Why Interns Get Paid So Little In Malaysia And What You Can Do If You're One Of Them

There's a mismatch between what interns think they can offer and how much employers value them.

Ever feel like you’re getting paid almost nothing to do almost everything as an intern?

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You work 40 hours (and OT) just like your colleagues, have to endure being the butt of all intern jokes, and end up eating Maggi everyday because that’s the only thing you can afford with your measly allowance.

A simple search on JobStreet.com or Glassdoor.com will give you a rough idea of how much interns in Malaysia earn—usually between RM300 to RM1,000

Interns in F&B or hospitality may get around RM300 monthly, while those in media or advertising can expect to receive around RM500. Working in banks, bigger MNCs, and tech companies could give you a higher salary upwards of RM700, but it is also dependent on which company you apply to.

Nevertheless, there are interns who earn less than that, and some whose internships are unpaid.
 Even if you're fortunate enough and don't have to pay rent, your internship allowance still may not be enough to cover basic needs like transport and food.

While it's usual for interns around the world to get low or no pay, in recent times we have seen people stepping out to challenge this convention

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Just a few months ago, 55,000 students in Canada staged a week-long protest against unpaid internships by walking out of their classes and boycotting their ongoing internships. Essentially, these students were unhappy they were “paying the educational institution for the privilege to work for free”.

By definition, an internship could technically be paid or unpaid:

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In Malaysia, while interns may be expected to do tasks similar to a full-time employee, the focus should be "primarily for [the intern's] own benefit". The main goal is for interns to gain real-world experience related to their field of study. Often, internships are part of university course requirements, although they can be done on a voluntarily basis.

Whether an internship is paid or unpaid is completely up to employers—who are not required by law to pay interns who have not entered into a "contract of service".

While most companies in Malaysia do pay their interns, certain industries are more prone to having unpaid internships. For instance, medical students who intern in hospitals usually do not get paid. Interns with a background in culinary arts also often find themselves in the same boat.

If unpaid or low-wage internships are said to be the norm, why is there a mismatch of expectations between what interns think they can offer and what employers think of them?

It's common for Malaysian employers to perceive interns as “short-term, unskilled, and student-minded”. According to the recruiting experts at Hays Malaysia, the main reason why companies pay interns so little is because they “bring less experience and skills to the table” than their full-time counterparts.

On the flip side, interns often believe they have so much to offer. This mismatch of expectations causes frustration on both sides. Interns feel undervalued, and employers feel interns are not worth the investment of their time, effort, or money.

So how can we bridge the gap between employers and interns?

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It will take a paradigm shift from both sides, but it can definitely start from raising the bar of our interns in Malaysia.

If you are an intern or are looking for an internship, here is how you can make a difference:

1. Be resourceful

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Your supervisor's role is to supervise, not babysit. You don't need to come in knowing everything, but it's up to you to pick up skills and solve problems. The faster you can do that, the sooner you'll do meaningful work.

2. Be vocal

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Many interns come and go without leaving an impression. You may feel insecure about speaking up, but companies actually appreciate the fresh perspective you bring. So don't worry about saying the wrong thing; speak up and make your presence felt!

3. Be hungry

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Seriously though, never stop asking questions. Understand why things are done a certain way, and take the initiative to explore and go beyond what you're tasked to do. This kind of drive is what elevates you from intern-level to potential-full-timer.

4. Be sociable

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Sometimes, it's less about what you can do as an intern, and more of who you are as a person. As you try your best to impress and stand out, don't neglect the relational aspect of work—people like working with people they like.

Whether you're interning to fulfill course requirements or on voluntary basis, when companies begin to see your value, that's when you'll be entrusted to do work with real business impact

"If you’re an intern, make sure you fight back on the work you’ve been given to do and try seeking out work that adds value to the company you’re with. Over time, companies will start to see the value of having good interns and naturally raise the [salary] bar," says Tracy Yap, HR Manager at General Electric.

While most hiring managers acknowledge that the internship culture is still not very strong in Malaysia, companies can also be a part of the solution

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After spending over three years as Piktochart's People Success Officer, Shen Dee has found one of the secrets to having good interns—treating them like full-time employees.

"Employers who treat interns like full-time employees will motivate them to go the extra mile, which is a win for the company. It can also save the employer’s time in hiring if the intern proves themselves to be capable."

Here at SAYS, we pride ourselves in our internship program, and we have interns from various backgrounds coming in all-year long

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You don't have to be a writer to work at SAYS! We've had people from aerospace engineering, medicine, biology, and even fashion design who have joined the team.

"We love our interns at SAYS and treat them like our full-timers in the office. When you give interns ownership, they will believe in what they do and take the initiative to discover new things. We’ve offered many of our interns a permanent position and we love it when they become full-timers!" says Judith Yeoh, Head of Content and Editorial at SAYS.

Ultimately, your internship could turn out to be one of the best times in your career

So, don't sweat the salary for now. It won't matter much if you're earning a few hundred ringgit less than your friends. Because five years down the road, it's your learning experience and people you've met along the way that will make all the difference.

If you wanna intern at SAYS, send your CV to [email protected] and you'll hear from us pretty soon!

Image via SAYS

#HireMeLah is a personal growth series to help young Malaysians be the best they can at their workplace. In the series, we interview directors, hiring managers, and employees across Malaysia, and bring you the best tips to advance in your career.

Send over your stories/tips/advice to [email protected] for a chance to be featured. Special shoutout to shinL for the pretty illustrations! :D

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