Concerned for Malaysia’s ‘lost generation’

Photo: Filepic/The Star

The Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated all the gaps and crevices that have existed in Malaysian society since time immemorial. What we are experiencing is not necessarily “new”. It is just that the current climate has made old wounds fester again, and we are bleeding quicker than ever.

One particular issue that makes me want to throw a couple of (left blank for your imagination) against the wall is the declining quality of our children’s education.

Many Malaysians have been juggling work, homeschooling, housework, and bored, unhappy children for almost a year. Teachers are drained of enthusiasm, having wracked their brains to accommodate technology and the temperaments of their students and their students’ parents for months. What else can they do?

I teach at the university level. My students are in their early 20s but even I grapple with the lacklustre online environment in every other class. I cannot imagine what it must be like to teach six-year-olds or teenagers.

Teachers, I salute you.

Online learning is hard on everyone but, undeniably, it must be the hardest for those who are unequipped with basic learning skills. What if you have yet to learn how to read and write? Can you do a little bit of math? Surely this would infuriate anyone, let alone a child.

To find out that 1.5 billion children suffer from early school years illiteracy worldwide, and that in that number there are at least over 1,000 Malaysian children breaks my heart. Some of you may not so wrongfully perceive that most Malaysians can read and write, especially if you are from an urbanised state like Selangor or Penang. I am sorry to relay this to you, but according to data collected by the Untuk Malaysia team from January to February 2021, out of the 1,176 schoolchildren that were reported as being unable to read, write or calculate, 35.3% came from Selangor. Another shocking headcount comes from Kuala Lumpur and Johor. It is therefore wrong to assume that illiteracy is geographically determined.

Many studies have been done to look at the long-term impact of school years illiteracy, or illiteracy in general. The general finding is that, if not tackled quickly, illiteracy can lead to many social ills and impediments to personal growth. Individually and collectively, illiteracy is a matter to be taken seriously.

The cohort of students that are academically challenged and who were about to start school in 2020 or who have been kept out of school since are the lost generation. The label is not intended to indicate a permanent state of doom. It is a tool to provoke us into action.

These are young children; the 1,176 in the data collected by Untuk Malaysia comprised primary schoolchildren. They are about six to 12 years old. They have hope and they have a bit of time, but we must be swift and determined in our efforts. The government needs to be held accountable too – this is a matter of national interest.

Among the most prevalent long-term impact that may afflict the lost generation is multigenerational poverty. Data has shown that eight out 10 lost generation children come from a B40 (lower income) households. There are already existing environmental challenges to learning in many B40 households, and the burden of not being able to catch up with lessons online due to the inability to comprehend notes or participate in activities could, as research has shown, encourage children to drop out from school. In other words, children who already live with limited resources and lack fundamental learning skills could very well find schooling to be a waste of time and favour economic undertakings instead.

Illiteracy and dropping out have further ramifications. Unemployment and crimes soar in numbers in countries with high illiteracy rates. The lost generation is less likely to secure stable jobs and may resort to criminal activities to sustain their livelihoods. Children who eventually learn to read and write at a later age, say for instance in secondary school, are still affected as they would have missed out on crucial foundational lessons. This could disrupt their performance in national assessments and, hence, decrease their likelihood of entering universities.

While it is true for some that tertiary education is not the only ticket to financial stability, these “some” are the exception to the rule. We cannot wager our children’s future on a game of chance. The narrowed chances of securing stable employment are detrimental to our economy. It lessens purchasing power of a valuable number of our society and widens the gap between the economic classes.

There are other salient but less explicit consequences to illiteracy. Deprived of essential skills inculcated through education, the lost generation is more likely to fall into a web of social injustice, be unable to participate actively in governance, or be unable to criticise or even identify an unjust system. History has indicated that psychological slavery is most possible when society is intellectually deprived.

Illiteracy is a shackle; it binds a person into a life of destitution with limited options. Imagine, I beg you, imagine these children we are ignoring because they are not ours. I would not be entirely proud of my daughter one day if she were to succeed at the expense of someone else’s child, because she has the privileges which I deny – through my inaction, laziness, arrogance, or ignorance – another child.

Illiteracy is not just a problem for a few individuals but for the whole country. As it is, this beautiful country is hanging by a thread. Everyone is suffering in their unique ways. We have largely become sceptical of the government, so I beg you, do not become sceptical of each other. There is hope, and there is a way for the lost generation.


Untuk Malaysia

Note: Untuk Malaysia is a volunteer organisation that is currently campaigning for the lost generation. Malaysians are encouraged to report, donate or register as changemakers to support this cause. For more information, go to

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schoolchildren , literacy , illiteracy


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