Reversing Malaysia’s Brain Drain

April 30, 2011

Reversing the Brain Drain

by P Gunasegaram* @

Young Malaysians: Take Care of Them without Favor or Lose Brain Power

Unless Malaysia succeeds in developing, retaining and attracting talent, its cherished dream of attaining high income by 2020 may be dashed to bits.

PROBABLY for the first time ever we have had substantial facts and figures on Malaysia’s brain drain – and it has taken the World Bank to come out with this (see our cover story this issue).

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.

9 thoughts on “Reversing Malaysia’s Brain Drain

  1. Good write-up. Let us hope the message reaches the political leadership and top echelons of policy making. There is no point saying, like Mahathir, that the World Bank is politically motivated for putting out a report on the brain drain that pro-Bumiputera policies are stunting the country’s economy. The brain drain is serious, and we must do something about it in a systematic and serious way.–Din Merican

  2. Even at the start-up level, Dato. Look at the ASEAN Scolarship from the Singapore Government! All students with really good results at O-Level in Thailand, HK, Phillippines, Indonesia and Malaysia (especially) are snapped up by the island state government and fully-sponsored thru A-Levels, Tertiary and even post-graduate, by the time these kids finish the cycle, they are already singing “Majulah Singapura, Majulah Singapura….”

    These kids are the creme de la creme of ASEAN and Singapore nets them in at early stage. Whilst we still don’t even help some with 10As and above and still play racial politics every now and then…

    I know 9 out of 10 of the best O-level students in Brunei are under ASEAN Scolarship in Singapore!

    So, if we refuse to even help our own people, its only natural they go elsewhere. How can we call these ppl disloyal?

  3. I know for a fact that 10 of the people I know here in the States were former JPA students and they have no intentions on returning home. They went to good colleges under taxpayers money, get good jobs and pay taxes to the US government. Is the Malaysian government doing anything to curb this kind of things? NO. I’m pretty sure they are not the only ones doing this. If the government can’t even bring back their own scholars, what are the chances that non-scholars will want to return home?

  4. First let us tackle corruption. Then re-vamp the entire education system. Without this there is no use talking about reversing the brain drain.

  5. The leadership will continue denying this until one day M’sia hits rock bottom. Certain events will come to pass.

  6. Its never too late if ALL rakyat wake up to the fact that BN/UMNO is pulling the rug under our feet.

  7. The Malaysian government should take a course in Human Resource Management.

    It should recognise the fact that talent (brains) exists within the human being who also has various physiological and psychological needs (to put it mildly).

    These human beings have two feet which can carry them to anywhere they like, anywhere they consider more appropriate to satisfy their needs. It is this simple.

    And the current international human resourse market is a sellers’ market.

  8. Malaysia’s brain-drain issue requires transformational effort to be reversed. Is our government ready, capable, committed and sleek-enough to undertake such efforts ? I think we all know te answer..Malaysia boleh !

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