Brain drain seems to be an obstacle in Malaysia's development. Moves by Malaysians leaving home to seek greener pasture have never been stopped.
I have a relative. A young man in his early 30s. He joined an e-commerce company after his graduation holding a master's degree. As an information technology engineer, the office is located in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. In 2015, his e-commerce company, despite achieving outstanding results, announced relocation of its (IT) engineering department to Singapore, leaving the operations of marketing and sales department in Malaysia.
It is learned that after some careful considerations, the company, in sourcing for greater scale for development and better prospect, decided to relocate to Singapore as the island is more suitable for expansion of digital business while the network environment in Malaysia is insufficient to support the company's expansion plan. As the company's plan matched with his intention to seek greener pastures in Singapore, my relative decided to join the company's relocation by overriding his earlier plan.
Moves by such companies to relocate their core departments to Singapore bringing with them the Malaysian talents indicate two types of brain drain scenario in Malaysia:
1. Corporate leaders opt to relocate capitals, technology and experts to other countries after comparing the business environment, economic situation and infrastructure with Singapore. The criteria in Malaysia are relatively unfavourable to business development.
2. People look for greener pastures. Malaysians used to think that there are better opportunities in overseas. For the sake of better income and future, Malaysians are ready to pack up and work overseas any time.
Malaysian talents are found throughout the world. Right from members of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to Singapore, you can find Malaysians. Malaysians are almost found in every sector in Singapore from information technology, medicine, research to business. Singapore has never stopped attracting the best expertise from various countries including Malaysia.
Such scenario is a norm in globalisation. But comparing the number of Malaysians working and settling down overseas and the population in the country, the figure can be huge. World Bank's 2014 report on Malaysia said that 308,834 of Malaysians with high technology skills migrated overseas in 2013, while Malaysia's population is more than 30 million.
The figure of those migrating overseas when compared with the number of low technology skill foreign workers brought in to cater for various industries, reflects the fact that capable and skilled Malaysians are leaving the country.
Foreign workers are relied on to complete the 3D tasks – the ones that are dirty, dangerous and difficult.
Another issue is that when large scale foreign funds are brought into Malaysia, they do not offer technology transfer or change the working culture in Malaysia. And hence, this is not commensurate in terms of contribution and reward. The inflow of foreign funds does not help Malaysia depart from the middle income trap or achieve the target of becoming a developed country.
Malaysians who leave the country are opportunists looking for better salary package, fair promotion chances and stable living environment. They retain their Malaysian citizenship. But after settling down overseas, the number of Malaysians giving up their citizenship seems on the rise.
Depreciation of ringgit and slide in crude oil price have tumbled the Malaysian economy. Many Malaysians, including the rich ones, are leaving the country. There is hope that the economic growth in Malaysia will recover this year. Ringgit may also rebound from its poor performance in 2016. However, all these are merely speculations. Without feeling the practical change, Malaysians would still opt to work overseas.
Social and cultural factors are factors leading young people to opt for working overseas. Many young people settle overseas after their graduation. They enjoy the freedom and openness. Returning home to confront the declining freedom in society and religious and racial issues being politicised prompts them not to return.
The government takes a serious view on the severity of brain drain and set up Talent Corp to attract talent and encourage them to return home. In the past four years, the agency successfully attracted 3,600 Malaysians to return home through its Returning Experts Programme.
However, comparing this with the figure of Malaysians leaving the country, those returning home are just “a drop in the ocean”. Under the current economic and political environment, Talent Corp needs to have a more convincing and attractive package for Malaysians overseas to return home.
However, instead of convincing them to return from overseas, how about changing the approach by retaining Malaysians who are still studying and working in the country?
Some experts have said that as many universities in the United Kingdom, Australia and even China have set up branch campuses in Malaysia, such education opportunities could play a significant role in reversing the trend of brain drain. Talent Corp should work on students in such branch campuses of foreign universities to retain them with sincerity. They should also include those foreigners who are currently studying or working in such universities.
It is time for the Malaysian government to pay more attention to university students in the country who are graduating soon. By assisting them to experience fairness in job seeking opportunities and remuneration package, it would show that the government is genuine in its concern for their future.
This would be more effective and spot on compared to various incentives offered by Talent Corp to attract those who have left the country due to disappointments.
Starting this year, the Najib administration has launched the 2050 Transformation Plan TN50 to encourage youth of all races in the country to shape Malaysia with their outstanding thinking in the next 30 years. The prospect of employment opportunities is included in the plan. It is believed that with the launch of the transformation plan, more young people would participate in nation building actively. This would also help to attract more talent based overseas to return home while retaining bright locals and encourage them to contribute to the country.
This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and senior writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.
The writer is Leader Writer, Sin Chew Daily, Malaysia.