No merit in talking without commitment
IT was a day-long seminar in London aimed at bringing home talented Malaysians working in the United Kingdom or those who had made it their country of domicile. The list of speakers for last Wednesday’s event was impressive and it is a travesty that it drew just more than 50 participants – Malaysians or those who had links with Malaysia. Perhaps what was significant was that it did not draw the younger crowd, save for a handful of students who had just completed their post-graduate studies, curious to know what awaited them at home.
Speaker after speaker delivered glowing reports of Malaysia, most of which were factual. With winter approaching, the gloomy and rainy day prompted one (perhaps in jest) even to suggest that the hot weather and the culinary delights available round the clock in Malaysia should be a consideration. But as they spoke, more than 100 Malaysian bankers were just a few hundred metres away, doing their jobs, oblivious to the fact that the "talent hunters" were in town. They are no ordinary Joes – many of them in their twenties handle big portfolios and are involved in the personal banking and investments of the rich and famous. From one of the participants, I learnt that there are at "least 1,000 Malaysians working in that square mile".
That term refers to the financial district in central London which encompasses banks, financial institutions, stock brokers, accountancy firms and the lot. Unfortunately, the Asian Strategic & Leadership Institute and the Centre for Public Policy Studies, which enjoy a good following in the UK, did not manage to get their attention. Maybe they had not heard of the event or did not choose to apply for a day off from work or they could have viewed it as "We heard it all before. Can they tell us something new?"
Yes, the economy is flourishing and there are opportunities for talented Malaysians. But some young bankers I talked to earlier in the week had misgivings. They did not question what opportunities were available but what happens after they return and start working, especially in the government, its agencies or the government-linked-companies (GLCs)
Will they rise in the organisation, especially the locally-owned financial institutions or in GLCs? In London, they can aspire to become CEOs by sheer hard work and performance. No one cares about race, religion or creed or the prefixes before their fathers’ names. Connections are of no help and the answer to success is just produce more than what is expected. Unless these persons have the credentials and the competence, you don’t go anywhere. As long as they deliver, they get rewarded and move up the ladder and that many Malaysians are heading departments in international banks is testimony of their ability. So, having been in an environment where "the best man wins", can they adapt to a system alien to them?
In short, will they be judged on merit? Will meritocracy be the beacon of hope for so many thousands of Malaysians overseas who don’t want to return? Yes, they yearn for the love of their parents and families, who had made sacrifices to send them overseas for education, but without an "equal-opportunities" system, it is now for them to make the sacrifice for their own future.
The question of meritocracy was raised at the seminar but the issue was never addressed. Every speaker wanted to be politically correct and none wanted to commit himself. One went to name two senior officials in one GLC, but one swallow does not make a summer. There were assurances that "things can’t change overnight" and that "we are already seeing some changes" but no serious effort was made to deal with it. If concerted efforts are not made to address the issue, it will remain the biggest deterrent when attracting talent to Malaysia.
A young woman I met at the seminar had this to stay: "After graduation, I worked in KL for two years and got nowhere. I moved to Singapore and worked for two years during which time I was head-hunted and offered a job in London." If there were equal opportunities, Malaysia would not have lost her. She now works in a private securities company and heads the Asian desk.
In a knowledge-based economy, we need everyone on board. However, the system that has evolved and entrenched itself over the past few decades is now our biggest adversary. Changing mind-set and perception can only see success if we make a commitment and see it through to rectify past anomalies.
R. Nadeswaran has always championed meritocracy because it is the key to bigger economic success – look at Singapore. Comments: email@example.com