How Startup Culture in Malaysia Takes Advantage of Foreign Talent and Interns

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Startup culture is booming in Malaysia. I’ve come across many who are hoping to make the move from corporate to startup. Why?

“Looks so much fun la! Got table tennis in the office and flexible hours – what more could I want?”

While, sure, a relatively younger culture does contribute to fun activities in the office – table tennis tables, bean bags – they can often be nothing more than a distraction, compensating for problematic, toxic office cultures.

Startups can be a great avenue for fresh grads 

Since graduating, I’ve had the absolute pleasure of working for a handful of tech startups and seeing my mental health rapidly decline as a result.

I often found myself stuck in each of those startups – quitting was never really an option. Honestly? Seeing hordes of unemployed graduates just made me feel glad to have a job.

I thought I’d hit the jackpot 

I was very excited at my first startup. I began as an intern straight out of university, and before my three months were up, I was hired as a permanent staff.

Everything seemed to be lining up. I wouldn’t think anything of the gossip around the office, since I wanted to dedicate myself and be the best employee I could be.

Looking back at that time, I pity myself – so young, so positive, so full of energy to take on the working world and make a difference.

With time, I came to see the real picture.

1. Extending probation periods without cause

Only a month into my tenure, my co-workers were being let go, one after the other. My boss, who was always looking out for me, told me I needn’t worry.

A week later, I was called in and told I was being let go. Since I was still on probation, I was only given two weeks’ notice.

As a fresh grad with a passport from out of the country, this was the worst case scenario. To give you some background, I was born elsewhere, but moved to Malaysia when I was 15 and have lived here since.

So I spoke to my company’s management and requested for an extension. They agreed not to cancel my work visa. But here’s the catch — they wouldn’t pay me.

My parents pledged to support me for a few more months, so I agreed. Not even an intern’s pay – but I’d do it for the allowance to stay in the country.

So I continued to work, as persistently as before, for no pay.

There’s a particular word which comes to mind when you speak of working all day without being paid, and it starts with S and ends with E.

I genuinely enjoyed the work, and I tried to not think about how I may be being taken advantage of, that this may not even be legal.

After the extension period was over, I couldn’t find a job and had to leave the country. Not half a year later, I was called back to join the same startup to replace my boss.

Moving back to Malaysia was a huge task, but I did so on the assurance of a higher salary.

“You’ll get the salary you want, but only after probation, yes? Just for the purpose of formality.”

Three months later, my probation was extended. Not only that, but I was denied the pay I was promised. I was not paid a single cent for working there for 3 months.

I felt horribly demotivated. I know I did my best at work. There was no valid reason for my probation to be extended.

I pleaded with them, that I had only moved back here on the verbally-agreed pay. I said if they denied my pay, my parents would be forced to continue supporting me. But their decision was final.

I wasn’t the only one.

Many of my co-workers’ probations were extended as well, some even up to nine months. The company constantly changed their KPI system, so “not achieving results” was the given reason.

Then, it was brought to light that the company had been falsifying foreign employees’ pay scales.

On their report, the pay scales were artificially raised to fit the work visa requirements — but the real pay scales were much, much lower.

To this day, I have trouble with future employers when I need to show pay slips for proof of employment during those four months.

2. Management-level jobs equipped by inexperienced individuals

They say that you should be your own harshest critic. When it comes to my work experience at that time, I was.

When I was asked to rejoin the company to replace my old boss, I was ecstatic to think that they actually trusted me with the responsibility of an entire department as well as be a boss to several others – after only having a total work experience of six months.

I should have known that that was a red flag in itself. Who was I to lead people beneath me when I hadn’t been exposed to the working world for even a year?

When I was hiring employees to work under me, I was constantly told to keep bargaining to decrease their expected salaries so that it falls below minimum wage – something which took me back to when I was first employed by the company.

“You can promise them a higher pay once they pass probation, just to make them say yes.”

The best people to target were fresh graduates and foreigners, since they aren’t usually aware of their rights as employees, of what should be negotiated for, what they can stand up against.

You might think we would approach the company’s HR in regards to our concerns and treatment – but the company didn’t have one. I’m not even joking.

After the extension of my probation and denial of the salary upgrade I was promised, I came to realise that it had never been about trusting me with the job – it was about knowing they could get me for cheap.

Slap on a ‘manager’ title to keep me satisfied, but ensure that there was an ‘assistant’ before it.

To this day, whenever I attend interviews and speak about my time at that particular startup, it’s confusing for the interviewer when I tell them I was put in charge of managing an entire department at the startup, since my title was only ever Assistant Manager.

Even with my inexperience, I did want to do better, to prove myself. I learnt new skills, Googled things I didn’t know, went for workshops on my own time and cost.

But there’s a reason why most companies seek experienced individuals for management roles – even at my best, I was nowhere close to the expertise the startup should have hired instead. They hadn’t; only because (and rightly so) managers with experience tend to have a high asking salary.

3. Vague job scopes and abused interns

If you’ve been job hunting before, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘sales ninja,’ or seen job descriptions mentioning that you would need to wear ‘multiple hats’ for the position.

By now, I’ve gathered that these are the first potential warning signs concerning a job scope.

Under me, I was eventually made to handle multiple employees as well as interns. Interns were always a must: two, four, six, eight, ten. They’re essentially cheap labour, right? Or at least, it was for the startups I worked for.

During interviews with potential interns, I was to tell them that working for us was an exciting opportunity – they would be exposed to different areas and departments so that their time with us is one of holistic learning.

In reality, the interns would be conducting mind-numbingly boring data entry tasks; eight hours a day, five days a week.

It was the same for the permanent employees who worked under me. Eventually, one of them developed sleeping problems from how redundant and dull the data entry work was, under the guise of a significantly important master project. I felt greatly for her, and for my other interns.

Years later, my ex-interns would tell me that they learnt more about working life during smoke breaks with another department’s manager, not at their office desks.

4. The downsides of a fast-paced environment

Startups are generally known for their fast-paced environment. During the times I went in for a job interview at other tech startups, one of the questions I was asked was,

“Are you accustomed to working in a fast-paced environment? There will always be times where you work on a project day and night, and at the end of the day it’s scrapped. Would you be okay with that?”

The very title ‘startup’ revolves around testing out new products, and continuously building up on them. Due to this, if you aim to work at a startup, having a strong mental backbone is a must.

Disappointment over projects you worked endlessly on being scrapped is a monthly occurrence. While some may be able to handle such times, others might blame themselves and the work that they produced, which can eventually lead to their self-worth spiralling downwards.

Even employed in a management level position, many a time entire projects which I had meticulously planned for were put aside without me or those in charge of them being informed.

Of course, cost is a big factor when trying out new products and projects in a company – but isn’t the advice of those whose expertise lies in that area also important, before taking the step to toss aside all their hard work?

Whether they were experienced or inexperienced, their suggestions and ideas on how to improve the company and its products were always put aside for one reason or another.

5. A fun environment doesn’t usually mean what you think it does

Oftentimes, in order to attract a younger crowd (since they can be paid comparatively less), startups decide to invest in activities such as table tennis tables, bean bags and the like.

Yes, sure, bean bags in the office are great, but the budget used for these could’ve been used for items the company desperately needs.

For example, I had to carry promotional materials in an Aeon trolley because the company refuses to invest in something as minor as their own trolley.

Other tech startups I’ve worked at made the mistake of overestimating their projected revenue and throwing massive annual dinners where every single employee wins a lucky draw – only to be forced to downsize and let go off a quarter of their employees half a year later.

6. A particularly juvenile brand of office politics

The term ‘office politics’ is prominent in most workplaces, in one form or another. However, when it comes to startups, a particularly juvenile brand of office politics tends to exist. 

While, yes, giving a chance to the younger generation and fresh grads in particular is very considerate of startups, a younger crowd of employees can also lead to behaviour which might not exist with older, more experienced employees. 

If the majority of a startup’s employees are in their 20s, they can be thought of as still growing and adapting to the working world. It’s only with experience that you learn how to behave and limit yourselves in the office as compared to outside of it. 

For example, younger employees generally aren’t aware about how to draw the line between being coworkers and friends with someone. That very thin line can lead to mishaps at work; missed deadlines, inefficient work, due to empathising with your friend, and inappropriate flirting. 

Over time, this can blow up and have disastrous effects; not only are you not friends anymore, but due to the continuing tension with each other in the office, one of the employees may decide to just quit. 

 While working at my second startup, I had a very close-knit group of friends. One day, our boss called in each of my teammates and asked us our opinion of one another “solely as co-workers.”

Them being my friends, of course I didn’t want to possibly tarnish our boss’s outlook on them, so I mentioned their minor disadvantages, complimenting them and their work right after.

 A week later – I’m not exactly sure of what happened myself – I was kicked out of WhatsApp groups, shunned, and talked about badly to others.

It took a toll on me to the point where I dreaded every second I was in the office; the environment around me felt so unnervingly toxic that I eventually began sitting elsewhere in the office, isolated on a bean bag.  

Eventually our new boss blamed me for not ‘communicating enough’ with my fellow co-workers. How could I tell my new boss that my co-workers were actively avoiding me in the first place? 

Citing these few reasons, I was let go. 

 I was thankful, because the office politics were drastically affecting my mental health and motivation to work – but also angry at my co-workers and at my boss for his selective hearing.  

So, co-workers or friends? Sometimes, you’re forced to choose.  

7. Startups can fall apart at anytime

Whether it’s because their product isn’t selling, their expenditure was unnecessary, or even if they had a large amount stolen from a previous employee, startups can downsize at any given moment. 

So, if you’re on the lookout for a secure job, a startup is not your best bet. Sure, they may have plenty of jobs to offer at the current moment – but just two months later, it could be the exact opposite. 

What’s worse is the burden which falls on the remaining employees – having to wear multiple hats, take on a variety of job roles they are unskilled in. All without even a 10% raise.  

Yes, many a time these startups may have capital and investors who would not allow them to go bankrupt, even if their product is exponentially useless to the general public. 

Eventually, the startup provides investors with more cons than pros, and they are shut down. I’m currently watching this very story unfold with one of the startups I worked for – with more joy than I care to mention. 

Is working at tech startups worth it?

There’s no right answer to this. 

Over a period of 3 years, I saw my mental health decline when it came to work. From being constantly put down, taken advantage of at one startup to feeling unproductive in a heinously toxic environment at another.

But looking back, I would still have worked for them.

Why? Because it’s still a job.

In this day and age, we don’t have the choice to be overly picky. As a fresh grad, you might find yourself stuck in a similar situation. 

So what can you do? 

  • Do your research – about the company (check out reviews on Glassdoor*), about your rights as an employee, your rights as a working citizen in Malaysia
  • Ask questions during interviews – confirm your salary package, ask what exactly ‘multiple hats’ insinuates
  • Stick up for yourself – during projects, during meetings, about anything and everything
  • Never give yourself fully to your job – sure, the CEO may keep repeating that the startup functions as a family, but you should know better
  • Quit (if possible) when you’re unhappy – trust me, no job is worth your damaged mental health in the long run 

*Be aware of overly positive reviews on Glassdoor as well – many companies write fake positive reviews on the platform for themselves! 

What can startups do? 

Running a startup is no easy job. Honestly, I’ve heard of CEOs who’ve had to resort to side jobs such as driving Grab.

I’m sure the management at startups don’t initially intend to abuse their power. But they make one decision after another, prioritising the company above anything and anyone else. 

This eventually leads to a toxic work environment and employees feeling taken advantage of. 

So what can tech startups do?

  • Be honest with your employees – whether in interviews, on the job, or about their salaries. If they’re genuinely interested, they’ll appreciate your honesty and join you anyway. 
  • Respect your employees – allow a flow of communication and be genuinely open to their suggestions and feedback, because a simple idea from them just might be a bright new idea your startup needs. 
  • Get a people-centric HR – one who works towards both your and your employees’ interests to ensure a safe and happy environment. 
  • Prioritise your startup’s real needs – don’t just rely on creating a ‘fun’ environment, have basic necessities and a considerate culture first. 
  • Pay your employees what they’re worth –  if you want your startup to succeed, the right talent is always worth their asking salaries. 
  • Invest in training – for both your employees and yourself. Leadership is not an innate trait, it’s a skill that is learnt and practised until you get it right. 


For more stories like this, read: How Working In Malaysia’s Biggest Media Company Broke Me and Start-Up Culture: What The Job Description Says And What It Really Means

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