I do not think Malaysia has done enough in stabilizing our labor market. Policies introduced so far are inadequate in size, and have been implemented so late that its effectiveness is suspect. Each progress report by the Ministry of Finance feels irrelevant because even if all the measures recorded 100% implementation, it would still be insufficient. And the most relevant existing government countermeasures are progressing slowly.
We need to do much, much more to address the big problem we face in the labor market.
Our problem is massive unemployment
We are staring at a high likelihood of mass unemployment happening unlike anything we have seen in the recent past.
In 1998, the worst recession Malaysia has ever experienced yet, unemployment rate rose by about 70 basis points from 2.5% to 3.2%. For 2020, Bank Negara expected it to increase by about 60 basis point to 4.0%. But the projection was made well before anybody had an idea the lockdown would last more than 2 weeks. Hence, the central bank’s official view as recorded in its 2019 Annual Report is dated and any projection should be worse than what was published earlier.
Based on early indication from an unrepresentative survey by the Department of Statistics done later in late March, naïve extrapolation suggests unemployment rate could rise significantly higher. So much higher that mentioning the possible level of unemployment feels unreal. Yet, it is June now and the lockdown is still in effect though with looser restrictions.
The heightened risk of massive unemployment was the reason why we needed a much, much bigger wage subsidy program earlier. But we have failed to do so and the time for that has come and passed.
The bigger the hole, the more radical we need to be
The result: we now have a bigger hole to fill. We as a society are and will be experiencing more pain than necessary.
This comes to a minor point I want to make: the bigger the hole we need to fill, the more radical our policy response will need to be. And we have let the hole grew bigger unnecessarily due to political maneuvering and ministerial inexperience during a time of economic crisis. Make no mistake: the learning curve during crisis for a newbie will always be too steep that the optimal response will be almost impossible.
Passing the job hoarding stage
We have passed the job hoarding stage. Pass here refers to leaving the stage behind, and not in the “with-flying-colors” sense. We failed. We have failed to protect a huge number of jobs through a bigger and timelier wage subsidy program.
There is still some value to having wage subsidies. But the damage has been done and wage subsidy efficacy is weak at this point. You cannot subsidize jobs that have been lost.
We now have to move on and focus on other policies. Job creation programs are the obvious ones. There are other policies that could be implemented but I think the less obvious would be to move people out of the labor market temporarily. Call it the workforce reduction program if you like.
Brief explanation of jargons
To understand the need for workforce reduction program, one has to understand the way labor statistics works at the macro level. I promise, this will not be too technical as I myself am uninterested in explaining the technicalities.
Unemployment rate is the number of unemployed people over the labor force.
Meanwhile, the labor force is the sum of all those with a job or actively looking for a job. Those who are actively looking for a job and at the same time without a job are classified as unemployed.
The crucial part is that, the definition of the labor force does not include everybody. The too young and the too old are excluded. Those unemployed and not looking for jobs are excluded. Students are not part of the labor force. Technically, military personnel are not counted. You can argue whether these people should be included or not, but the point is, there are people outside of the labor force however you slice and dice the problem.
Here, I would like to focus on students in the tertiary level.
Minimizing unemployment given the crisis
We want to minimize the unemployment rate. To do so, we could increase the number of employed relative to the labor force to outpace the growth of the overall labor force. In common parlance, job creation. But creating more jobs is easier said than done.
Alternatively, we could reduce the labor force growth temporarily and then return the labor taken off from the equation back at a time when the labor market is healthier in a year or two years down the road. I think might be easier.
(I feel the need to say that both job creation and labor force reduction exercise are not mutually exclusive)
Massive expansion of tertiary education opportunities
This is my (radical?) policy proposal to help fill the hole.
I think one of the better ways to reduce labor force growth temporarily is for the government to embark on a massive publicly-funded program to get unemployed Malaysians and those suffering a high unemployment risk to go back to school. Specifically, enroll those interested in programs offered by public universities.
This program should include diploma, bachelor’s and graduate degrees. I think less for doctorate, and more for masters and below. PhDs generally serve a different purpose and the number of PhD placing in the country for a year is so low that it probably means nothing to the objective of reducing the labor force growth temporarily. This means we could give ourselves between roughly between 6 months and 2 years to repair the labor market.
I think for people wanting a second same-level degree could be given a chance to join the program.
Participants of the program could receive a reasonable stipend above minimum wage.
While the objective of the program is to reduce the labor force temporarily, it has other factors at play:
- Taking a portion of workers off the labor market helps balance bargaining power between workers and employers. At a time when there are a lot of workers looking for jobs and few job opening, workers are at a disadvantage.
- The program would need massive funding into our universities, which itself could create more jobs, be it teaching assistants, lecturers or whatever positions there are associated with universities. In order words, pushing unemployed Malaysians or Malaysians at risk of unemployment could be job creating too. In any case, our universities are underfunded especially since the mid-2010s and this is a chance to address the problem.