Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia, JOHOR
1. Assoc. Prof. Ts. Dr. Azeanita Suratkon (Fac. of Civil & Built Environment); email@example.com
2. Prof. Ir. Dr. Chee-Ming Chan (Fac. of Engineering Technology); firstname.lastname@example.org
3. Prof. Ts. Dr. Alina Shamsuddin (Fac. of Technology Management); email@example.com
A ‘used future’ out of complacency
The Malaysian construction industry is valued to be worth USD 27.7 billion in market size (www.globaldata.com, June 2023), with a positive projection of medium- to long-term steady growth irrespective of the recent and near-term challenges, incoming from both internal and external sources (www.businesswire.com, Jan 2023). Growth in the next 5 years is expected to be 8.55%, recording a bullish USD 53.52 billion by 2028 (www.mordorintelligence.com, Sep 2023).
In-house, the Department of Statistics (DoSM) reported 8.1% year-on-year in the value of work done in the second quarter, Q2 of 2023, which translated to RM 32.4 billion, largely supported by the continuous double-digit growth of the civil engineering sector in the period, i.e., 17.2% in Q1 and 10.4% in Q2. With a strong Asian tradition in a uniquely multi-racial yet close-knit society, it is perhaps not surprising as the economy picked up, though sluggishly, that RM 7.3 billion worth of work was completed for residential buildings, a rebound of 6.9% from negative 2.2% in the preceding quarter. Also, infrastructure development constituted a huge bulk of the construction work done, charting 37.4% valued at RM 12.1 billion for projects on roads, railways and other major facilities. An excerpt of Malaysia’s construction industry mid-year growth and outlook by DOSM is shown in Figure 1.
No doubt, all these paint a bright, sunny picture of the nation’s construction industry. The underlying concern in the seemingly calm waters is that we are still adopting the old ways of managing and developing the sector. These include conventional working methods, inflexible policies and guidelines, cumbersome funding schemes, dependence on foreign labour supply, and sluggishness in new technology or skills adoption. Such ignorant complacency would undoubtedly stifle progress and growth of the industry, let alone take the nation’s construction industry over leaps and bounds as forerunners in the region or the world. In short, running business as usual round the clock to minimise disruption of the status quo inevitably raises the risks of entrapping the industry in a ‘used future’ before it is even here, foreseeable at a standstill.
Under the microscope…
The truth is, we are all under surveillance. Like fish in an aquarium, the construction industry government authorities are open to public scrutiny for the policies, guidelines, rules and regulations introduced. Like birds in a cage, the construction industry practitioners, from developers, consultants, contractors, suppliers and other related professionals, are subjected to observation for the efforts and services rendered. Like flowers in a garden, universities and research institutions are not beyond the judging eyes of the public on contributions towards the continual growth of the industry via creativity and innovation.
What is being portrayed at present may not be that palatable, yet as the old Chinese saying goes, good medicine almost always bitterly stings! Arguably, no one party is to be held responsible for the dismal situation, for the construction industry is one of the most multi-disciplinary and intricately complex sectors involving many personnel from different areas of expertise. As such, the way forward would require the concerted and coordinated effort of all parties, i.e., industrial practitioners, government authorities and learned institutions of academic and research background (Figure 2). Outlined in the following paragraphs are 5 primary strategies that could be jointly espoused by all involved in the construction industry for the shared, greater good of the nation’s backbone economic sector (Figure 3).
Figure 3. A strategic action framework to create the future construction industry.
Rejuvenation strategies as the way forward
The old working methods have got to go. Creativity-driven innovation is necessary to revive the industry’s working methods. The collection of records over time in paper form must be replaced with an organised, retrievable archiving system. Paper trails in major projects involving various parties, big and small, have become too complex for manual handling and correct record-keeping. Construction works, which often unfold at multiple levels concurrently and intercepted with myriad variations and changes along the way, can only be addressed with real-time data management. This would, in turn, ensure that documentation is complete and correct, with timely dissemination among all involved for precise actions and planning to minimise excessive time as well as monetary consumption in completing the works. To this end, the learning and adoption of BIM is an excellent example of a synchronised work monitoring and progress management system which encompasses every personnel involved in a project at any stage of the work progress while having the advantage of finetuning decisions under seamless coordination. Universities and practitioners have demonstrated commendable teamwork in this aspect, where BIM is embedded in the existing curriculum, with optional advanced training made available to students at minimal costs made possible by the university-industry cooperation.
Unruffled conveyance of policies and guidelines. Existing policies and guidelines may be carved in stone, but even the hardest rocks weather under the elements with time. Progressive reviews and revisions of the books, so to speak, need to be undertaken at much more frequent intervals in the present fast-paced, ever-evolving industrial network. It follows that enforcement and adoption of the revamped documents should run in tandem with the industry’s growth and not be burdened by lengthy implementation directives and procedures. The transition ought to take place on a rapid revolving-door mechanism, where amendments to the policies or guidelines move from the administrative desks to the buzzing site with minimal hiccups, if any. A key success factor to this smooth delivery and implementation process is a thorough review exercise with realistic simulations conducted prior to the issuance of the new directives. This is where universities and the industrial players, from policymakers and governing bodies to end users of the policies or guidelines, must act in unison at the drawing board and simulation platform. Blind spots and oversight could then be effectively identified and addressed to formulate the most comprehensive revisions. Also, with prompt inputs by the practitioners, this synchronous approach enables policymakers to bridge any foreseeable gaps between the desk study and field execution, which leads to fewer loopholes in the system, warranting back-tracking with a dismal impact on the industry.
Funding mechanisms free of malpractices. The existing funding mechanism, especially for the mega government construction projects, could be cumbersome with too many dark corners for financial misconduct, intentionally or not. The lengthy and complicated multi-stage process has inevitably introduced openings for dishonest acts to thrive. Monitoring and checking could be superficial and ineffective as the resource-intensive exercise itself is usually bound by red tape and confidentiality constraints. Moreover, having the funds transiting through too many hands of various offices means the additional time required for redundant paperwork, which further delays the disbursement of funds. As a result, with delinquent payments and behind-time remittance, work progress would be impeded, and the project overall would sink deeper into the vicious cycle of hold-ups. Without a flexible finance system for such large-scale projects, designers, contractors, and suppliers will all be hard-pushed for the prompt completion of their respective works, excused by late payouts. The overall impact would be unnecessarily prolonged work phases on site, leading to potentially compromised work quality, works relegated to the back burner and inflation-induced price hikes burdening the client. While it is acknowledged that the utmost caution is rudimentary for fund management, the current practice is apparently lacking the agility suited for the constantly evolving industry landscape. It is, therefore, imperative for financial institutions and universities to work hand in hand with the government and industrial players to examine the system thoroughly with the aim of eliminating corrupt practices and time wastage for fund disbursement in a straightforward, foolproof manner.
An overly outsourced field workforce. Over-reliance on foreign labour to thrust the nation’s construction industry forward has proven to be catastrophic in the post-pandemic era. The recall of their respective citizens and the introduction of more stringent working abroad policies have clearly disrupted Malaysia’s infrastructure development works. Besides, the aggressive economic advancement and revised foreign investment schemes of neighbouring countries have both thinned out overseas investments and stiffened competition for the workforce available in Malaysia. The continued straining of the construction sector with this labour shortage would only drag the nation’s economic aspirations into deep lows, demanding onerous government intervention and incentives, which would further dampen the rebound of the economy. Consequentially, the now much-limited employment capacity of small- and medium-scale contractors due to the sector’s sluggish recovery has further dampened the recovery rate in general. This no-win situation can only be resolved with the nation becoming self-sufficient in terms of skilled and semi-skilled workers, fulfilling the numbers and qualifications needed to sustain the construction industry. It is, therefore, of critical urgency that Technical and Vocational Education and Training, more commonly known as TVET, provided at institutions of higher learning be given due attention and support to grow the workforce in-house. Unfortunately, recognition of the unique emphasis of TVET programmes on the hands-on and practical side of the disciplines, especially for performing on-site troubleshooting and engineering analysis, is often lacking among the relevant stakeholders. Indeed, the unfair and inaccurate comparison between engineering technology and engineering programmes must be avoided at all costs to effectively eliminate the miscomprehension of the former being sub-standard and second class. Only with the respect, recognition and collective support restored to TVET programmes and graduates can the nation’s construction industry envisage and realise a future of a liberalised, self-sufficient workforce of homegrown origins.
Contemporise the outlook of local builders. The tendency of local contractors to minimise costs in all ways possible is understandable. Still, it is detrimental to the industry as a whole if some of the justifications for cost-cutting fall short of the works’ quality assurance. This is often exemplified in the small number of employees engaged in the firm, hence overworked and overwhelmed with disproportionate remunerations. Also highlighted frequently is the non-selective manner in taking up jobs on offer, regardless of one’s technical specialisation or expertise and capacity, resulting in shoddy workmanship and ambiguously documented sub-contracted works. It is also a common but unfortunate practice to put off the necessary training of staff for upskilling, retooling and keeping abreast of the emerging technological advancement of the field, all in the name of being spendthrift in these dire times. Apparently, the icing on the cake lies in the compromise of health, safety and environmental preservation or rehabilitation requirements in some builders’ fervent quest for larger returns on investment. All these borderline unethical malpractices add up to a negative-sum game for the employees and industry in general, where the nation’s economy takes the beating from a leaking bucket of subpar construction works, dubious financial management, inequity and inaccessibility to basic personal development opportunities, brain drain and talent loss, among others. Education is perhaps the most obvious solution to this problem, where a revamp of the main industrial players’ mindset begins at school, literally. Scientia potential est, or ‘knowledge is power’ in English, as aptly summarised by Francis Bacon (1561-1262). It gives one the power to distinguish and weigh options, to alleviate and solve trying problems or crises, and to transform every sphere of the living world for the betterment. Universities, with incentives from the government, can team up to empower the workforce to go back to ‘school’ for continued learning and growth in modular formats, such as the micro-credential model. To stay in the game, an employer would need to enrich the firm’s most valuable asset, i.e. the staff, for the winner hails from those who know the rules and play by the rules of the day. Adoption of ethical and sound practices, regular upgrading of staff’s technical competencies and aptitude, association with contemporaries for knowledge and skills exchange, and staying in touch with current technological provisions would take companies a long way into the bright future.
Epilogue: Staying relevant in time to come
In a nutshell, to ensure the sustainability and resilience of Malaysia’s construction industry, tight-knit cooperation among industrial practitioners, academic and research institutions, and government authorities lies at the heart of its future. A 5-pronged strategic plan is elaborated to replace the burdensome old systems with a flexible and adaptable multi-disciplinary close-loop coordination approach, supported by a radical but positive mindset shift among industrial players, underlain with a reliable workforce created and grown locally. The transformation would take time, but a baby step time beats an extended, gigantic standstill. Let’s roll, Malaysia!
Construction Research Institute of Malaysia (CREAM)
Department of Statistics, Malaysia (DoSM)