Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #53

Malaysia has considered development mainly in physical terms – factories, roads, ports and airports. A more enduring and effective strategy would be to improve the nation’s greatest asset: its people.

By M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 7:  Enhancing Human Capital
Adding Value to a Routine Airport Taxi Ride

The second anecdote concerns an airport trip in Atlanta my wife and I took after a medical convention. On discovering that a limousine was only slightly more expensive than a taxi, we decided to go in style. We stepped into this luxurious limousine, with the driver in tuxedo no less, dutifully opening the door and helping us in. I felt like a celebrity, or perhaps a sultan. The driver inquired of our flight and he immediately phoned ahead to find its status. As the flight was going to be delayed, he suggested we take the scenic country road. Normally he would charge extra for such a detour but since he would be saving gas by not getting stuck on the freeway at peak commuting time, he would dispense with it. Delighted, we cheered him on. He also welcomed us to some complimentary beverages and fresh fruits from his small fridge. We felt vindicated; the extra cost more than compensated by the freebies!

The driver too was very informative. We drove by some stately historical mansions around the city with his giving us a running commentary on the history. We felt as if we were being taken through the Civil War, tracing the destructive path General Sherman took. It turned out that our driver was a history major at the local university. The point is, he was more than just a driver. Because of his education he was an informative tour guide and a history lecturer to boot! He added value to a routine airport trip, and we tipped him accordingly.

Contrast that with our experience recently at Malaysia’s spanking new multibillion-dollar Sepang airport. First, the “limousine” was nothing more than a fancy taxi. Second, the poor driver spoke not a word of English (imagine serving an international airport!) and only a smattering of Malay. As we had not been to Malaysia for sometime, we were suitably impressed first with the airport and then with the gleaming new freeways and all the new constructions. But for every question we asked the driver, we received a grunting, “Tak tau” (Don’t know). And when we reached our hotel, because of the lineup at the entrance, he tried to drop us by the kerb. After we protested, he reluctantly drove us up to the lobby. He never so much as got out of his seat to help us. And this character expected a generous tip from us! Unlike my Atlanta driver, this Malaysian driver was probably a school dropout.

My last example is from Japan, a country famed for producing top quality goods. One of the reasons is that Japanese workers are highly trained and well educated. They all have at least a high school education. William Deming, the American quality control guru, was revered there for his work on statistical quality control. He wrote about a factory that tried very hard to improve the already high quality of its products. But it reached a plateau. Try as the workers might, they could not better their figures.

One day one of the workers noted the machines were shaking from the rolling of a nearby freight train. She immediately sensed the significance and intuited the cause of the factory’s product defects. Sure enough, on further analysis she found that statistically, goods produced on days the train was not running had a lower rejection rate. Supported by this finding the company decided to build a deep moat around the factory to shield it from the train’s vibrations. It worked, further dropping the already low rejection rate of the factory’s products.

If factory workers were merely simpletons working like robots, the significance of the train would have been missed. Again this proves the importance of education and training even for factory workers. Training and education alone are not enough by themselves. Workers in authoritarian countries may be equally well educated and highly trained, but because of their environment of repression and tight control, it is unlikely for them even if they were aware of the problem to even think of alerting their superiors.

These three anecdotes give a qualitative sense to the differences in the caliber of the workforce in different countries. The UN Development Program (UNDP) has created its Human Development Index (HDI) to quantify these differences. The HDI is actually a measure of the quality of the populace and thus indirectly, the workforce. Marked variations occur not only between but also within nations. The UNDP used a variety of measures to assess HDI, among them health indices, literacy rate, percentage of students completing high school, and per capita income.

According to the 2001 Index, Norway leads the way with United States, sixth. At the bottom are the three African states of Burundi, Niger, and Sierra Leone. Malaysia stands at 56 (it was 61 in 2000, and 56 way back in 1999). We are right behind Russia but ahead of Bulgaria. The three model states I discussed earlier stand at: South Korea, 15; Ireland, 18; and Argentina, 34. Our ASEAN neighbors are headed by Singapore at 26; Brunei, 32; while Thailand, Philippines, and Indonesia rank respectively at 60, 70 and 102.

Within Malaysia I would anticipate significant differences between regions, sexes, and most significantly from the political viewpoint, between Bumiputras and non-Bumiputras. As an aside, because of the sensitive issue of race in Malaysia, it is important that we appreciate the nuances and differences in these figures and be cautious in attributing the differences purely to race. Apparent differences in the school dropout rates between Malays and non-Malays for example, may not be due to race, rather to urban and rural factors. Until we can sharpen our statistical analysis, we should not be quick to attribute differences purely to race.

Another equally important factor is how the nation treats its talented and gifted. Every year we read in the popular press about students, usually non-Bumiputras, who have done well in their public examinations, only to be denied admission into Malaysian universities. A lucky few would be offered scholarships by foreign entities. Not surprisingly these individuals rarely return, their talent forever lost to the country. Nor is the treatment of bright young Bumiputras any better. It is widely acknowledged that Petronas scholars are among the best. Having met many of them, I agree. I congratulate Petronas for its ability to attract these promising young Malaysians. But when I meet these students I am struck that many of them are pursuing a field of study that is not their first choice or even one they really like. They simply accept the scholarship because that is the only way to get their studies funded or for going overseas. I wonder at the missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams had these students been given the freedom to choose their own courses.

Malaysia has considered development mainly in physical terms – factories, roads, ports and airports. A more enduring and effective strategy would be to improve the nation’s greatest asset: its people. Enhancing the quality of the citizens, quite apart from being the “right thing” to do, would also better prepare the nation to meet the challenges of globalization.


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