I am writing this as an open letter to our Prime Minister/Finance Minister Najib Abdul Razak.
My view arises from my reflection upon the Comment piece by KS Jomo published by Malaysiakini yesterday, titled Most Malaysians cannot afford to retire.
Jomo draws our attention to a very serious problem. That our people do not have enough savings to retire on. The number of retirees is rising fast and most of them will only have enough money to see them through for a few years.
This problem is exacerbated by the high level of household debt in this country. Add to that the increased cost of living, produced in no small measure by our depreciating currency.
Several questions may be asked:
1. Why has EPF not been able to produce better returns on invested funds? Jomo says that safe investment in government bonds brought fairly low investments and even EPF's foray in the last few years into riskier but higher risk investments have only produced marginally higher returns.
2. Can employers contribute more and employees accept a higher level of deductions on EPF? Here we come smack into a problem we seem to have created for ourselves.
We have allowed into the country a huge number of lower cost foreign workers. Employers say that they cannot find local workers and the government has obliged them. A large number of agents now operate, bringing a huge number of workers into the country. The following sectors are now inundated with foreign workers - the plantation, construction, and hospitality industries.
If the claims of employers are true, then EPF contributions cannot be increased. In the case of foreign workers, no EPF contributions are made. Another point: without foreign maids, many of our women will not be able to work.
3. Where are the Malaysian workers if they are not in the above-mentioned industries? Are they in the country or have they left our shores? We know that a large number of highly educated young professionals have left the country for higher paying jobs overseas.
But there is anecdotal evidence of many semi-skilled or unskilled workers seeking employment in foreign countries. It seems odd that we replace our workers, both skilled and professional, with unskilled workers from overseas.
Do they all leave because of higher wages?
4. Is holding ourselves out as a low-cost investment destination working for us? The volume of foreign worker remittances out of the country is huge. That is money that does not help our economy. Skills acquired by foreign workers will be lost to us when they return.
Also, our people are not acquiring those skills because they are not working in those industries.
5. Is the problem, in part, what has been described as the middle-income trap? That we cannot pay our workers more money because they are not productive enough? And is their low productivity the result of poor education, both at school and tertiary levels?
6. Is the government preparing our people for the disruptive effect of new technology on our jobs? Even the US and Europe had failed to prepare their people. China is emerging as a giant vacuum machine taking jobs away from everyone and even when they invest in Malaysia, their terms require the employment of Chinese contractors and workers.
We now learn of a large number of religious schools - which do not appear to prepare children for the workforce but for life in the hereafter.
Our civil service cannot always be counted to mop up those who are unemployable elsewhere.
7. What, if any studies on jobs and manpower done? Are our schools and universities producing graduates for the marketplace? Will the ratio of Malaysians working to Malaysians in retirement be such that the old can be supported adequately?
I am not an economist and will leave these issues to others like KS Jomo to ask the relevant questions.