive policies by government reflecting an understanding of the economic dynamics unleashed in Penang since the 1970s.

Post-Covid, the importance of TVET and how well it fits the Penang economic story is being realised more broadly — by employers, by young people and by elements in the state apparatus. Hopefully, a concerted move to promote TVET horizontally and vertically will be attempted by the federal and state governments. In striving to be a creative city, Penang needs its educational options to once again focus on TVET skills. It is not too late.

Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: