Asia School of Business

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Winds of Change in the Malaysian Education Sector


Millennials and Gen Zs are increasingly becoming the main players in the economy. They are the future of our country, but these younger generations face challenges that have never been experienced before. On the education side, did you know that 390,000 out of 560,000 SPM candidates opted to join the workforce immediately after the exam, while the remaining 170,000 students were interested in continuing their studies?

This goes to show that the Malaysian education sector is taking a back seat. Instead, they are eager to earn money as fast as they can and as much as they can. With that in mind, Smart Investor spoke to Dr Sanjay Sarma, the new CEO, president, and dean of Asia School of Business (ASB), to get his insights on his plans at ASB and about the youths.

Dr Sanjay Sarma, CEO, president,and dean of Asia School of Business (ASB

Smart Investor: Congratulations on your appointment as the CEO, President, and Dean of the Asia School of Business. What makes you join this prestigious organization

Dr Sanjay Sarma: Thank you! Several reasons. First, the previous deans, the staff, and the students have built an amazing platform. Second, Malaysia is, in my view, a geopolitical epicenter, given everything happening in supply chains, sustainability, innovation, and energy systems.

Third, the Malaysian education sector will transform in the coming years for many reasons: the growth of online education, the growth of micro-credentials, the emergence of artificial intelligence, and the changes in how we work. With all this, ASB is a unique platform from across the world from which to embrace the future.

SI: What do you plan to achieve during your time here? And what are some of the ideas that you want to push through?

DSS: The points above set the direction. First, I want to double down on a central tenet of ASB: a pedagogy based on action, which we call action-learning. This pedagogy extends to how we deliver materials (we don’t deliver typical ‘lectures’), how classes become studios, and how we engage with the real world.

Second, ASEAN is a fascinating case study in progress with a diversity of all kinds. This includes cultural, economic, geopolitical, biological, and social forms — and our research-oriented faculty continue to deliver great insights on all fronts. I want to expand that.

Third, I would like to increase our focus on the education of working professionals. I believe that the Malaysian education sector cannot end with a degree. At MIT, we called it agile, continuous education. I would like to embrace that mantra — something the School has already made great strides in — and expand it greatly.

SI: How do you see Malaysia’s education compared to its peers in the region?

DSS: What can be done to improve the situation further? I am of the belief that the way we educate has to change quite fundamentally. The rise of tools such as ChatGPT means we need a new class of graduates who can outperform technology.

Education worldwide — Malaysia, China, India, and the US — is not prepared for these challenges. And it needs to evolve and evolve rapidly. We need problem solvers, critical thinkers, and doers to solve the problems we are leaving for the next generation.

SI: With AI gaining traction (ChatGPT as an example), it opens up many possibilities. Instead of asking Google, we can ask AI and get a comprehensive answer. What will this mean to the future of the Malaysian education sector?

DSS: Well, it vividly points out the pole star we should shoot for. What are the things that AI and robotics, and other technologies cannot do that we should be preparing our graduates for? Of course, if we prepare robots, we cannot lament the loss of jobs to robots.

But the human mind is boundless. We must break the curricula we have trapped ourselves in — often remnants of the colonial era — and create people who can provide the creativity, ethical frameworks, and inspiration to take on the rising inventory of challenges.

This might all seem like empty inspirational talk, but our students at ASB have convinced me that we have this potential. And at events we have hosted, such as the International Women’s Day and the Leadership for Enterprise Sustainability Asia (LESA) Conference, we saw precisely the sort of role models we could aspire for.

SI: How do you see the importance of education in today’s youth? Are they still interested in furthering their studies?

DSS: I have never met a young person disinterested in learning. Curiosity is the most fundamental aspect of learning and is impossible to extinguish. I have, however, met many people who are disaffected with how we teach. That’s a different matter; as I said earlier, we need to fix that urgently.

That was true before COVID, climate change concerns, and ChatGPT. It is even more urgent today. As mentioned, at ASB, we are all about action – and I believe classrooms need a more engaging, thought-provoking nature for the next generation to be prepared.

SI: What are the different ways of making money today compared to the ’90s and 2000s? Is higher education still necessary to be making a decent living these days?

DSS: The last century saw the growth of corporations — scale was achieved through size. Now we are seeing the rise of the gig economy. Moreover, more and more approaches to generating income are technology and innovation-driven. Just ask a taxi cab medallion owner from a decade ago who did not see Uber coming.

Subscription models are another trend — services are more and more subscription-driven, whether it is Amazon Prime or Netflix. Living and thriving in this world requires mental agility. Education — done right — is one way to ensure that. You can no longer assume you will be employed for life and live in a company town. You have to become the CEO of your own life. In many ways, the MBA is about that too. (Ergo, ASB).

SI: In your opinion, what’s the major concern on their minds? (unemployment, low salary, high cost of education, the high price of a property, etc)

DSS: All of the above, but we also see a much greater emphasis on social, and indeed planetary, good. I recommend reading about the Ubuntu philosophy: “I am because we are.” Young people are similar to young people a generation ago, with one key difference — a sense of the collective good.

SI: What are your thoughts on YOLO (you only live once) and the financial independence, retire early (FIRE) movement that is hugely popular with the youths?

DSS: We live in an era of unicorns. That drives this partly. But unicorns are mythical creatures, and the valuations of some of these unicorns have been mythical too. How can a young person who lives in this era not be tempted? I don’t blame them, though I don’t recommend it. It’s no different from buying lottery tickets today; these young people must bet everything in that YOLO moment. It is up to educational professionals to draw them back into reason and away from betting their lives away.

SI: Are the youths of today more financially savvy? And where do they normally invest?

I don’t believe they are more or less than a generation ago. It’s just the opportunities are different. They live in a far stormier sea and are often likely to bet on extremes (swing for the fence, as Americans might say). Crypto is an example. Again, it comes down to educators to fix the Malaysian education sector so that our youth enter the next decade prepared to take on the challenges we are leaving them.

SI: Any advice to the youths out there facing the future?

DSS: Money chases intelligence, not impulsiveness, and luck sides the brave, not the reckless. Education can help you find the dividing lines.

We would like to wish Dr Sanjay Sarma and ASB all the best!