April 30, 2011
Reversing the Brain Drain
by P Gunasegaram* @http://www.thestar.com.my
Unless Malaysia succeeds in developing, retaining and attracting talent, its cherished dream of attaining high income by 2020 may be dashed to bits.
The World Bank simply defines brain drain as the migration of talent across borders. It is instructive what it says:
“For Malaysia to stand (sic) success in its journey to high income, it will need to develop, attract and retain talent. Brain drain does not appear to square with this objective: Malaysia needs talent but talent seems to be leaving,” the World Bank said in its report on Malaysia. Let’s look at some of the figures as a gauge of the seriousness of the problem. The worldwide Malaysian diaspora is conservatively estimated at one million in 2010, quadrupling over the last three decades.
Singapore alone accounts for 57% of this with the rest dispersed mainly through Australia, Brunei, Britain and the United States. Ethnic Chinese account for nearly 90% of the diaspora in Singapore and are similarly over-represented in other developed countries. And here’s one frightening statistic: “One out of 10 Malaysians with a tertiary degree migrated in 2000 to an OECD (the club of rich countries, but which does not include Singapore) country – this is twice the world average and including Singapore would make this two out of 10.”
In other words, it is very likely that 20% of our best graduates end up in other countries. The reasons why they leave are also instructive: 66% cited career prospects, 60% social injustice and 54% compensation.
The situation is serious and as Malaysia is wont to do under such circumstances, it is resorting to ad hoc measures such as tax rebates on those returning and a corporation to attract talent into the country.
These will only chip away at the massive outcrops of declining educational standards, a badly implemented social restructuring policy, a poor system of rewards and the unwillingness to move away from low labour costs to high value-added manufacturing and services amongst others. The changes that are needed are deeply structural. First, everything possible has to be put into raising educational standards to improve the quality of those entering the workforce. South Korea had one third Malaysia’s per capita income in 1970 but now it is three times Malaysia’s. Such change would not have been possible without a super educational system at every level.
Developing talent at every level simply has to start with education and we have to put the best talents, facilities and other resources into this. Right now only the most dedicated or those who don’t have other choices go into teaching because it is neither rewarding nor respected as a profession.
Next we need social re-engineering to gear towards giving equal opportunities for advancement instead of a premature equalisation of outcomes whether in terms of wealth ownership or employment creation.
Otherwise the ultimate result might be plain mediocrity and creating a small class of privileged wealthy who have done little or nothing to deserve their wealth. Otherwise too, the talented who get little or nothing face despair and look elsewhere for their rewards.
Then we need too the unfettered opportunities, entrepreneurship and incentive for talent to flourish and to be adequately rewarded. We can’t continue to base our competitiveness on low wages and costs. In this respect, a weak currency and its attendant poor purchasing power is a sure way to chase talent out of the country.
That’s how we can retain talent and attract it too, realising that we must be open and free to import the best the world has to offer in terms of people, goods and services at the best prices. For these things to happen and be sustained what we need is honest policy and implementation untainted by corruption so that the most can be done with the resources at our disposal instead of frittering these away through all sorts of leakages in the system. It is no accident that the least corrupt countries are often the most developed and have the highest income.
If there is a lesson from the World Bank report, it is that we must return to the basics and work ourselves up from there. There is no shortcut, but once critical mass is reached progress grows in leaps and bounds.
*Managing Editor P Gunasegaram believes that an uncompromising stand towards excellent and quality education bereft of political and other pressures will do more towards a high income Malaysia than almost anything else.