Social mobility in Malaysia: Myth or reality?

Social mobility in Malaysia: Myth or reality?
By Zan Azlee

THEY say education is the key to social mobility.

With education, even the underprivileged can succeed. Through hard work and perseverance, they will be presented with opportunities to turn their lives around. And that’s what social mobility is – the movement of individuals, families and households through the generations from one socio-economic class to another.

Does this happen in Malaysia? To some extent, I agree it does.

According to a research released by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) late last year, 63 percent of Malaysian adults are better educated than their parents. The same research says since 1957, one in two children born to parents between 1985 and 1995 are now earning more than their parents.

These are actually fairly good statistics to show an upward social mobility trend in the country.

However, that’s if you choose to view this as a glass half full.

What the statistics also show is the remaining 50 percent of those born to parents between 1985 and 1995 aren’t earning more than their folks today. That’s a pretty significant number too.

The question here is why are there those who managed to escaped the cycle when so many others remained trapped in the same social reproduction over and over again throughout the generations?

From a personal point of view, I have to say I was quite lucky growing up. I was born to a middle-class family. Both my parents went through tertiary education and secured professional jobs, and were able to provide for my siblings and I.

We weren’t rich or anything, and definitely weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths, but we did receive proper education because my folks had the same opportunity themselves and knew they wanted us to have the same.

They discussed education with us, had the means to equip us with educational tools and knowledge, providing us valuable reading materials such as books, showing us cultural activities and taking us on travels abroad. They showed us how to chart a pathway to achieve our ambitions.

This taught us with hard work and the right attitude, we could achieve anything. And we knew we’d pay it forward, too, when we grow older and have our own children.

Compare that with someone born to a poor family whose parents earn below the poverty line. The father and mother would most probably be holding down hard, laborious jobs (probably several) that would not leave them much time (or money) to educate their kids.

Of course, government schooling in Malaysia is affordable to almost everyone. But does going to school immediately mean a person has the same opportunity as the person born into a more financially stable family?

With parents too occupied with trying to make ends meet, would they be able to provide the same opportunities a middle-class family can provide? Can children from poverty-stricken families be able to see the pathway towards achieving upward social mobility?

As much as we want to think equal opportunities exist for all, we need to remember we’re not all dealt the same hand – meaning, we don’t all begin from the same starting line in life.

Just to be clear here – I don’t support racial or religious affirmative action of any kind. But what we really need to make sure is there is equal opportunity for everyone by considering their socio-economic statuses.

We all know Malaysia has long used affirmative action policies to benefit the Malay majority because during the days of pre-independence and even the early years of independence, the Malays were the group that were economically and socially marginalised.

But in the over 60 years since independence in 1957, we now can see the economically and socially marginalised transcends all racial and religious boundaries.

So instead of looking at racial demographics, it’s time for the government to look into a colour-blind policy that could help uplift poverty-stricken families.

We need to be equal in recognising the vulnerabilities of our own people. We need to realise poverty doesn’t discriminate – whether Malay, Chinese, Indian or indigenous, poverty will affect all in pretty much the same way.

Perhaps if we recognise this, we can turn this social mobility myth into reality.

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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