OVER the last decade, the Malaysian Government has been actively pursuing high-skilled professionals, such as researchers, scientists, doctors, engineers and information-technology experts, to work in the country.
These expertise have been identified as the necessary building blocks to help move the country’s economy up the value chain.
However, the global competition for these talents is intensifying. This is especially so for those who are specialised in emerging sectors such as green technology, renewable energy, biotechnology and Islamic finance.
Malaysia is not in a favourable position, as it continues to suffer from a leakage of intellectual capital, or so-called, brain drain.
The Government is aware of this and has implemented several programmes to reverse the situation.
The first “brain-gain” programme, called the “Returning Scientist Programme”, was launched in 1995. This was followed by the “Returning Expert Programme” in 2001, and “Brain Gain Malaysia” as part of the Ninth Malaysia Plan in 2006.
The Malaysia My Second Home programme, launched in 2004, is also part of a brain-gain effort to attract foreign talents and high net worth individuals into the country.
But these initiatives have not been very successful. For instance, the “Returning Scientist Programme”, which ended prematurely three years after its launch, managed to attract only 93 researchers, scientists and engineers, 70 of whom were foreigners and 23 were Malaysians. The on-going “Returning Expert Programme”, on the other hand, has attracted less than 600 returnees since its inception.
Lack of awareness
A medical specialist, who came back last year under the Government’s brain-gain programme, attributes the poor response to a lack of advertisement and awareness among high-skilled professionals.
He thinks the Government should make more effort to promote its brain-gain programmes overseas.
There are other options to “gain brains”, says Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Shamsuddin Bardan.
“If it’s hard to get professionals to return to the country, we can set up forums and linkages to tap the intellectual capability of our diaspora. It is a less costly effort, compared with those brain-gain programmes that come with lucrative incentives,” he adds.
Nevertheless, such an effort is not easy for the Government either as it does not have the database on the Malaysian professionals, such as researchers, scientists and engineers, who are residing abroad.
There’s limited information about these individuals, although the Government reckons that the majority of them are now residing in Singapore, Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States; and now perhaps China as well.
The country is said to be attracting many foreign talents, including Malaysians, because of its rapid growth and increasing career opportunities.
Pastures seem greener on the other side
“I would say it is vicious cycle. Many do not want to return because they cannot perceive any future here, and since not many want to return, there is no future,” says research scientist Dr Khoo Kay Hooi, who’s now residing in Taiwan.
Khoo had wanted to come back to Malaysia to work when he finished his studies overseas, but the lack of career opportunities in his area of specialisation forced him to seek work in foreign countries.
“If I am contacted one day, with a sound visionary plan laid out in front of me, along with those so-called incentives, then I will consider if I can contribute and weigh that against what I have now,” he says.
Many Malaysian professionals find it hard to uproot from the foreign countries in which they are currently settled not only because of the high salaries that they are earning now, but also because of the working culture and environment there.
Such is the case for Aileen Ko, 30.
Although the often-grey skies and high cost of living in London tend to cast gloomy shadows on her stay, she likes it there because she feels her “life is now more balanced”.
“In London, even though we work hard, companies here emphasise rest. And they believe in family life, so they allow flexi working hours,” she says.
That’s a very different scenario for Ko, compared to five years ago, when she was still slogging away at work in a public-listed construction company in the Klang Valley.
The professionally certified quantity surveyor has since moved away from the construction industry to venture into oil and gas as an estimator.
A better working environment aside, Ko says, London also offers her “a wider breath of experience and opportunities to be involved in bigger projects with different levels of complexities”.
Efficient Singapore a major benefactor
Still, Singapore is believed to be the major benefactor of Malaysia’s brain drain. The proximity between the two countries is one of the reasons for that, but many of the Malaysians working there also like the island’s environment, good infrastructure and efficient systems.
“There are more interesting things to learn while working here. The systems are more transparent, and the people are more open-minded,” says Lum, a 40-year-old investment manager who works for the Singaporean government.
For Magdalen K, who doesn’t drive, the efficient public transport in Singapore is major draw. The project manager at SingTel has been working in the country for more than 15 years now.
“The quality of life in Singapore seems to be better when viewed from various aspects,” she offers her reason for choosing to work there.
“Besides an efficient public transport system, it also feels safer to live here because the crime rate is low,” she explains.
Needless to say, there are also the better pay packages, and most of the Malaysians who work there also feel that the living cost in Singapore is comparatively lower than Kuala Lumpur.
In a nutshell, people leave because they find that they can do better outside their own country, prominent economist Professor Datuk Dr Mohamed Ariff says.
“Human capital is the best asset a country has. Every government need to develop that, and ensure its policies can help its own people to do well within the country,” he adds.