Vocational education: The stepchild of Malaysian education system?

If we are serious about uplifting the overall skill-sets of Malaysians, we cannot afford to go on treating the vocational education sector as the stepchild.

I contributed this article as the editor-in-chief of Han Chiang News, an online news portal set up to give budding journo a platform to practice what they have learned. This article was published on April 15, 2015, but my argument is still the same, TVET (technical, vocational education & training) is still a stepchild! More so in the eyes of the parents who are not well informed of its value and the complicated ways in which TVET is managed by too many government bodies and agencies making it difficult to integrate into the “traditional” academic route for tertiary studies for Malaysian youths. I had gained “Vocational Training Officer” credential in 2016 precisely because I see great future in the TVET sector especially in bridging links between TVET & academia.

The choke of my ceiling fluorescent light gave a “pop” sound and the lighting system failed. Not being that competent in handling electrical work, my wife and I decided that we would need the help of an electrician. If your air-conditioner starts to leak water, you would call the air-conditioning technician. If your car refuses to start, or if your car has a flat tyre would you know what to do?

There are countless aspects of our lives where we would require the skills and mastery of a vocational-trained person to deal with. Yet when it comes to vocational education, there seems to be a stigma in channelling our offspring into the vocational stream. Time and again it has been proven that vocational-trained young persons are more likely to get jobs than their counterparts graduating from colleges and universities with academic qualifications.

According to a recent Jobstreet survey (cited in the National Graduate Employment Blueprint), having “mismatch of skills” was the 4th most cited reason given by employers for not hiring a fresh graduate. Why vocational education and certification (aside from the IT & computer science fields and specialized academic diploma programmes in automotive sector) have not been widely incorporated into the curriculum of universities and colleges is the billion ringgit question! This could potentially solve the high proportion of unemployed graduates each year (over 53,000 out of 180,000 annual cohort of fresh tertiary graduates are unable to get employment). Perhaps  the lack of cross-understanding of the operational aspects of both the academic and vocational education pathways by the respective accreditation agencies is one of the key reasons for the Malaysian education system’s inability to cater to the needs of those coming from the vocational education sector and to embed vocational education into academic studies to enhance university graduates’ employability.

Thus the idea mooted by the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) of the Prime Minister Department to amalgamate accreditation agencies such as the Malaysian Qualifications Agency and Skills Development Department (Jabatan Perkembangan Kemahiran – JPK) of the Ministry of Human Resources is brilliant. This may drive the creation of seamless learning and qualification pathways for those in the vocational sector to earn diplomas and degrees.

In addition, currently vocational education is provided by no less than 7 Federal ministries/agencies which makes effective coordination amongst these players highly challenging leading to duplication and wastage of resources. Amalgamating the operations of all the public sector training institutions currently under separate agencies into one body while leaving the respective functions such as funding and recruitment of learners to the individual agencies to fulfil their different obligations and objectives is therefore a no brainer.

Currently, some of the negative perceptions among parents and school leavers about vocational education are valid. Except for one case, all the trainees I have encountered so far had chosen the vocational studies route because of their lack of the required Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia grades to be on the academic track.

Thus although the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF) provides for those coming from the vocational education route to cross-over to the academic pathway to earn degrees, in reality few if any of those holding Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia (SKM) vocational education qualifications ever made it to earn their diplomas or degrees from universities or colleges.

Personally I have come across a few SKM holders who technically were able to articulate into engineering diploma programmes in a college. However, their gap of knowledge in mathematics and physics (to a lesser extent, chemistry) was a huge hurdle for them. Thus to make a good pathway for SKM qualification holders into academic route, there must be a good bridging course to make up for the gap of knowledge. Presently, only the publicly funded polytechnics have the capacity and expertise to take SKM holders on to the academic route and places at these institutions are very limited.

[Commentary in 2017: In recent years, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency – MQA did put out a relaxation of admission criteria for SKM level 3 holders and allowing training institutions to provide bridging courses in English, mathematics and the sciences at SPM level to augment the knowledge gap which is commendable. However I feel that MQA should remove the need for SKM level 3 holders to have at least a “pass” grade in SPM and at least scoring a “Credit” grade in one SPM subject i.e. passing Bahasa Malaysia, and History. Instead, I would suggest that the MQA revise this by adding, ” candidates without a pass grade in SPM should show evident of their having taken and passed bridging courses in Bahasa Malaysia, history and one other subject relevant to their desired course of study at diploma level. This will allow for instance, students wishing to pursue at diploma level, mass communication but without a pass grade in SPM to have a chance to pursue the academic route if they take the relevant bridging courses while working on their SKM qualifications. We must not put up barrier but should adopt the “easy to get in but strict on passing out” principle to tackle this issue. Using traditional “academic” requirements will always leave those who have the aptitude to progress to academic route but without a pass grade in SPM stranded.]

In budget 2015, the Ministry of Education was allocated RM56.0 billion, but only RM1.2 billion (or 2.14%) of this was earmarked for vocational education. The higher education sector with about 1.2 million enrolees was allocated close to RM5.0 billion as National Higher Education Fund Corporation (Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Nasional – PTPTN) loans.  Yet with over 230,000 enrollees, the vocational sector only received RM200 million as study loans via the Skills Development Fund Corporation (Perbadanan Tabung Perkembangan Kemahiran – PTPK). PTPK’s budget has to cater to not only the study loan needs of school leavers but also those who are already working in industries thus making this resource grossly inadequate to deal with the demand of all who are interested to take on vocational training.

With about 5 times less in funding (RM870 per enrolee in vocational sector compared to RM4,167 for enrolees in the higher education sector), it is not surprising that the vocational education sector are not able to cope with the demand of industries. I think if we are serious about uplifting the overall skill-sets of Malaysians, we cannot afford to go on treating the vocational education sector as the stepchild. The power that be, needs to put its money where its mouth is!

Who’s going to do their work if I send them to training?

If you want your business to have a chance to soar with the eagles & not run with the turkeys, you need to appreciate & develop the staff that you have.

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I attended a graduation ceremony about two years ago in Subang Jaya by the Trinity College London in which 150 musicians graduated with their Associate, Licentiate or Fellowship awards. Parents, spouses and even children of graduates came from all over Malaysia to celebrate their love ones’ achievements. It dawn on me that despite our relatively small population, Malaysia really has a lot of musical talents. In the same year’s Global Chinese Music Award, Malaysian artists took home 20% of the 35 opened awards. However, almost all of these artists had to leave Malaysia to seek and find their fame & fortune, in Taiwan and China. In the inaugural issue of the now defunct print weekly, The Heat, it was revealed that former Miss Malaysia, Soo Wincci had to spend RM1.0 million to launch her musical career. To nurture talents is indeed a very expensive undertaking and there seems to be no allocation by the state to nurture these talents. But judging from the musical talents I witnessed in the Trinity College London event, Malaysian parents are willing to spend heavily on their children’s music education even if the government is not prepared to do so. However, funding of music education is just one of the many aspects of developing musical talents in the country. When the “ecosystem” for an industry is not able to sustain its healthy growth, talents will need to move overseas. We may lose these talents altogether.

In the workplace, aside from the civil service, government-linked companies and multinationals, many private companies still treat the training and development of their staff as something that the government “forces” upon them. The implementation of the Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF) put paid to some of these lack of training commitments as contributing companies have to pay 1% of their payroll as HRDF contribution and they get back training grants in return. But there is still a lack of training culture in private companies, especially among the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME). SMEs form the bulk of the companies that do not fall into the the HRDF contribution requirements.

When I was operating a federal government funded institution that provides technical and vocational training in 2011, my centre was awarded RM100,000 by the SME Corporation Malaysia (SME Corp) to spend on subsidizing 50% of the training fees of approved short technical and vocational courses for SMEs. The qualifying criteria were very simple: the trainees need to be Malaysians, the companies have to be majority Malaysian owned or in sole-proprietorships or partnerships. I was told by my staff that every year we would have trouble spending the full allocation. I decided to do something different. I packaged soft-skills courses (which were not covered by the grant) into the offering so that the trainees would get 2 courses for 50% of the fee for each SME Corp sponsored course they take (2 for half the price of one course). I was prepared to lower the margin for my centre to benefit these SMEs. Despite the incentives, I was having great trouble spending the RM100,000 grant!

It seemed that in that part of Malaysia, the culture of appreciating and nurturing our talent pool did not exist.  I was wondering why many bosses only paid lip service to my effort. In the end my centre only managed to spend less than half of our allocated grant. Later, after I have made some enquiries and spoken to some of the SMEs and clients, I discovered that there were two reasons for my failure to entice SMEs taking up my offer. Firstly, most do not subscribe to the idea of training their staff. I was getting this question thrown to my face many times,”If I send my guy to your training course, who is going to do his job?” Secondly, many of the SMEs were nearly fully relying on foreign workers with only token Malaysians working in the administrative, marketing and supervisory functions. Foreigners are not eligible for the training grant. Many of these SMEs seemed to be contented with being the fabricators or contract manufacturers, at the bottom of the value-chain. They stand to lose out to other companies, especially those from cheaper cost regions when there is any changes in the business environment. They will always be squeezed by the big customers or main contractors because of their lack of technical ability or design capability.

Some years ago, I read a very interesting article in one of the Chinese dailies. It was describing the 4 types of people that employees can be classified into. “Wealth generating people” (WGP) (“Ren Cai“  - 人财) are talents that you have who will help you to create all the wealth of your company. “People being there” (PBT) (”Ren Zai” – 人在) are those employees who will clock in to work each day waiting to clock out and have the “minimalist” approach to doing work. “Woody people” (WP) (“Ren Cai” –  人 材) are those described as deadwood. “Talented people” (TP) (”Ren  Cai” – 人才) are staff who have all the potential and talent waiting to be developed. Of course you will want to be rid of the WP and PBT as fast as possible. You will need to be very alert when communicating with the WGP. These guys know what they have and can do and they will bring their talents elsewhere as soon as they detect any major issues with you or your company. Your success rely more on the TP. But if you do not take the trouble to develop them, either they will look for better opportunities or they will, when they become more experienced, turn themselves into WGP for other companies.

Although all entrepreneurs aspire to soar with the eagles, but many, like those I had encountered in my vocation and skills development centre, are content to run with the turkeys. But I sincerely hope that they know, only with a bit of commitment in cultivating the “Talented people” among their staff, even though they might not be soaring with the eagles, at least they can be the “roadrunners” to always race ahead of the turkeys and escape from the coyote….Beep! Beep!


I wrote the draft of this article on November 01, 2013. At that time I had been roped in to contribute articles to help in getting the then brand new English business weekly, Focus Malaysia off the ground. As happened to many new publications, getting credible writers was the main headache for the editors. Hence I became the “accidental” writer to fill in the gap till the publication could engage sufficient full-time and part-time writers. This piece was prepared for my column, “Learning Circle” in which I had been publishing my column under my moniker of “Plantcloner” but it did not get the see the light of day in 2013 as my column was pulled in favour of a “star” columnist. For my stint as a columnist for Focus Malaysia, I did not receive a single cent or any incentive for my effort.

Since then this draft has received several revisions when I was writing for The Heat (the print version) and later Focusweek, but somehow I did not manage to shorten it from the 1,000 words (as specified for Focus Malaysia) to about 800 words for the latter two.

If you are a business owner or managing a business for an employer, may all the staff that you have turn out to be either Talented People or Wealth Generating People!

(The image used was derived from: http://schenec.com/business/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Corporate-Training.jpg

HRDF Funding of training – the Malaysian employees’ perspective

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This is the unedited version of an article published as “Fairer disbursement of HRDF grant sorely needed” in Focus Malaysia on July 06, 2013, written by Dr. YN Chow under his moniker of Plantcloner. He  thinks that a boss who says, “our people is our greatest asset” or words to that effect must be prepared to put his/her  money where his/her mouths is and invest accordingly and do so on a regular basis.


Up-skilling, re-skilling, cross-skilling are the buzzwords these days in the corporate learning and training circle.

To ensure that Malaysia’s goal of attaining developed nation status is achieved by 2020, the Perbadanan Sumber Manusia Berhad Act (PSMB Act) was enacted in 1993 and revised in 2001. Thus PSMB, a corporatized government agency was formed.

PSMB Act enactment was followed by the formation of Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF) where manufacturing and service industries in Malaysia were mandated to contribute 1% of their payroll per month into the HRDF.  The idea was for HRDF to provide training grants from the levy for the purpose to training of employees of contributors.

The collection of levy by HRDF has been very successful, it has been reported in December 2012 that RM3.96 billions had been collected with RM3.21 billions disbursed since HRDF’s inception where utilization of the fund was at 80%.

One should ask how effective has the distribution of HRDF grant in improving the human capital of Malaysia been? Who actually calls the shots when it comes to the spending of the grant: the employer or the employees?

In fact there are more to those statistics published by PSMB in its annual reports that meet the eyes.

For starters, if the objective of HRDF is to ensure that Malaysians are continuously up-skilling, cross-skilling and re-skilling themselves, why would there be no provision for employees having any say in the utilization of HRDF grant?

A case in point, in 2009 when I was serving in a corporatized-state-owned entity, a conference on entrepreneurship in institutions of higher learning attracted my attention. The conference fees was only RM900 for this 2 days event. It was an event that would be attended by the “Who’s Who” of industries, higher learning institutions and regulatory bodies. The networking and learning potential of this event were great, especially for a practitioner in the higher education sector. My superior, instead of attending this event with me, went on to disallow the use of HRDF grant to pay for my conference fees. By then, the HRDF levy paid by my company and attributable to me was more than RM1,500. Later from the grapevine I heard that my superior went for a RM19,000-per-person, one week “senior management residential course” by an Ivy League university’s professors paid for by the company. Of course not privy to the company’s HRDF account I was in no position to say if any HRDF grant was given for this event.  A quick calculation would reveal that for an employee to have RM19,000 attributed to his/her payroll contribution to HRDF’s levy, he/she would have to be paid RM1.9 million in annual salary. In my case, I had the last laugh as I was invited by the organizers of the conference to deliver a paper and was given a complimentary ticket. However, not many employees had means and ways like me to find “alternative funding” to attend training or conferences to improve on our knowledge and skills, as was intended by the HRDF grant.

There were many cases of abnormal use of HRDF grant that have been uncovered, but it is beyond the scope of this article.

The crux of the matter is, both the administrator and the employers seem to view the HRDF levy and grant as “belonging” to the employers. It seems that the objective of the PSMB Act for employees to get their training (and hence up-skill, re-skill and cross-skill themselves) is incidental in this context. In fact, the “spending” of HRDF grant is fully decided by the employers. Employers also have the sole discretion on who among their staff is to benefit from the HRDF grant.

Thus for the benefits of the employees, in whose names that annual RM360 million or so contributions to HRDF is made, some changes to the status quo must be seriously considered by the power-that-be.

I have two suggestions that are complementary in their effects in fulfilling the objective of HRDF.

Firstly, it would be easy for PSMB to implement an audit whereby all Malaysian employees of HRDF levy contributing employers shall get at least 1 training spent on them every 24 months. This will mandate employers to plan the spending of the grant to fulfil this obligation. Thus posh retreats and Ivy League universities’ “senior executive programmes” will not be easily charged to the grant. PSMB should also put an upper limit to what employers could claim for an individual employee and take away all those luxurious programmes from their approved list. Implementation of this suggestion will require only minor tweaks to the existing PSMB system.

My second and most equitable suggestion, as far as the employees are concerned, is in splitting the disbursement of HRDF grant into two equal portions. The “Employer’s Portion” should be used for training and related programmes at the sole discretion of the employer. PSMB can also make it compulsory for employers to use this portion for mandatory certification and licensing programmes for their employees. The “Employee’s Portion” should be used for training at the sole discretion of the employee. This means that, like the Employee Provident Fund (EPF), all Malaysian employees should have individual “PSMB Accounts”. Levy/grant contributed to the employee’s account shall stay with the person if he/she  changes job. PSMB has already a good selection of approved programmes which could easily be made more “affordable” to employees. With the larger number of learners, PSMB can even organise these training programmes or seek volume discount from providers to reduce the course fees to further benefit employees. One of the main disadvantages of this suggestion is the extra administrative work involved, but since the current HRDF system already entailed having the individual employee’s name in the accompanied document when HRDF grant is disbursed, apportioning this levy to the respective “PSMB Accounts” is just a matter of a few extra clicks at the computer keyboard. A quick calculation tells me that if this system were to be in place for employees earning RM5,000 per month, in 10 years, their “PSMB Accounts” will each have a balance of RM3,000.

PSMB reported having over 13,300 contributing employers in 2012, and out of about RM360 million levy collected, RM288 million was disbursed as grants to employers. Each year about 20% of the levy collected, or about RM72 million remained “unspent”. I suggest that the “unspent” levy should be disbursed to all the employees’ “PSMB Accounts”.

To realize our nation’s quest for developed nationhood, we need more than just 13,300 business establishments to contribute to the HRDF. SME Corp’s 2011 economic census showed that there were 645,000 SMEs, 94% of which were in the manufacturing and service sector, and SME accounted for 97.3% of all business establishments in Malaysia. By a simple calculation, we can see that out of about 663,000 business establishments in Malaysia PSMB has only recruited just about 2% of them to contribute to HRDF. This  is not an achievement to brag about!

PSMB Act defines an employee as, any citizen of Malaysia who is employed for wages under a contract of service with an employer, irrespective of whether they are permanent, part-time or on contract, but does not include any domestic servant“. This definition  means that if you have less than 10 Malaysians supervising 100 foreign workers in your factory or your service business, you are not obliged to contribute to HRDF. Could this be the reason for the low registration of business establishments with PSMB? If each of these 650,000 “escapees” of the HRDF levy has only 2 Malaysian employees, we are seeing over  1.3  million workers not receiving the benefits of the PSMB Act.  I think PSMB needs to do something to reconcile this and do so fast.