Published: Sunday April 13, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday April 14, 2014 MYT 1:16:27 PM

Unclogging the drain

Can we lure talented Malaysians living overseas to return home? Perhaps, but only if real reforms are made. In the meantime, we should seriously develop local talent.

Over the last few years, there seems to be heightened hype on Malaysia’s “brain drain” conundrum.

A New York Times article published in October 2010 reported that there are about 700,000 Malaysians living abroad, and that the “brain drain” has serious implications on the country’s growth, which dropped to an average of 5.5% a year (from 2000 to 2008) from 9% annually a decade earlier (1991-1997).

Malaysians seem to migrate for better job opportunities, education and a more conducive environment as many, I assume, feel disturbed with the political and social situation in Malaysia. I have received various emails from Malaysians living abroad echoing this sentiment.

I still remember a discussion I had with another Malaysian friend while studying in New Zealand. He had decided to stay on after graduation because he felt his birth country didn’t accept him and he was currently at a good place with a good job. Even my own parents felt the biggest mistake they made in life was the decision to leave England and come back to Malaysia.

It saddens me that my fellow countrymen feel that way and I feel somewhat responsible for it, just because my identity card states “Malay Muslim”.

I had a chance to meet a Malaysian living in London during a holiday. She was pursuing her Masters degree but had lived in London for two years prior. An audiovisual producer, Eleanor recalled: “I had never lived outside of Malaysia before and I wanted to see the world before I settle down. I know this sounds cliché but life is too short, and due to some losses in the family, I felt that you’d never know when it’s going to end so I thought I should just try and apply for the working holiday visa and if I get it, I’m meant to go.

“There are so many things to do here, there’s always something going on. When I went back to Malaysia, I felt like there’s nothing much I can do there except go to shopping malls, or the cinemas, which are also in the malls! Have you been to the National Art Gallery? It’s actually quite good but you hardly see a soul. There’s not enough creative stimulation in Malaysia and that’s the reason why I enjoy staying here.

“Malaysia will always be home to me, I just think that everyone should find an opportunity to get out of the country to experience living abroad, to live in a different community. When I came here, my friends were confused as to why I wanted to leave at the peak of my career. But I think I invested my time in something that is immeasurable with money. It’s a personal gain.

“But at this time, I don’t know if I will settle in Malaysia. I would like to bring up my children in Malaysia because I think our cultural values are important. But I also want them to have other experiences as well, like learning about other world histories because I think it’s vital to be able to access opportunities not available in Malaysia.”

Recognising the brain drain, the Malaysian government has set up Talent Corp to woo Malaysians living abroad to return home by creating more opportunities to fill shortages in key sectors.

However, I think Talent Corp’s vision is limited. People are not leaving just because of better job opportunities and higher incomes but also a myriad of things which the government gleefully glosses over. Tear gas is unleashed during peaceful protests, (some) politicians rattle non-Malay citizens with their fierce rhetoric, restrictive laws and regulations impinge on individual rights ... with all that, the grass will look greener on the other side, no?

Throughout this article, I had apostrophised “brain drain”. Sure, 700,000 Malaysians are living abroad, but what about the 26 million others who are in the country?

Why invest in trying to get Malaysians to come back when they clearly show little intention to? Why not instead invest in building and expanding local human capital? Private universities are cropping up like nobody’s business but we choose to attract international students who will eventually go back to their own countries.

Why not make quality education more easily available (read: affordable) to locals?

Take the case of the marginalised Orang Asli. Three hundred and eighty Orang Asli graduates in five years is an unimpressive number. Many more have applied for access to education but have found few openings. Meanwhile, our public universities impose a racial quota. When the playing field is levelled just a bit, certain quarters cry foul.

And we wonder why the good brains leave.

I personally doubt that Talent Corp will be effective. It is human nature to be nomadic, to explore options, to gain new experiences and worldviews. We imagine a world that is beyond ours and seek to explore it.

Human population has always been fluid and before lines were drawn on the world map, people were constantly migrating. Malaysia’s very own history is that of a trading and migration hub. We have come to be such a multicultural society because of such history. So as people leave Malaysia, others arrive.

It is not so much about calling back those who have left, but to improve and build on the structures and systems already in place to match other developed nations.

But like many other things, we seem to have our priorities in the wrong places. Malaysians who have left will not bite the bait offered unless real reforms are made.

And then maybe, just maybe.

>> Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like Tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society (ies). Write to her at

The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Lifestyle, Talent Corp, brain drain, education, human rights

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