Stemming the tide and keeping our talent

  • Business
  • Saturday, 06 Feb 2010

Every now and then, we hear of friends and relatives leaving for greener pastures abroad. While we are happy that they are moving on, their leaving also leaves a lump in our throats. Last month, the issue of our people leaving was brought up again when about 300,000 left, double that of the previous year. Do we, as a nation, have the will power to stem the outflow of skills and talent, the building blocks of our country?

It’s creating a brain drain. We could end up with a society without knowledge. How can such a society make progress? – Amer Hassan Fayed, assistant dean of political science at Baghdad University, on the exodus of top professionals and businessmen from war-torn Iraq during the mid-2000s

EVERYONE knows brain drain saps a country of its most important asset – human resources. A prolonged period of good talent leaving the country can only leave a country economically and technologically behind the curve.

The increasing number of highly skilled and educated Malaysians moving overseas for career advancement over the years has resulted in what economists call the “brain drain” or “talent crunch”. This trend is especially prevalent in the field of science and technology.

While Malaysia is not alone in this dilemma, there is another (and probably more urgent and ominous) issue to check – its inability to attract or increase its talent pool. Perhaps, it is just inertia, a lack of will power, on the part of the government.

Whichever side of the spectrum – the inability to stem the outflow or the inability to increase its pool of resources – there are issues the government must address if it wants to retain its human capital.

Day to day matters like education, the scarcity of high technology industries, meritocracy, equity limits and security standards have been brought up time and again. On a larger scale, politicians and political analysts have cited a lack of transparency in government, abuses of state funds and a racially discriminatory policy as grounds for dissatisfaction.

So far, there is no concrete or official data to gauge the number of Malaysian professionals working overseas.

In a study done by Winters, et al (2007), which the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti) quoted last year during the Brain Gain Malaysia workshop organised by the United Nations Development Programme, it was estimated that in 2000, there were 785,000 Malaysians residing overseas, with about 40% of them being based in Singapore; 30% in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdom; 20% in other Asean countries including Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines, and 10% in other regions of the world.

Unofficially, a figure of 1 million talented Malaysians working overseas has been bandied about.

The outflow of our people was brought to the fore once again when deputy foreign affairs minister A. Kohilan Pillay revealed that a total of 304,358 had left the country between March 2008 and August 2009. This compares with 139,696 who migrated in 2007. Reasons cited for their move include seeking for better education, career and business prospects.

Stewart Forbes, executive director of the Malaysian International Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MICCI) says that one of the biggest reasons for Malaysia’s brain drain is its lack of education opportunities, the element of quality is lacking.

There was a time when parents only send their children abroad for tertiary education.

Today, increasingly, parents are sending them away to pursue their secondary school education. For those who lack the means, they opt for private secondary education here.

This explains the proliferation of private secondary schools the last several years.

“Malaysia’s educational system is not as good as it once was. For those aspiring to the highest level, they will study elsewhere. If Malaysia could improve its quality, this could at least stop people from pursuing a tertiary education elsewhere,” says Forbes.

“Nowadays, the world also has a more mobile labour market. The world is getting smaller. It is very easy for people to relocate and travelling is cheap. Why do people go? Because there are jolly good opportunities at jolly high rates!” says Forbes.

Finding their calling

Having left Malaysia more than 20 years ago when he completed his Form Six at Chung Ling High School in Penang, and lived in several countries during the initial years of his diaspora, Dr Khoo Kay Hooi found his calling in Taiwan.

The research scientist has been residing and working in the country’s capital, Taipei, for about 14 years now.

As a research fellow at the Institute of Biological Chemistry, Academia Sinica, and a professor at the National Taiwan University’s Institute of Biochemical Sciences, Khoo has managed to establish his name in the international field of life sciences research.

There is a hint of doubt in his e-mail to StarBizWeek on how things could have turned out had he chosen to return to Malaysia after he graduated with his doctorate degree from the Imperial College in the United Kingdom in the 1980s.

“How far could I have progressed in the area of life sciences research in Malaysia? In my area of speciality, where are the opportunities?” he wonders.

But with Malaysia now becoming increasingly focused on science and technology, and the Government boosting its efforts to lure the “best brains” home, will that change Khoo’s mind and cause him to return?

“Well, I am not scouting for opportunities, nor am I actively exposing myself and attempting to pull any string to introduce myself to the Deans or Heads. So, I guess I will remain unknown to most Malaysian policymakers and will not be noted till the day I retire,” he says.

“I am happy the way it is, and it does not bother me a bit,” Khoo adds.

Surgeon Dr Kumar M feels the same way. Having stayed in London for the past 15 years, he says, “there is still a possibility of returning but such possibility just gets slimmer over the years.”

Global fight for skills

The success that Khoo and Kumar have found in a foreign land exemplifies the state of many other Malaysian professionals whose exceptional skills are currently being tapped by other countries in the world for their own economic development and scientific progress.

A study by international headhunting and human resource consulting firm Pacific Bridge, Inc which focuses mainly on Asia, indicated that Malaysian professionals were highly sought-after because of their strong professional qualifications and multilingual abilities.

It claimed that Malaysian engineers and technical workers, for instance, were increasingly finding opportunities outside the country, especially in Singapore, China, and the Middle East.

Such is the case for Billy Ng, who left for China, four years ago.

“The rapid growth of China will give me the international exposure that could enhance my skills and knowledge, and most importantly, enhance my resume,” Ng says.

Talent crunch

Foreign research indicated that the total number of Malaysian-origin researchers, scientists and engineers working overseas currently could probably have exceeded 20,000, with about 40% of them in the United States and 10% in Australia.

Critics claim that the trend of brain drain in Malaysia is accelerating with the increasing number of Malaysians migrating overseas. That’s because in most cases, those who qualify for migration overseas are usually businessmen, professionals and skilled workers.

While not unique to Malaysia, economists say the brain drain dilemma is a “common disease” afflicting other developing countries. They attribute this escalating trend of talent and skills migration from developing to industrialised nations, or what they call labour mobility, to globalisation.

The promise of better salaries and working conditions overseas is said to be the major pull factor, while some are convinced it is the less favourable social and political conditions in developing countries that are pushing their own people to leave.

Whatever the push and pull factors, the outflow of valuable human resources must be curbed or mitigated; otherwise it could have a negative impact on the future economic development of the country.

“The Malaysian Government has to arrest the problem because brain drain can be damaging to our economy in the long run,” says MEF executive director Shamsuddin Bardan.

Stumbling block

For Malaysia striving to become an innovation and knowledge-based economy, the loss of talent and skills in the science and technology sector have a debilitating effect on its ambition.

That’s simply because science and technology is the main driver in any innovation and knowledge-based economic model.

“Look at the direction in which our economy is heading. We want to be a high-income nation, but we’re stuck in the middle range... this has a lot to do with the quality of our human capital,” Universiti Malaya associate professor Dr Edmund Terence Gomez explains, as he points out that Malaysia does not have the sufficient quantity of “quality” human capital needed to transform the country’s economy.

“Many Malaysians who are well-equipped have already become part of the diaspora,” Gomez adds.

While the Malaysian Government is expected to unveil the new economic model this month, Shamsuddin argues that if the country could not get enough people with the right skills and attitudes, the new targets will not be achieveable.

Malaysia has no shortage of grand plans and extravagant project. These include the likes of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and E-Village. The question is, does the country have the right human capital to sustain them?

“There is no point in coming up with multi-billion-dollar projects if we do not have the right people to fill up the positions,” Shamsuddin explains.

“As it is, we’re already facing difficulties attracting the right skills and talents to propel our economy up the value chain,” he adds.

To put that into perspective, Shamsuddin points out the fact that the number of “expatriates” (referring to high-skilled and knowledgeable workers) in Malaysia has been dwindling, while the number of “foreign workers” (referring to low or unskilled workers) is large and growing.

For instance, there were an estimated 80,000 expatriates working in Malaysia in the 1990s, compared with the present number of 38,000. On the other hand, the average number of foreign workers had grown from one million in the 1990s to more than two million in the second half of 2008.

“We seem to be attracting the wrong kind of skills into our economy,” Shamsuddin says.

He says he is also concerned about the possibility of certain industries such as construction and plantation in the country going to face shortage of skilled local professionals in the near future.

“There is no new blood in these industries. The local professionals holding the fort currently are already ageing,” he explains.

Closing the gap?

The lack of quality human capital can dent investors’ sentiments towards the country, Gomez says.

Gomez believes most foreign investors are aware of the human capital conditions in Malaysia. Therefore, he says, efforts to reverse brain drain need to be enhanced to maintain the country’s competitiveness and appeal to foreign investors.

While the issue of Penang losing US$3bil (RM10bil) worth of foreign investments last year because it could not guarantee 1,000 engineers specialising in electrical and electronics has become a hot debate among politicians, one cannot deny the fact that statistics from the Penang Chapter of the Institute of Engineers Malaysia indeed showed there was a shortage of such engineers there.

Of the 1,350 engineers on its register, only 260 of them were specialised in electrical and electronics.

Having said that, the Malaysian Government is well aware of the brain-drain issue afflicting the country. The decade-old “Brain Gain” programme, in which the Universiti Malaya is presently involved, is aimed at wooing Malaysian professionals back to the country.

Sad to say, though, the programme has not been very successful.

MEF estimates that the average number of returnees to be less than 50 each year.

In comparison, studies have shown that Asian powerhouses such as China, Taiwan and India have been rather successful with brain-gain programmes, not only in terms of drawing back their diaspora but also in terms of attracting foreign talents.

Gomez says, “We need to look at why we are not as successful.”

He opines that while having the attractive incentives in place is important to lure the Malaysian diaspora back, the Government also needs to address some issues pertaining to the country’s social policies that have been among the major push factors.

“Incentives and social policies... they go hand in hand. You can’t just improve one aspect of it and neglect the other. It doesn’t work that way,” he explains.

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