The salary demands of fresh graduates could be unrealistic, but their problems about the rising cost of living and the price of housing are real. File pic

UNREALISTIC or not, the issue of fresh graduates whining about the problem of making ends meet and therefore demanding big starting salaries has become a persistent lament.

It has turned out to be so bizarre actually. There are nearly half a million graduates who are without jobs, creating an employers’ market. Yet, these job seekers are demanding salaries of between RM3,500 and RM6,500, deemed “unrealistic” by many quarters in the survey last month. regional communications head Simon Si was quoted in a news report that 68 per cent of the employers in the survey said fresh graduates were asking too high a salary for first jobs. This, he said, meant that there was a gap between what companies were willing to pay and what the candidates wanted to be paid.

I know when I entered the job market as a journalist 40 years ago, I was being paid a mere tenth of what fresh graduates are asking for now. But that was then when it was 40 sen fare on a minibus and roti canai was 30 sen each. A double-storey four-bedroom terrace house in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur cost RM60,000. It was also then when we were in awe of workers getting RM4,000 a month, always saying in envy: “Jangan main, dia gaji empat ribu sebulan.” (Don’t joke, he makes RM4,000 a month.) Now, if that’s what you earn, you will probably be part of the urban poor.

The argument brings me back to Zahra, whom I wrote about several months back. Zahra, or Azzahra Razly, spoke profoundly at the Malay Economic Action Council Summit 2015 about the struggles of a meagre salary earner in Kuala Lumpur.

She said: “I am Zahra, 23 years old and a graduate in law from one of the local universities. When I was a student, I always dreamt about life after I graduated. I reckoned a good life with good returns lay ahead so I could plan my future. But now, nearly two years after graduating, I am frustrated. And angry at the fate that has befallen me.”

She went on to bemoan the fact that she was always up against the odds, with not much left in her pocket at the end of the month. And having no means to buy a house, she had to contend with renting and sharing one with seven others.

“I am the future of Malaysia, but I always ask if a person with tertiary education like me can be this poor, what hope is there for other Malaysians, those who didn’t go to university or those not from well-heeled families? I am Zahra and I love Malaysia,” she griped.

Housing will always be a point of contention among young graduates entering the job market. This is ironic since the Khazanah Research Institute report on “The State of Households” last year stated that the rich were getting richer — Malaysians were the top foreign home buyers by transactions in Singapore in 2012; Malaysians were the fourth largest buyers (four per cent) of newly-built London property in 2012; around 7,000 houses costing more than RM1 million were sold in Malaysia each year; and, Malaysians also purchased many luxury cars.

About the same time, low-income earners in the city were badly affected by the severe housing crisis as tens of thousands of them were on a long waiting list for affordable homes. Some have been waiting for more than 20 years to rent a public housing unit. City Hall charges RM90 to rent a one-room flat and RM124 for a three-room flat a month. The low rental has made these units much sought after. Young Malaysians entering the job market are in limbo since they can get neither.

But then again, if we allow fresh graduates to earn RM5,000 salaries, will the floodgates be opened for every other cost to rise and lead to inflation? Their demands could be unrealistic, but their problems are real.

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Syed Nadzri is an award-winning columnist and former NST group editor.

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