Better Employment Opportunities & Advancement

Being known as the land below the wind, Sabah is definitely a world of endless opportunities. Surrounded by the sea, and blessed with rich resources on land, Sabah is the land of untapped potential, where local communities thrive in diversity. With every passing year, more and more people join the state’s labour force. In 2019, Sabah recorded 2,025,700 new labourers1. Young local graduates prefer to stay in Sabah for work. A study found that 96% of respondents are willing to remain in the state post-graduation and only 3% wanted to seek work opportunities in Peninsular Malaysia2.

Key Issues Affecting The Employment Opportunities & Advancement In Sabah

Highest Unemployment Rate In Malaysia

Despite the state being the sixth-largest contributor to Malaysia’s GDP in 2019, Sabah has a labour force participation rate of only 70%². Its unemployment rate is the highest in the country at 5.8%². Youth unemployment in Sabah was at 14%. Sabah also has the highest poverty rate (19.5%) in the nation and the unemployment crisis continues to put families into financial insecurity.

  • Essential workers, service and sales jobs make up the majority of Sabah’s workforce. This is followed by workers in agriculture, forestry, farming and aquaculture industries1. Whilst these sectors are extremely important in maximising Sabah’s economic potential, the majority of the work only provides opportunities for semi-skilled and low-skilled labour3. These jobs tend to have a lower starting salary and less advancement opportunities. 

Low Salaries And High Cost Of Living

The majority of Sabahans hold formal job employments (60.3%), while others are self-employed (31.4%) and the remaining live on current transfers such as donations, aids and grants, official assistance, and pensions (8.3%)⁴.

  • According to DOSM, the average Sabahan makes RM5,745 per month. This number is higher for urban communities and lower for the rural ones4. However, nearly half of households (46.8%) in Sabah still earn below RM4,000. Of that number, 34.3 % of households earn within the RM2,000 – RM3,999 income range. Mean income varies based on location, years of experience, and education level. For example, Kota Kinabalu residents have an average household income of RM7,665, whereas Pitas residents earn much lower, RM3,378.4 
  • Granted that those with lower education qualifications are able to slowly increase their salaries with an annual increment of 4% based on gained experience or 11% should they obtain higher education2, there is hope when looking at income alone. 
  • The general assumption that the cost of living in urban areas are more expensive than less developed states may not be true. This is the case in Sabah where the cost of living is high, however the state is not completely urbanised. 
  • In 2019, the national PLI was revised higher from RM908 in 2016 (based on the previous methodology) to RM2,208. As a result, the absolute poverty rate has jumped from 0.4% in 2016 to 5.6% in 2019.5
  • According to Emir Research, the Poverty Line Index (PLI) varies in different states as it is calculated based on the cost of living, purchasing power,  income level of households to purchase food and non-food items at minimal level and just enough to survive. Sabah and Labuan had the highest PLI at RM2,537 and RM2,633 respectively. This shows the cost of living in East Malaysia is by no means low6
  • The reality is compounded by the fact that minimum wage in the state has and continues to be low at RM1,100-RM1,2006.

Child Labor In Sabah

A child that sets aside their education to work is limiting their potential in the long run. They will most likely continue the cycle of unskilled labour, low pay, and poverty. Yet it is a common occurrence for children from low-income families in Sabah to start working at a young age⁷. In 2018 alone, the state had the highest labour force participation rate among 15 – 19 years olds with 143,800 youth employed⁷.

  • Sabah’s children were dropping out of school as they were unable to pay for school fees and school-related expenses. Instead many found low skilled jobs that could provide them with enough money to get by. Three in ten children were working to support their families. Of this three in five children (61%) were employed in the plantation sector7. Other popular fields for child labour include agriculture, services, and construction7.

Stateless Children Not Granted Education

The state is known for its large stateless (undocumented) population. Some are former Filipinos, Bajau Laut, Indonesian plantation workers, as well as irregular migrants from Indonesia and the Philippines who have visited the state and settled here. Despite multiple generations, children from stateless families are not granted the same education opportunities as Malaysians².

  • Non-citizen demographics were the leading population to be out of school on all levels2. By law, even if stateless children are born in Malaysia and given a birth certificate, it’s not enough to access public education2. As private education is too costly, and public education is off-limits, stateless children can only learn via Alternative Learning Centers (ALCs) run by NGOs or faith groups, even then, few attend. 
  • Whilst ALCs provide primary & pre-primary education and run by trained and certified educators, only one in four ALCs are free2. Other ALCs impose a tuition fee, which is most necessary to keep the organization going2. Unfortunately, ALCs do not always provide certification or proof of education, recognised by the local government. Meaning, although children are allowed to learn, they are not guaranteed employment.


Movers and shakers who are creating employment in Sabah


Visually designed data for you to share, be informed and start conversations with your friends.

Universal Healthcare For All In Sabah

Equal Education Opportunity For All In Sabah

Better Employment Opportunities & Advancement In Sabah

Challenges In Restoring The Identity Of The Stateless In Sabah

Closing The Digital Divide In Sabah

Explore Our Sources

  1. DOSM. (2019). Laporan Sosioekonomi Negeri Sabah 2019. Link. 
  2. SabahJobs. (2019). Sabah Employment Report 2019 – 2020. Link. 
  3. A. Yeo. (2020). Budget 2021 can address the issue of jobless youths in Sabah. Focus Malaysia. Link. 
  4. DOSM. (2019). Household Income And Basic Amenities Survey Report By State And Administrative District. Sabah 2019. Link. 
  5. MyPF. (2020). Malaysia’s Poverty Line Income Revised. Link.
  6. Sofea Azahar. (2020). Mismatch between wages and cost of living. Emir Research. Link. 
  7. UNICEF. (2019). Children Out Of School. The Sabah Context. Link. 

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