KUALA LUMPUR: Life was turned upside down for Chris Hew when she was fired from her business development manager role in a travel agency earlier this year.
She had been in the travel industry for almost all her working career and worked in various travel agencies.
When the Malaysian government first announced a movement control order (MCO) on Mar 18, no one would have expected that the restriction order and border lockdown would last longer than two weeks.
Hew’s company announced a temporary closure almost immediately. She was prepared for the worst, to be laid off from her job.
The travel industry was among the biggest hit by COVID-19. The Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry estimated RM9 billion (US$2.17 billion) of losses faced by industry players, including hotels, transport, shopping, business events, as well as food and beverage.
“I would say, first thing, (I was feeling) scared then confused because somehow or rather we were expecting that we were going to be let go. To really hear the news was tough. I think it took me about a week to dive into the news. Afterwards, then it was time to think what's next,” she said when interviewed by CNA.
“This is the biggest and toughest challenge we have faced in this travel industry. We've been through Bali bombing, SARS, some of the natural disasters but we came back very quickly. It could be like a few months but this MCO is tough. We cannot know when we will come back, when we can come back,” Hew said.
In a written reply to the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim during the parliamentary session in August, Human Resources Minister M Saravanan said that as of Jul 31, 49,179 people were retrenched. Out of this, 37,838 people were permanently retrenched while 11,341 people opted for the Voluntary Separation Scheme (VSS).
According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, the number of unemployed Malaysians reached 826,100 or 5.3 per cent in May this year. The highest unemployment rate in the country was recorded at 7.4 per cent back in 1986.
However, the number of unemployment cases is showing a downtrend with 10 per cent reduction in Loss of Employment (LOE) claims recorded in July. The figure was 16,660 people, compared to 18,579 people in June, according to the Social Security Organisation (SOCSO).
CNA spoke to five Malaysians who lost their jobs amid COVID-19. As they struggled with their circumstances, these people who are in the Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMET) category took a leap of faith to reskill, venturing into uncharted territory.
At the same time, the Malaysian government has rolled out various initiatives under the Prihatin and Penjana stimulus packages such as wage subsidy programme, employment retention programme and hiring initiatives called PenjanaKerjaya to promote job creation among employers.
VENTURING INTO DIGITAL MARKETING
Hew, 42, is currently staying with her mother and younger sister in Kuala Lumpur. She was afraid to speak to her friends about her situation, fearing negative perceptions.
However, she signed up for a digital marketing course a month after being unemployed while browsing for courses on Facebook.
She recounted that the initial part of her reskilling journey was difficult and overwhelming. Moving out of her comfort zone, Hew later continued in the advanced digital marketing course.
She said she was struck by the attitude of an older coursemate.
“The oldest one in the community that I know quite well is about 60 over (years old) and he is a legend. He (will) always tell us that you are never too old to learn.
“For him to learn new things, it's hard. We are learning how to do websites, how to funnel pages, all these kinds of things... He told us not to give up. He said if he can do it, you can do it,” Hew said.
To assist those who have lost their jobs, SOCSO was allocated RM1.5 billion (US$361 million) in the "Hiring and Training Assistance for Businesses" programme in collaboration with the Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF). It is expected to benefit 300,000 people.
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In a statement to CNA, SOCSO said that the training initiative will also have provisions for reskilling or upskilling training programmes provided for the newly appointed employees – all workers regardless of age including people with disabilities. The training fee of up to RM4,000 for each eligible worker is also covered by the government.
On Sep 2, Malaysian Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz gave an update on the implementation of the Penjana Stimulus Package. He said that 20,574 people have benefitted from the employment incentive and training assistance by the government.
Hew said she tried to apply for government aid under the National Prihatin Aid, but her application was rejected because her previous salary did not qualify her to receive the aid.
She is still searching for a job amid her digital marketing training and hopes to apply her new skills should there be opportunities for her to return to the travel industry.
“Digital marketing applies to all businesses. (Maybe) one day I can return to the travel industry… I can apply the digital marketing part. There are possibilities everywhere,” Hew said.
FROM SELLING REAL ESTATE TO CHAR SIEW
Sharing the same situation as Hew, young Malaysian couple Justin Yong, 30 and Shervin Cheong, 36, have just welcomed their newborn baby last December.
The lockdown in Malaysia during the early phases of MCO gave them an opportunity to recalibrate their lives.
Yong was a real estate negotiator for the past eight years, while doubling up as a contractor to renovate homes for expatriates seeking homes in the luxury properties of Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur.
When the MCO was enforced, what was an initial two weeks later became several months. Yong had no income to support his young family and decided to start new.
The family was living in an apartment. They later rented a terrace house near Petaling Jaya in Selangor to start a char siew or Chinese barbecued pork venture.
Yong and Cheong now operate a weekend-based business venture together called "Tiok Tiok" - a made-to-order Chinese charcoal barbecued pork. The name of their venture is the Cantonese word for the chopping motion.
He admitted that opening a new business to sell barbecued pork was out of his comfort zone, because he did not expect that he would be doing this kind of work again.
Yong had helped in his father’s restaurant, preparing barbecued pork during his younger days. The restaurant closed about three to four years ago.
“It's not a glamorous job with cooking char siew and all that... It gets very hot and tiring,” Yong said.
“The good thing I see in this is that thankfully, I have my wife to help me. Without her, I wouldn't be able to start it so soon,” Yong said.
He added: “Things are definitely bad. I know things will probably not improve very much in time. I meet a lot of people who are bankers, big business owners and people from many different industries. They are suffering as well.”
As for Cheong, she opted for a VSS from her company as a marketing manager in a tile manufacturing company in July. She has been in the workforce for about 12 years, spending eight years in advertising and the last four years in her former company in marketing.
She said the MCO came as a shock.
“We totally didn't expect the MCO. We knew that there was this virus affecting the world but I didn't see that it was serious at that point in time. During the MCO, I was actually quite worried, not only about my work but also my baby because he's still very fragile.
“I'm worried about how he can survive this. What if anything happens to us? What if we're really that unlucky,” Cheong recounted.
Yong shared that their char siew has been well received by friends and family. During the first week of operations, they sold up to 34 boxes of char siew. A box of 500g of char siew costs RM45.
Cheong does not plan to return to her previous work in the manufacturing industry. She wants to focus on growing the char siew business with her husband.
Yong, however, is hopeful about the real estate sector. He believes that more expatriates will be coming in as the lockdown eases.
“Hopefully things will ease up a little bit and they will come back again and we can have more business. We have more expats coming in already, but they will have to complete their mandatory quarantine first before we can start searching for houses,” he noted.
“Things have changed a little bit with technology. When they come, they have a better idea and can make a faster decision.”
“I FELT LIKE I WAS BETRAYED”
Ahmad Farid Mat Misiah, 39, was just two months into his new job in a Singapore company working on a Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) project, when he was let go during the MCO.
His company had asked him to work from his home in Johor Bahru and he did not see the MCO coming.
“My boss in Singapore asked me to return to Malaysia immediately and just work from home... because during that time the oil and gas industry had a double whammy, (which) means we got COVID-19 and we got lower oil prices,” the father of four recounted.
“Basically my project (was) being deferred until an unknown date... In April, they gave me a termination notice and one month's pay as compensation.”
He remembered being numb as he received the news.
“At first, I didn't feel anything. It was like I lost my ability to think… I felt like I was betrayed by my boss because he's supposed to take care of me for six months but unfortunately it was only for two months.”
Ahmad Farid added: “After that, we had a long talk. He was also very sorry about what had happened. He tried as much as he could but it was not under his control. I don't want to blame him totally.”
His wife was a source of comfort. “She was very supportive, she's very optimistic. She said she believed in me to get a new job, or to get something to bring money into the home. I was very lucky to have her as my partner,” Ahmad Farid said.
He did not inform his parents about being unemployed, fearing that they will feel the pressure and blame him for leaving a stable job he held in Kuala Lumpur to work in Singapore.
During the lockdown, Ahmad Farid reconnected with his friends via weekly video conferences. He felt that the calls were most helpful to muster his strength going through hard times.
“They even asked whether I needed some help, in terms of financial or moral (support),” he recounted.
He began to take up online courses, focusing on digital transformation. He has tried to give consultancy services to friends and some businesses in project management, leveraging his experience as project manager in the oil and gas industry.
He is now working in his friend’s company as a project manager offering services on digital transformation.
He admitted that it was not that easy for him to transition into a new industry.
“It's not very easy because I came from the oil and gas industry. We don't normally use these 'digital' (tools),” he said.
“So, by adopting this digital transformation, I tried to connect it to the oil and gas industry. I know some processes in the oil and gas industry can be improved by digital transformation.”
In future, should Ahmad Farid return to the oil and gas industry, he hopes to introduce digital improvements. He also believes that he can help various companies in their digital transformation, not just the oil and gas industry.
EVENTS COORDINATOR TURNED BARBER
Another Malaysian who picked up a new skill after the pandemic rendered him jobless was Jude Lorson, 29.
The Klang native owned an events company which he started two years ago, but the COVID-19 lockdown meant multiple projects were cancelled. He incurred around RM30,000 of losses.
“It was really hard, there was anxiety at some points (and) you get depressed.
“You are just at home, thinking about what was going to happen. I was mentally stressed during the entire period but one thing good for me was that I moved back (to Klang) to stay with my family,” Lorson told CNA.
He added: “I thought about picking up a new skill, which is something I wanted to do for a long time ... That's why I thought of learning to cut hair, being a barber. I'm a very hands-on person.”
When Malaysia moved into the conditional movement control order (CMCO) in May, Lorson said he was approached by his friend to try out new skills learning to cut hair at a nearby barber shop in Petaling Jaya.
Before that, his first few haircuts started at home. His first two clients? It was his father and his nephew during the lockdown, requested by his family to cut their hair because barbers had to stay shut during the initial stages of the MCO.
Lorson began cutting his senior colleagues’ hair at the nearby barber shop and at times he felt it was even more stressful because they were constantly judging his skills.
“I think it is something that I can pursue in the long term. It is a good industry to be in. You meet all sorts of people and it's a good skill to have,” he said.
When asked about his future plans, he replied that he hopes to go "full swing" in the barber industry and eventually start his own business.
The pandemic and the MCO has affected many small and medium businesses, who face cash flow problems. Their situation was especially dire during the early stages of the MCO when they had to cease operations while the public was ordered to stay at home to break the infection chain.
Responding to CNA’s queries, SOCSO said since applications for the Wage Subsidy Programme (WSP) under the Prihatin Economic Stimulus Package were open on Apr 9, the programme has benefited 2.59 million employees after two months of its implementation.
The programme has since been extended until December.
Following the announcement of the Penjana Economic Recovery Plan, the WSP is set at a flat rate of RM600 per month per employee, for up to 200 workers per company.
The financial assistance programme helped employers to continue their operations to ease the cash flow problems during COVID-19 and protect job security due to headcount costs.
A total of RM5 billion has been allocated for this purpose and is expected to save the jobs of some 2.7 million workers, according to SOCSO.
The department under the Ministry of Human Resources added that from January until Aug 26, its Employment Insurance System (EIS) has received 75,291 applications for benefits to be paid out to workers who lost their jobs.
The manufacturing industry recorded the highest number of EIS claims at 24 per cent, followed by accommodation, food and beverage at 15 per cent.
A job portal by SOCSO, MyFutureJobs was set up in June and saw an overwhelming response of an average of 2,700 job seekers registered and 2,400 vacancies posted on the portal on a daily basis since Penjana was initiated.
A total of 72,893 job seekers have secured employment through the portal, Deputy Human Resources Minister Awang Hashim was quoted as saying by Bernama on Oct 1.
Some of those who lost their jobs had applied for government aid with cash handouts but did not manage to get the assistance because they were disqualified due to eligibility considerations.
For instance, in Hew’s situation, she was turned down but did not know that she could appeal to the Inland Revenue Board to reconsider her application.
In facing difficult challenges ahead, Hew believes that Malaysians can overcome them.
“Whatever challenge we face, if we are on the right mindset, we can overcome it. It has been hard during this MCO.
“It is also a time you reflect on your life, whether you are in the right direction, whether you are at your comfort level, whether you need to improve further on your skills... The important thing is you know that you are looking forward to the future,” she said.