A recent statement from the Human Resources Minister on a proposal to bring African workers to Malaysia for the oil palm industry generated much opposition which caused the minister to admit that the proposal would no longer be entertained.

Malaysia is facing shortage of workers not only in the oil palm industry but in almost all sectors of the economy. The simple reason is local workers are choosy and prefer jobs that have better working environment even if they get paid less. There are not many Malaysians skilled in vocational types of work which they shun. In future foreign workers will take over such work.

Malaysia will not progress far with overdependence on foreign workers, especially for major industries like oil palm and manufacturing as these workers only depress wages which makes it more unlikely for Malaysians to take up the jobs.

As long as foreign workers are available, industries will be reluctant to invest in automation and other high-end production lines. Over time, foreign workers will leave for other places where the pay is higher, like in the Middle East and other Asean nations that are coming up rapidly.

When this happens, investors then resort to automation and other means to offset the need for workers in their industries. This makes jobs even more scarce for locals.

Where machines cannot replace foreign workers, it is likely that industries will close down or move to places where there are cheap workers like Africa or other Asian nations.

To move forward, Malaysia must be bold and invest more in education and vocational training including artificial intelligence (AI). Our population is too small to compete with other countries with large populations and high demand for goods and services. We will never be able to compete with them.

Malaysia has to find niche businesses and industries that are to our advantage such call centres which need language skills, specialised tooling skills for precision engineering, and hospitality like healthcare as our climate is highly suited for taking care of the elderly and those having special needs.

In the end, education reform is the way to go. It is crucial for our future generation to capture the next wave of opportunities.

To continue with our current system will surely see Malaysia becoming a country supplying workers for other countries as the next generation would lack the necessary skills to fit the needs of the future.

Philip Wong