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Finding fortunes in foreign lands


MALAYSIA’S young people are eager to spread their wings: Many have their eyes set on pursuing work abroad, more so than their peers from other regional countries.

Such aspirations are stronger among Malaysian Gen Y-ers compared with their peers from other countries.

And it is especially prevalent among Malaysians in the finance sector; specifically, among students and employees aged 36 and below.

Some 83% of those in this group say they want to try working in a different country or region in a recent study carried out by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

This percentage is above the global average of 80%, reveals the study conducted among 19,000 professionals and students from 150 countries.

Almost half of young Malaysians in the accounting line also plan to work overseas and more than 80% plan to start their own business. (See details in graphic below.)

The trend is not confined to members of the accounting line either.

The Malaysian Medical Association and Malaysian Employers Federation acknowledge that many young Malaysians from other disciplines are also looking to expand their horizons in other countries.

A World Bank report in 2015 showed that many Malaysians in four key countries – Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States – are working in sectors like manufacturing, healthcare, and scientific and technical services. (See details in graphic below.)


While there is a risk of losing local talent, these moves don’t necessarily spell doom and gloom for the local economy.

Experts see potential benefits from this in terms of having better business links, and Malaysians gaining more exposure and experiencing talent circulation.

And at the same time, efforts by Talent Corporation Malaysia Bhd (TalentCorp) are in place and, to date, it has managed to attract 4,000 Malaysian professionals to return via its Returning Expert Programme.

‘Brand Malaysia’ abroad

Currently, there are about one million Malaysians working abroad, estimates Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan.

He actually isn’t surprised that young Malaysians want to explore opportunities overseas, and he doesn’t feel it’s all bad news.

“In a way, those who go for overseas stints are also carrying Malaysia’s name.

“If they excel, it is good for the reputation and ‘branding’ of Malaysian workers,” he says.

Shamsuddin points out that Malaysians pursuing jobs overseas indirectly contribute to the nation when they remit money back home to their loved ones, further increasing their disposable income.

“When the money is sent back, it is used by their family members back in Malaysia in the domestic market,” he explains, adding that this is especially beneficial with the ringgit’s lacklustre performance recently.

Such remittance should be monitored by the authorities to determine how much this contribution is worth, suggests Shamsuddin.

More importantly, he says, Malaysia also has to attract talent to work here.

“Malaysian employers should draw the best talent to come and work here – be they local or foreign employees,” Shamsuddin says.

On Malaysian youth who want to start their own business, Shamsuddin says this trait could be a result of the difficult job market where many graduates face challenges in securing employment, adding that the entrepreneurially-minded could do with assistance.

“As it may not be easy for new start-ups to succeed, this is where the Government can aid them in terms of facilitating business licenses and financing,” he proposes.


Bringing back a significant contribution

While he can’t offer specific numbers, Malaysian Medical Association president Dr John Chew notes that many doctors do not return to Malaysia after completing their studies overseas and choose to work there.

“There are many reasons for this – some personal, some professional, including better pay and training opportunities.

“It is a well known fact that some departments in Singaporean hospitals have a high number of Malaysian doctors,” he says, adding that many also stay back in Britain, Australia and Taiwan.

Dr Chew points out that some do eventually find their way back to Malaysia as job opportunities fluctuate in those countries.

“Some host countries are not so attractive and these graduates tend to come home. But there are others who move to Australia, Britain or the United States after sitting for qualifying exams,” he says.

Dr Chew proposes that Malaysian doctors be given the freedom to move around and come back.

“They would make a significant contribution to medical services in Malaysia. We should also give due recognition for the time spent and the extra experience acquired overseas,” says Dr Chew.

Hunger of emerging markets

Commenting on the results of its recent “Generation Next” study, ACCA corporate sector head Jamie Lyon says the high percentage of Malaysian respondents who want to work overseas could have huge implications for Malaysia as a talent hub.

Asked why are Malaysians above the global average when it comes to such aspirations, Lyon feels that, as the Malaysian economy is still emerging, perhaps there is a perception that there are other opportunities beyond this country’s boundaries.

“Also, this is a generation that thinks globally. In a global context, they look at their career as part of a global story. That is a good thing, but there is also the potential for Malaysia to lose some of its talent,” he says.

However, he notes that such aspirations are also apparent in other countries, including those with mature economies.

“But people in emerging markets are very aspirational, very hungry, and want to move quickly in terms of roles. Be it a job in London or Singapore, they want to go for that,” Lyon remarks.

As for the minority of respondents who wish to stay in Malaysia for work, he says there is no right or wrong when it comes to making this choice.

“Being in a globalised world doesn’t mean you can’t have a great career by staying in Malaysia. This is an emerging economy. It is likely to be successful. There may be some ‘talent flight’, but it doesn’t detract from the skills a person can pick up by staying in this market,” Lyon says, adding that the benefits of loyalty and staying with an organisation are not recognised as much as they should be.

While it is not wrong to have aspirations to gain foreign work experience, he says it is also possible to learn something new from moving within an organisation.

Nurture entrepreneurial streak

One thing is for sure though: The fact that young Malaysians are willing to take a chance on jobs overseas and starting their own business definitely shows they are a confident and bold lot.

However, Shamsuddin says some can be “too ambitious” and this can lead to major problems for employers due to the differences in expectations.

“The labour market is soft right now. Being ambitious is good, but young people need to be more realistic about what they can achieve given their current situation,” he says.

For academicians, the adventurous nature and enterprising streak in Gen Y-ers are positive traits, with one professor pointing out, “It is better than having no ambition at all!”

Saying the desire to work overseas is a good sign, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman vice-president of research, development and commercialisation Prof Dr Lee Sze Wei says there are two possibilities from such foreign exposure.

“They could start a business overseas. But they also could bring the knowledge and exposure gained from overseas back to Malaysia. Either way, it helps make them better entrepreneurs,” he says.

As for the risk of brain drain, Dr Lee says nobody can stop people from going after better opportunities, but this doesn’t mean those people cannot give back or contribute.

“If I’m a Malaysian working in the US, chances are that I will still think of Malaysia first when making decisions. It isn’t a 100% guarantee that it will be a loss to the country,” he says.

Dr Lee also says while he knows some friends who work overseas as lecturers, they would be willing to collaborate with Malaysian universities as Malaysia is their home country.

And when it comes to Gen Y-ers, he says this group of young people are not afraid of using technology to achieve what they want.

“Sometimes, the older generation say Gen Y-ers are very hard to understand. It isn’t really an issue. “We have to understand that the way they think is different. Some things they have, we didn’t have.

“In fact, I admire them. Getting information used to be so difficult.

“But now, if I don’t understand something, I can watch all kinds of videos of lectures from overseas universities.

“This is the kind of environment youngsters are living in today. If I had the same opportunities, I could do so much more,” Dr Lee says with a laugh.

Sunway University Business School’s professor of economics Dr Yeah Kim Leng says it is not unexpected that young Malaysians aspire to play roles in a different country given today’s borderless world where international business and cross-cultural experiences are highly valued by business owners and employers.

“While there will be losses from brain drain, there are potential benefits from talent circulation and business links. It is not a zero-sum game in today’s borderless and interdependent marketplace,” he says.

On the strong business streak among local youth, Dr Yeah finds this encouraging, saying that an “entrepreneurial and innovative spirit is what the nation needs”, especially in an increasingly competitive and integrated world.

“We should nurture and capitalise on the youth’s entrepreneurial streak to create more business and employment opportunities.

“One third of our graduates are unemployed.

“Providing assistance for them to start their own ventures will be a key imperative in reducing graduate unemployment and raise incomes,” he says.

Dr Yeah says, in a way, the confidence exhibited by Gen Y-ers is not misplaced as they have inherited a larger and more diversified economy with more and varied business opportunities to succeed.

“On the flip side, they also face more intense competition as well as a more complex and fast changing environment driven by technological advancements, globalisation and market liberalisation,” he adds.

Honing local skill

While talent migration happens in Malaysia, TalentCorp chief executive officer Shareen Shariza Abdul Ghani stresses that this phenomenon is not unique to Malaysia, but occurs in other countries too.

“There are professionals in highly specialised sectors who benefit from being based overseas. However, diaspora contributions aren’t dependent on their physical return to their home country.

“They can become potential sources for an important and diverse set of investments and skill flows back into the country,” she says.

It is also encouraging to note that the professionals abroad who have been approached by TalentCorp are generally very enthusiastic about contributing to Malaysia’s growth.

“They are eager to collaborate with their fellow Malaysians back home in whatever way they can, be it through mentorships, investments or sharing their professional networks,” says Shareen.

She says TalentCorp’s Returning Expert Programme (REP) to attract talent back home was found by the World Bank to be effective.

“To date, TalentCorp has approved close to 4,000 REP applications from top senior professionals and technical experts who have gone on to helm renowned corporations,” she adds.

Shareen explains that middle-income nations like Malaysia face greater mobility of talent as our people have both the means and incentive to move, with reasons that include income levels, education and gaining employment-related skills.

Because local graduates are the immediate source of top talent for Malaysia’s key industries, over 70% of TalentCorp’s focus and allocation goes towards programmes to benefit Malaysians in Malaysia.

“We have enhanced the employability of over 20,000 graduates through the sector-focused Graduate Employability Management Scheme between 2011 and 2015,” says Shareen.

Another initiative, the Scholarship Talent Attraction and Retention programme has also helped over 3,000 Government-funded graduate scholars to serve their bond of service by working in private sector organisations since 2011.

“Last but not least, in strengthening the development of human capital, TalentCorp encourages employers to invest in developing their employees to obtain industry-recognised professional certifications to raise the bar of Malaysian professionals to meet international standards,” she added.

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More ‘honest conversations’ needed with Gen Y-ers

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