Malaysia wants more Stem students and engineers to drive tech ambitions

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KUALA LUMPUR – Over nine months last year, a million people aged between seven and 30 took part in tech-based competitions across Malaysia as part of the Techlympics 2022.

In rural areas, workshops are bringing 3D printing, robotics and drone technology to youth to help them close the gap with their urban counterparts, and expose them to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem).

“We hope with this kind of set up, we can help to create innovation among Malaysians,” said Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Chang Lih Kang, whose ministry organises programmes such as the Techlympics, MakersLabs and a National Science Week – all part of the country’s push to become a high-tech nation by 2030.

In 2021, Malaysia said it wants to raise its proportion of Stem students to as high as 60 per cent in order to fill the future need for science, engineering and tech professionals. In 2020, Stem students made up 47.18 per cent in schools.

Malaysia also needs more engineers. At the end of 2022, there were around 187,900 engineers registered, according to the Board of Engineers Malaysia. This leaves the country’s engineer-to-population ratio at 1 to 170.

This is lower than developed countries such as Germany and France, where the ratio is at 1 to 100, said Mr Chang, 42, who studied civil engineering at the University of Putra Malaysia.

To fulfil its 2030 ambitions, Malaysia needs to double its current number of engineers, he added, admitting that there are several key challenges.

Salaries in Malaysia, for one, are low compared with other countries, he told The Straits Times.

A 25-year-old electrical engineer with a year’s experience had written on the Malaysian Pay Gap Instagram account – where people anonymously reveal their income – that she was earning RM3,000 (S$907) a month before getting a job in Singapore, where she now earns $4,300. There are other similar stories on the site.

According to the JobStreet employment website, the average monthly salary for engineering jobs in Malaysia range from RM3,200 to RM4,200, while in Singapore the typical monthly pay is $4,000.

Mr Chang said the government is working to attract high-quality investment into Stem sectors to create jobs and raise salaries, to create a cycle in which rising demand for Stem talent can stimulate students’ interest in those fields.

“We need to attract more capital-intensive and technology-intensive industries, so that more job opportunities will be created, and demand for high-skilled workers will be higher.”

Electric car company Tesla has said it will set up an office in Malaysia, introduce service centres and build a network of Superchargers, while Amazon is investing RM25.5 billion in Malaysia by 2037 with plans to develop a “cloud region” for data storage and other cloud-based services.

The minister added that conventional or traditional industries such as agriculture should also be transformed into tech-driven industries to bolster demand for highly skilled workers.

This will also in turn reduce Malaysia’s reliance on foreign workers and low-skilled workers.

He said there needs to be collaboration between the Education Ministry and his Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to create a cohesive Stem education system.

“To solve this problem, we have to start all over again,” he said.

Complaints from industry include graduates who do not meet the demands of the sector.

“There is a need to build a robust Stem ecosystem that includes industry, academia, research institutions and the government. A strong ecosystem can provide students with access to mentors, tech companies and internships, and help them transition smoothly into the workforce,” said Mr Chang, who expects the process to take at least five to 10 years.

“It’s not going to be straight away from zero to 100. What is important is the direction, to be on the right track.”

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