Zaim Mohzani talks empowering Malaysian youth, overcoming hurdles, and civic engagement.

Zaim Mohzani is a community organiser and co-founder of Nation Building School, a youth development non-profit organisation that seeks to empower 18-30 year olds in Malaysia. A Global Shaper in the Kuala Lumpur Hub under the World Economic Forum, he is a graduate of Monash University Australia, majoring in political science and international relations. FLY: Malaysia’s Journalism Team caught up with him in early April to see what he had to say.

Sipping from a bottle of mineral water and decked out in a polo shirt, Zaim Mohzani speaks with ease and an air of assured confidence. “I like hip-hop and rap, and I spend a lot of time writing lyrics and poetry. Most of the time, though, I love a few things in general: politics, history, engaging with people, life-hacking, and really ideas in general,” he laughs when asked about his background and his daily life. “Like Keith, I don’t really have a fixed routine – from 9 to 5, I’m either off meeting clients or working in the office; from 5 to 10, I’m usually meeting up with the [Nation Building School] team to organise or attend events.”

Reflecting on his time in university, he jokes about his time in the student council, and his mishap-filled first day: “I was forced by a friend to join, and I ran as deputy chairperson and won with very little experience. When we had our first meeting, he asked me to take meeting minutes – and at the time, I thought he meant literally taking down the time!” Over time, however, he recognised just how valuable this experience was. “I learned how to do [meeting minutes], and then how to write proposals, and then how to talk to people – how to win over stakeholders, organise events, and invite speakers. These soft skills, I still apply today – and I’d say they’re much more important than the technical skills I learned in university.”

“Let’s talk about students, specifically college and university ones,” Zaim says when questioned about common mistakes he encounters. Rubbishing the idea of life as a linear path from birth to college to retirement to death, he stresses the importance of investing in yourself whenever you have the opportunity. “They don’t fully take the opportunities that are available on campus, and I think that’s a mistake. If there’s an open day and you see 10 clubs that you like, sign up for all 10 of them. Some youth tend to take their [college/university] life too lightly sometimes.”

To Zaim, motivation is the essence of youth development, and the same ethos that drives Nation Building School. It is ultimately necessary to first identify what a person is passionate about, he opines, before anything else can really be done to help develop them further. “What drives you? Why are you here? If I don’t know what motivates you, how will I know how best to push you? At the core of youth development, it’s all about what makes a person tick, and building on that.”
Explaining the origins, goals, and the future of Nation Building School, he doesn’t pull any punches, taking a pragmatic view of the days ahead. “As a student, I struggled to find opportunities locally. If I’d studied here, I wouldn’t have known which events to go to or who to talk to. And the idea came about – why not create a platform that not only promotes events, but also recommend people to take part in these events? Simply put, we’re a matching platform for youth to opportunities primarily in Kuala Lumpur, and then greater Malaysia.” Set against the stark backdrop of a talent crisis in the country, and with their intuition corroborated by recent research into Malaysian graduates and their employability, his dream for Malaysian stands out even more. “The dream,” he deadpans, “would be to empower budak kampungs to colonise Mars.”

“The 3 co-founders of Nation Building School have a Steve Jobs-esque drive to make a dink in the universe. We have such a crazy goal – to empower 9 million Malaysians, all the youth in the country – and so far, we’ve only been able to reach around 3,000 young people. It’s not much, but we’re in here for the long haul.”
On the long road ahead, Zaim is both aware and wary of the pitfalls, but also optimistic about their chances in the long run. “[The] strategy is to make us an institution to turn us into a youth development platform. When your children graduate one day, we want to be up there as an option for them to choose to become involved in. At the moment, my concern is how NBS will survive our third year, and the years to come…we’ve seen some former youth development giants in the industry [get] left behind because of their inability to adapt to the situation! Part of the solution is getting youth to join us, and to help us move faster where we are slow to catch on. Our biggest fear is for NBS to end up as an elephant or a dinosaur – a big institution that can only move slowly. We’d very much like to be tigers or lions – agile, fast, capable of reacting quickly.”

Reflecting on his achievements thus far, however, Zaim remains modest and maintains his low profile. “Maybe when you’re 50, you can talk about your achievements, but the truth is I’m just an executive in a digital media company who runs an NGO on the side. I’ve just finished reading Elon Musk’s book, and by the time he was 28 or 29, he was already a multimillionaire after selling Zip2. I’m already 27, and what he’s done is leagues ahead, and I genuinely hope young people today think the same way,” he shakes his head. “When you want to compare yourself, pit yourself against the world’s best – if they can do it, the question you should be asking yourself is what you can do too.”

On political apathy and civic consciousness in Malaysia, Zaim offers his two cents’: “Paraphrasing a quote: ‘Young people are not hopeless, but they feel helpless’. Incredibly enough, more urban youth feel more hopeless than rural youth. I think we need more platforms to encourage people to become more politically involved. The only way to fight despair is to actually sign up and volunteer.”

“A lot of people like to segment issues, but I have a different take on this. I think all issues are Malaysian issues – crime, corruption, cost of living, congestion, owning a house – regardless of whether you’re old or young, these things matter to you,” he continued when pressed further on the matter. “Old or young, Malay or Chinese or Indian, gay or straight, these issues cut across the spectrum. We all want a cleaner country, more equitable distribution of wealth, and affordable housing. Perhaps different people prioritise different things, but at the end of the day they [all] remain important to us.”

Relating the rise of the alt-right movement in the West to a lack of civic consciousness, Zaim breaks down the importance of remaining engaged in a community. “It really boils down to civic awareness, and civic itself has three definitions: first, you recognise that you are part of a community, second, that the country’s problems are partly your own, and third, you take proactive action where necessary…Civic ignorance is the reason people are unable to point to the institutions responsible for solving their problems – the judiciary, the legislative branch, or the executive branch. That’s precisely why populist figures like Trump, who preach the message of being able to solve all your problems instantly, appeal to voters who are ignorant.”

Locally, he offers his views on the level of partisan politics in Malaysia, and what youth can do to transcend it: “As young people, we often have this perception that politicians across the divide should work together, but unfortunately, this is politics, and it’s not always conducive to their image to be seen working with their opponents. So, here’s the thing – young people should look beyond politics. It’s time for us to take the country’s problems into our own hands, and start getting worked up about them. I’m a huge advocate of civic warriors: empowered citizens who ask ourselves what we can do. On issues like child marriage, for example, politicians may not be particularly keen to address them, but as citizens, we are capable of pressuring them to do so.”

In a final piece of wisdom, he highlights what he believes will be the most important hurdle for youth in the years ahead, and reiterated advice he had given earlier on taking opportunities when they presented themselves. “The biggest challenge is honestly getting a job, unfortunately. As we speak, the economy isn’t doing too well – inflation is creeping up, and the unemployment rate is around 3%. The youth unemployment rate, however, is over three times that, and one out of three graduates are not going to land a job straight out of university, what more those with only college, SPM, or PT3 qualifications,” Zaim outlined.

“[W]hat you can do is to invest in yourself by getting involved in your community. Getting a 4.0 CGPA without any co-curricular activities is a death sentence; add value to yourself and to your community. That’s how I did it, how we at NBS are doing it, and how others should be doing it! Get involved, invest in yourself, and get employers to see the value in you.”

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Budak Kampung to Mars