The gig economy: What monster are we breeding?

No alarm bells have been rung while the students refuse to move to the next stage of education due to gig economy distractions 


HOW long have we been seeing bands of p-hailing riders traversing our neighbourhood traffic lights, junctions? We marvel at their single-mindedness to outrun red lights or oncoming traffic to the point of numbing ourselves whenever these riders or the onrushing vehicle had close calls. 

Malaysia has a notorious global reputation regarding motorcycle crash, ranked at second-lowest only to Vietnam, with 332 motorcyclist fatalities per 1,000 population. And according to the Royal Malaysian Police, p-hailing riders comprised 64% of all motorcycle traffic violations. Between January 2020 and July 2021, p-hailing riders recorded 347 accidents, with 48 fatalities. 

Ghastly statistics. But there are more scary numbers involving these p-hailing riders, who forms a significant portion of the new world phenomenon known as the gig economy. And it involves the future of Malaysia as a developing nation stuck in the “middle-income trap” for the past quarter century. 

The nation has a total workforce of 15.1 million. More than a quarter of this — 26% or a huge 3.9 million people to be exact — are participating in the gig economy. 

Gig economy. As per Investopedia, it is a labour market that relies heavily on temporary and part-time positions filled by independent contractors and freelancers, rather than full-time permanent employees. Gig workers gain flexibility and independence, but little or no job security. 

Definitely an employer’s dream and an employee’s nightmare. 

Proponents of the gig are mostly technopreneurs and employers from the p-hailing and e-hailing industry, promoting better pay, flexible hours and “no boss to answer to” as the advantages. Little were touched on the downsides. Better earnings were promoted, but very little was said of the reality of the exclusive few. 

Gigsters are claimed to earn more than RM3,000 a week, but little has been said that the group consists only 3% of total gigsters, and in a niche industry comprising technical experts, alien to the mass-participated p-hailing and e-hailing services. 

One e-hailing driver was allegedly earning RM7,000 monthly, but it wasn’t highlighted that he was working on a 12-hour shift daily in a six-day week and taking a net RM4,000 only, minus operating expenditure, sweat and vehicle maintenance. And that the majority (60%) is actually earning less than RM4,000. 

Is there no one reading this? 

Malaysia, an inspiring developing country missing the developed nation status by two years (so far), is allowing a quarter of its workforce to be involved in a temporary support services sector that offers little or zero organic upskilling opportunity or career advancement to its participating citizens? And the dream of “be your own boss, flexible timing, work as you please” that is being sold by these gig economy proponents is already infectiously transcending beyond Gen Y/Millennials or Gen Z/Zoomers.

A disturbing study by the Statistics Department in 2019 revealed that approximately 390,000 or a whopping majority of 72.1% secondary school or SPM leavers were not interested to continue their studies at a higher level. The main reason — believing that the opportunities presented by the gig economy platforms are much more attractive. 

It is a universal knowledge that education is the most important investment that a country can make for its people and future. And yet, no alarm bells have been rung while the students — the main product of an education system — are refusing to move to the next stage of education due to distractions by the gig economy. 

Whatever happened to the various national human capital blueprints researched and issued in the past? 

Half a decade ago, The National Council for Scientific and Research Development stated that Malaysia would need approximately 500,000 scientists and engineers by 2020 to deal with the challenges of IR4.0 and to attain the status of a developed nation. 

Not only did we missed the deadline, we are actually way off the mark in preparing our workforce. In 2020, there were only 142,000 engineers in Malaysia, with a paltry 14,200 certified as professional engineers. 

And yet, today, in 2022, how are we as a nation celebrating gig economy as the sector to lead Malaysia into a developed-nation era? 

Are we blind to the monstrosity staring at us? 

Asuki Abas is the editor at The Malaysian Reserve. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition