Stop pushing STEM and giving false hopes to the young

(Picture courtesy stem-malaysia.com)

STEM, short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, is an initiative of the government to inculcate interest and increase the number of students studying science and technology related subjects. In fact, the government has been encouraging the study of science since the 1970s.

While it is evident the government is trying to increase the number of students enrolled in science subjects and the number of science graduates, these science and technical graduates have the highest unemployment rate in the country at 20.7%. It defeats the purpose of inculcating interest in science and technology-based subjects among youth when in actual fact studying those subjects at a higher level is not going to give them any job or a better future.

When I went off to the UK to pursue my undergraduate studies, I bought into the government’s idea that studying science would give graduates a good future, there would be many opportunities in finding a job and there would be an opportunity to contribute to the development of science in this country.

Having completed both my undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Physics and Applied Mathematics from Imperial College London, I came back to Malaysia to serve the nation and the government. Seeing an advertisement calling out specifically to all physics graduates to apply to a governmental research agency under the ministry of science, technology and innovation, I sent in my application. A few weeks later, my application was rejected on the grounds that my qualifications did not match the job scope. I then applied to another ministry and got rejected again. I was told there were no vacancies.

I continued applying to various government research agencies but each time I got the same reply: “I am sorry but we have frozen hiring at the moment” or “I am sorry we have no vacancies at the moment”. I also applied to a number of “top” public universities for research opportunities but the only reply I got was that the university had no budget and funds to take on researchers. Many did not even reply. As a result, I ended up dejected, disappointed and lost interest in science completely.

I realised that the only option available to pure science graduates in the country is to go into either banking, finance, IT or some other areas of the corporate sector totally unrelated to the original field of study of science graduates. This is an absolute waste of human resources and talent. Those who are not interested in banking or finance will be either forced to do a job they are not interested in, end up without a job or migrate to other countries to find better opportunities.

As a matter of fact, in a recent report titled ‘The School to Work Transition of Young Malaysians’ (SWTS) by Khazanah Research Institute, they found that only 17% of those with science, mathematics and computing degrees are in jobs that are related to their education. This is a very low number and clearly highlights the mismatch between graduates’ qualifications and skills, and their jobs.

The government has to acknowledge the fact that the country simply does not have enough suitable jobs to accommodate graduates from scientific fields, especially the pure sciences (Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Biology). The government is not interested in hiring such graduates. The government’s “disinterested” approach towards research is also to be blamed and they are simply not investing enough money on research. One may argue that the country is currently in massive debt and the government has much more important things to worry about, but this was the case even when the economy was in a healthier state.

All we have been interested in is short-term development (construction, manufacturing, industry, etc) but there has been little interest shown in research and development, which may not show results in the short term but is definitely essential for the growth and development of the nation in the long term.

While the government continues trying to push forward its STEM agenda, does it actually know the number of Malaysians with science degrees who are seeking employment in the country? Is it making any effort to provide suitable employment for them? Is there any effort by the government to “scout” for them? What is TalentCORP, the supposed prime talent scouter of the nation, doing about it?

It seems like there are much better opportunities for social science graduates compared with science graduates and there is a far better market for traditional jobs (lawyer, accountant, business, marketing etc.) than non-traditional jobs despite there being a glut of graduates in those traditional fields. Another finding in the SWTS that corroborates this statement is that the majority of students in tertiary education across all ethnic groups in Malaysia were working towards degrees in the social sciences, law and business. Furthermore, the SWTS also found that the type of education or training that students considered most useful in finding a job was a professional qualification compared with the pure sciences or computer sciences that were found to be among the least useful.

Another thing that I find quite baffling is how exclusive, unattractive and “hard-to-get” the government has made its very own government service. There are in fact, numerous, young and passionate individuals from top universities around the world who are interested in serving the government and making a change but are put off by the level of inefficiency and the rather difficult process of getting employment in the government.

If the government is indeed interested in the development of science and technology it should start by taking in science graduates to help in all ministries to develop technologies and policies to help promote sciences in all fields of daily life. As it is the government’s desire to promote STEM, it should not leave it to the private sector to carry the baby. Do not use STEM for political mileage and give the wrong message to budding Malaysian scientists. Do not put their knowledge to waste. Use it to fulfil Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s dream of making Malaysia a scientifically and technologically sound country.

Countries such as Singapore and the UK have adopted a more progressive strategy. Most of my course mates who were pure science graduates from Singapore and the UK have actually gone back to serve their respective governments in various ministries. As a matter of fact, many ministries in Singapore and the UK offer internships to young students and graduates who are interested in joining the government as a way of promoting young people to join the government. Their governments give opportunities to talented graduates to serve the government. But that is not the case here.

My Malaysian colleagues are working in all kinds of unrelated fields and are a frustrated lot, with regret that they may have chosen the wrong field to study. Getting employment in the government seems to be so bureaucratic, slow, inefficient and difficult.

It is the government which should be on the lookout for those who are talented, qualified and those who actually have the potential to make a change. If the government does not make an effort to get the best individuals to serve the nation, then we are going to end up remaining an inefficient and underdeveloped government. Taking the example of agencies like the CIA and the FBI in the US, why do you think they are among the best law enforcement agencies in the world? It is because they make an effort to go to the top universities in the US such as Harvard, Stanford and Princeton each year to scout for the best talent.

There are a large number of Malaysian scientists and researchers attached to top universities all over the world who are unable to come back due to the lack of research opportunities available in the country. The government should not just sit and complain about the brain drain.

To conclude, the government should rethink its STEM policy and not just drive the policy through for the mere purpose of trying to meet a certain quota for the number of science students each year. It must first make sure that there are sufficient jobs and career opportunities in the areas of science and technology before encouraging the youth to take up those subjects and go into those fields. All they are doing now is giving youth false hope.

I still hope to serve the country and have the desire to contribute to the development of the nation in my little way.

Rueben Dass is a FMT reader.

The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.