FLORENCE Tan, Penny Wong and, most recently, Fakhirah Khairuddin, have become household names in Malaysia of late – all for achieving admirable success abroad.
These Malaysia-born professionals may be outliers in the country’s talent landscape – after all, how many Malaysians can work for US space agency Nasa like Tan, for one – but their stories have again cast a spotlight on our brain drain issue.
Inevitably caught in the glare is Talent Corporation Malaysia Berhad (TalentCorp), which was set up in 2011 to drive the country’s talent development strategies for becoming a high-income economy. This included TalentCorp’s Returning Expert Programme (REP), aimed at attracting Malaysian professionals working abroad home.
According to Emir Research, Malaysia’s brain drain has been growing at an average rate of 6% a year in the last few decades. The think tank estimates there are more than two million Malaysians living and working abroad, including some 500,000 highly-skilled professionals.
To date, TalentCorp has brought back more than 6,000 Malaysian talents from abroad under the REP programme, out of over 10,000 applications.
Noting the grave need to reverse the brain drain into brain gain, TalentCorp Group CEO Thomas Mathew tells Sunday Star that they embarked on a full review of the REP programme last year.
The first thing TalentCorp focused on was to set up a current database of Malaysians abroad, says Mathew.
“We do not have a current database of Malaysians abroad; what we have is the number of those who have actually applied for REP and that’s only about 10,000.
“So we worked with the World Bank to do a heat map of Malaysians abroad, identifying the Malaysians who are abroad and the skills that they have and could possibly contribute to the country.
“That way we can understand where Malaysians are concentrated and from that we can then work with Malaysian associations there to understand their profiles, their skill sets, and then build a network so that when an employer wants to look for a specific Malaysian talent, we know where they are.”
Mathew expects the report to be finalised soon, and once the database is ready it can help connect companies here with the Malaysian talent they need.
“A lot of companies here would rather hire Malaysians instead of expatriates so when there are skill sets they don’t find here, they’d want to connect with Malaysians abroad who have them instead of foreign talents.
“So any company here who wants to look for Malaysian talents can refer to the database,” Mathew says, adding that once both parties agree and the Malaysian talent accepts the job here, then the REP incentive becomes the icing on the cake for them to come back.
The main incentives provided under REP include an optional 15% flat income tax rate for five years, permanent residency status for foreign spouses and children (subject to approval) and tax exemptions on personal belongings brought back to Malaysia.
However, the REP incentives are not a determinant for the Malaysian diaspora to come back, says Mathew. “They’ll still need a job. And that is something only a company here can provide.
“Ultimately, an employer must actually give the Malaysian abroad a job opportunity. TalentCorp is not recruiting them, but to close the deal an incentive is good.”
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Mathew believes that the incentives provided under the REP are adequate and what is needed is to make the programme more sustainable.
“We don’t want to chase numbers (in bringing back Malaysians) because when you start chasing numbers, sometimes you end up compromising on the kind of Malaysians that you really want to give the incentive to.
“Malaysians are welcome back into the country but the incentive must be given to Malaysians that are actually required in the country, with skill sets that we don’t have here.
“Otherwise, Malaysians themselves here will complain and say how can we be giving somebody an incentive to come back when they’ve been working here in the same profession and they don’t get any incentive. So that’s unfair,” he says.
The required skill sets are determined by the annual Critical Occupations List, which compiles strategic and sought-after jobs and skills in key growth areas in the country.
“That critical occupation list is basically to determine the jobs that are hard to fill in key growth areas in the country. We use that as one of the criteria when we decide to give the REP incentives to any Malaysian who wants to come back,” Mathew explains.
Ultimately, TalentCorp is not a recruiting or headhunting agency, he reiterates.
“We don’t have a structured platform for skill-matching to help returning Malaysian talents to look for a job. Only if employees seek from us, then if we know there is a person available in that profession, then we’ll try and match it.
“So we created something called the MyHeart programme last year to do this on a more structured basis and to provide more than incentives when dealing with the Malaysian diaspora.”
Mathew says this process will become more efficient once they have the up-to-date database of Malaysians abroad.
“We can then understand the skills that we have available, and whenever companies here seek for a Malaysian talent abroad or a certain skill set, then we can do this matching.”
The main activity under the MyHeart programme is the MyHeart-REP Career and Facilitation Fest (MyHeart-REP CaFé), which is aimed at providing REP participants with end-to-end facilitation for employment, education, immigration and other matters in returning to the country.
It also provides a platform that gives Malaysian professionals abroad a chance to engage and network with the relevant stakeholders, including prospective employers and recruiters as well as potential schools for their children.
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Other than expanding the facilitation for approved applicants, TalentCorp hopes the MyHeart will generate a higher number of returnees through continuous engagement.
“As I said, the incentive alone is not going to seal the deal.
“The incentive helps but what we want to try and do is to facilitate their employment and children’s education.
“When the REP incentive is approved by the committee for an applicant, we give the Malaysian abroad two years to get a job in the skill that they say they have. Because otherwise, it’s unfair, as we are only giving them the incentive because that is a skill set that is required here,” Mathew explains.
Still, for Malaysian talents abroad to return home, they need to see that Malaysia is a land of opportunities with good prospects, Mathew concedes.
“For that, career opportunities here must rise, the economy must grow and higher level skilled industries must come into play.
“All of these things must happen before a Malaysian would think about returning home.
“It’s a sustainable model, we may have these pockets of people applying, but if once we position Malaysia as a high-skilled nation, where the best of jobs are available and that competes with everything around, then you will have Malaysians considering Malaysia as a destination for them,” Mathew notes.
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Here, he says, is where Talent-Corp is mandated to play its part as the focal point agency for the country’s talent-building as it moves into a high-income nation status.
Other than attracting Malaysian professionals home, TalentCorp is also looking at job creation as a whole as well as getting students ready for the job. At the same time, the agency is also focusing on boosting female talent in the country including by providing incentives to get women back to work.
“If you want to increase per capita income, then you must have professionals that actually avail that kind of a salary,” says Mathew, underscoring that economically, Malaysia must rise.
“To do that we need a lot more foreign direct investment in the country, we need job creation and a high skill level so that all Malaysians can go up that ladder, and we are perceived as a nation that is developed and progressive.
“Why do Malaysians go to Singapore to work? Sure, one is the higher exchange rate there. But then there are also the skill sets there which may be slightly higher. So we need to raise our country to actually get to that level if we want to compete. We already see Vietnam is growing,” says Mathew.
“The good thing about Malaysia is that it is still perceived as a country in which a lot of companies want to invest.”
He stresses that what’s important is to create better career opportunities for everybody in Malaysia.
This will also go far in ensuring social justice for everyone, which is often quoted as a reason why Malaysians go abroad to work.
“When we ask the Malaysian diaspora why they left the country, some have cited ‘social injustice’.
“But if the whole country moves up and good career opportunities are available for everybody, then there will be no issue. We won’t need any affirmative action policies or protectionism.
“So as a country, we need to move forward. ‘Social injustice’ to me will become an issue for as long as the pie is small. But once the pie is big and is enough for everybody, I think that it will not become so much of a concern,” Mathew says.