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Friday March 16, 2012

Leveraging on Malaysian diaspora

MALAYSIANS are resilient people who can thrive anywhere in the world, whether as students or in trade. This is perhaps a reflection of who we are and our heritage as a maritime, sojourning people since the time of the Malaccan Empire. Hence, I make it a point to meet with Malaysians abroad whenever I travel. Some of them have had remarkable achievements: executive chairmen/CEOs/CFOs of multinational companies, professors and students in prestigious universities, as well as founders of multi-million-dollar businesses.

I've met all sorts of Malaysians, from the Oman Air pilot who flew me to Jeddah to a gentleman who runs the Hong Leong Group-owned Bank of Chengdu in China and the owner of one of Thailand's biggest auto component-making companies.

In my recent trip to Myanmar, I was surprised to find how well Malaysians are doing in the logistics industry there. They all tell that while work and business have taken them thousands of miles away from home, they remain loyal Malaysians at heart.

According to the World Bank, there are more than a million Malaysians working abroad. They may not have immediate plans to return to Malaysia but I still consider them our assets goodwill ambassadors for the country. Instead of bemoaning the fact we are suffering from a “brain drain”, we should instead leverage on the global Malaysian diaspora to promote our economic agenda abroad.

Of the one million Malaysians overseas, about 12% are in Australia, 9% in Brunei, 8% in the United States, another 8% in Britain, 3% in Canada, and 46% in Singapore. Many work as professionals in banking, construction, engineering, medicine, and legal and information and communcation technology services. Some teach or undertake research in universities, and many others have their own businesses. In Britain alone, about 36% of Malaysians working there are professionals.

While the Government continues with its economic transformation agenda to create high-income economy and jobs to lure these Malaysians home, we must also tap into their networks to our advantage.

Indeed, the International Trade and Industry Ministry (MITI), through its agencies the Malaysia External Trade Development Corp (Matrade) and Malaysian Investment Development Authority (Mida), is leading this initiative to help Malaysian companies market their products overseas and attract foreign investments. And the Malaysian diaspora has a major role to play. MITI is leveraging on the presence of Malaysians overseas. For a start, they can help to link up government agencies with Malaysian companies abroad. This will enable our agencies to support these businesses more effectively.

In countries where English isn't widely used, the Malaysian community there can act as translators or interlocutors for Malaysian companies seeking to expand there. They can also gain from the business opportunities made available along the value chain by becoming buyers, importers and distributors of Malaysian products. We need to forge these symbiotic ties that benefit all Malaysian parties involved, everywhere.

Business aside, the Malaysian diaspora can help the country by countering inaccurate portrayals of Malaysia especially in the economic sphere. For instance, Malaysians abroad can counter the negative publicity that Malaysia suffers with regards to palm oil plantations and the environment. Those who are familiar with the issue can shed light on our government and corporate-driven initiatives to protect the environment through sustainable forest management.

Malaysians abroad should also join local chambers of commerce and bilateral business councils to stay in touch with developments at home.

Examples of such organisations include the Overseas Malaysian Executive Council of the United Kingdom; Malaysian Association in the Philippines; Malaysia-Myanmar Business Council; Malaysia-Thai Chamber of Commerce; Malaysia Association of Canada; Malaysia Business Council in Jeddah; Malaysian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Taipei; and Malaysia Association of Southern California. Matrade's trade commissioners overseas regularly interact with these organisations to keep them informed of business opportunities.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, the Malaysia Business Council has helped to promote the Malaysia My Second Home Programme. It has also helped publicise Malaysia as a tourism destination, business hub and centre for educational excellence.

Overseas Malaysians are also managing restaurants abroad for the Malaysia Kitchen Programme (MKP). The MKP takes advantage of their skills and familiarity with local tastes to promote Malaysian cuisine. The Malaysian Kitchen website reports that there are over 50 Malaysian restaurants in the United Kingdom. As I mentioned in my speech when officiating Makan-Makan Bistro in Perth last October, such restaurants have a unique role to play in promoting Malaysia, especially as a tourism destination.

Bringing back talent

Despite all that, the best outcome is still for the Malaysian diaspora, especially high-skilled workers, to come back and serve the nation.

The Government, through Talent Corp, is aggressively approaching these groups to lure them home. In April, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced revisions to the Returning Expert Programme (REP) to make it easier and more attractive for experienced professionals to return. These changes include the introduction of a transitional income tax incentive of a 15% flat rate applicable for five years.

In 2011, 680 applications were approved under the REP compared with 313 in 2010. Malaysians who returned under this scheme were professionals working in oil and gas, financial services, ICT, healthcare, and business services sectors. They returned from destinations all over the world the United Kingdom, Singapore, the United States, Australia, China and the Middle East.

This is indeed a big sacrifice on their part at a time of fierce, global competition for skilled labour. While I was having coffee with six Malaysians in Qatar, their CEO, who happened to be passing by, shared with me how skilled and hardworking he thought Malaysians are.

Indeed, he told me that he wanted to recruit more Malaysians. The Oman Air pliot also told me that many Malaysian pilots played a vital role in the setting-up and expansion of airlines in the Gulf. Malaysians are held in high regard in these countries and we should leverage on them to promote investments, trade, tourism and other good aspects that our country can offer.

All these examples are a testament that while we may be a relatively small country of 28 million people, we are nevertheless blessed with great talents that are recognised the world over. These talents are assets we must treasure, and leverage on, whether at home or abroad, for at the end of the day we are all bound by a common love for our country, Malaysia.

The writer is the International Trade and Industry Minister.