The luxurious RM2,500 salary

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That was back in the 1980s, and little has changed in salary levels since. Adrian Lee reflects on the lot of fresh graduates today.

An individual earning RM2,500 per month could live luxuriously. That amount of money helped to buy a European car, a double-storey semi-detached house, trolleys of groceries, and an annual overseas trip – and there would still be some left over for savings.

No, I’m not dreaming. I am instead pondering upon these words by a senior colleague. According to her, a salary of that amount enabled her to afford such a lifestyle in the 1980s.

Owning a foreign car, living in an expansive house and enjoying nutritious food wasn’t considered luxurious. That was the purchasing power of a fresh graduate then. Perhaps the amount was lower than RM2500. Nevertheless, she lived comfortably.

Fast-forward to today. We find ourselves exactly three-and-a-half years away from 2020. Many still think that the vision of becoming a high-income nation – equal to say, Singapore – is still achievable.

Put simply, by 2020, Malaysians regardless of race, religion or region would be earning three to four times their current salary and be able to buy the best things in life.

Working in academia, my students constantly ask me: what is the salary of a fresh graduate? On one hand, I wouldn’t want to be disheartening. And yet, I wouldn’t want to sound too promising.

I compromise by informing them that I too started by earning less than RM2,000. But that was back then, they quip. Which leaves me wondering, has the situation really changed?

I started working at 17, waiting tables at a pizza franchise. My first pay cheque of about RM800 made me feel like a millionaire. I felt I could buy anything I wanted. And then reality hit.

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Earning money was difficult. No holidays during festive seasons. No sick days. No complaining. I worked long hours, was burnt by pizza pans, and reprimanded by customers and managers. Waiting tables should be categorised as a 3D job.

Form Six and the Bachelors degree came and went, along with the experiences of waiting tables, working in kitchens, making calls as a telemarketer, giving tuition, working in a gym, and earning a living in the media industry.

My first official “fresh graduate” pay cheque was about RM1,600, which doesn’t seem to differ much from today.

Today, most employers seek vibrant, dynamic graduates who are fresh (pun intended). Although academic excellence remains essential, higher value is placed on graduates who have the right working attitude, extra skills, good portfolios and relevant experience.

Forget about glowing recommendation letters. After all, has anyone actually read a bad one before?

Employers are mostly interested in how much money an employee can make. The more income one generates without bringing much risk to the company, the better. One word: capitalism.

Employers, however, lament about fresh graduates who come and go as they please, without having respect for the company, for their employers and their time.

Amongst the main grouses is that graduates feel entitled to higher salaries while refusing to work long hours. Many suppose that they are an entitled generation for they’ve been given things without having to work for them. The working world thus becomes a rude awakening and complete shock to the wallet.

The blame is shifted to universities for failing to produce capable employees for the workforce. But universities don’t just award academic scrolls; they are places where minds are nurtured so that graduates can capably contribute to improving society.

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Yet, there is only so much universitiescan do – for there are superfluous restrictions and limitations that bind. And despite their stressing the need to speak English, pick up extra skills, compile a portfolio and cultivate proper attitudes, the ‘tidak apa’ mentality eventually reigns supreme among many.

As tens of thousand of fresh graduates enter the workforce annually, competition grows increasingly difficult. The onus is thus upon the individual to improve and earn a better salary. Do you stand out among this crowd?

Importance shouldn’t be placed on the amount one earns but on the value of money. Although a fresh graduate’s salary does not stretch that far in today’s economy, it can provide a necessary lesson about appreciating money.

No doubt, things have become more than expensive than ever, and RM2,500 doesn’t really buy much. Given today’s economy, how much is really enough?

While grumbling about how low one’s salary gains some sympathy on social media, even more essential is learning to accept rejection and criticism and handling work pressure. The working world is a difficult place where it is not easy to earn money.

A career starts at the bottom rung of the ladder. The journey to the top is difficult, but perseverance, patience and proficiency can help. Those who work smart, enrich themselves with knowledge and skills, and engage in effective networking will have an advantage.

Sure, my salary still doesn’t allow me to party and needlessly spray champagne on socialites aboard a yacht. But knowing that it was gained honestly and that many of my former students have changed their destiny and made their way up the social ladder has made it no less a windfall.

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