By Melissa Chi, The Malaysian Insider
December 07, 2010
First-class education system, a corruption-free government, zero tolerance on racism and the basic skill to communicate properly are all on one Malaysian’s mind when he chooses to work in Australia.
Anthony Leong, 30, an application support programmer, said he is considering giving up his Malaysian citizenship and live in Australia permanently, for the sake of his future family.
He said he had become frustrated at the corrupted system, the quality of local university graduates and the red tape he had to go through to apply for welfare support for his 70-year-old disabled aunt, among other things.
He is now a permanent resident in Australia, working for the Queensland Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation, and is considering applying to be an Australian citizen once he has convinced his father and sister to move with him.
Low purchasing power, racism, political instability, low income, race-based policies, crime rates and non-dual citizenship laws are seen as some of the reasons that have kept a lot of Malaysian talents anywhere but here, 300,000 annually to be exact.
Another Malaysian who had also chosen to be Down Under felt unappreciated in Malaysia.
“I am a Malaysian who loves my country but I do not feel loved. Why then should I stay?” Wesley Wong, 25, a software developer in Australia, told The Malaysian Insider.
His deep sense of frustration was echoed by many who are working abroad.
“The country should learn that all Malaysians love their country. Any Malaysian who does not feel appreciated in their own country will definitely find elsewhere to go because they realise that their future is bleak,” he said in an e-mail interview.
Leigh Howard, South Asia director for Talent2 International Limited, told The Malaysian Insider that approximately 300,000 Malaysians leave the country for better education, work and business prospects, quoting figures released by the government.
“That would compare with a figure of 80,000 for a country such as Australia which has a similar size population and workforce,” he said.
He added that Malaysia is lacking talents in the services sector, technology, banking, as well as in oil and gas.
Brian Fernandez, 40, a headhunter for senior and middle management positions for the last decade at Talent Search International, said those talents are lost to Singapore, all over Europe and the Middle East.
“Setting up Talent Corp is a nice blah blah but it’s not real,” he said, dismissing the initiative launched yesterday.
The prime minister announced at its launch yesterday that foreigners and Malaysians living abroad can soon apply for a new resident pass that will allow them to live and work in Malaysia for up to 10 years at a time.
Although he had earlier said that Talent Corporation, which was established under the Prime Minister’s Department, will spearhead initiatives to attract the estimated 700,000 skilled Malaysians currently working abroad, the prime minister did not mention the ambitious figure at the launch.
Instead, Najib announced a new policy to retain and attract talent to Malaysia.
He said the resident pass will be made available to highly-skilled expatriates seeking to continue working and living in Malaysia as well as Malaysians residing overseas.
Unlike an employment pass, he said the resident pass has the advantage of not being tied to an employer and it can be issued for a longer period.
Najib, also the finance minister, said the pass will also be available to those originally from Malaysia as well as their offspring who no longer hold Malaysian citizenship.
Following the announcements, however, he did not specify how the new body will reach out to those “highly-skilled talents”.
Fernandez was sceptical about how the new initiative will pan out, even before the launch yesterday.
“Malaysia is very good with plans, but when it comes to execution, it’s a different story,” he said.
The Malaysian Insider had reported that Singapore had trumped Malaysia in the brain gain stakes, according to a recent Gallup poll which saw the island-state beat some 150 countries to come out as the most favoured destination in the world for educated migrants.
Fernandez cited his family as “a classic case” as one of his sisters is working for the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland and another in Singapore.
Fernandez, who has a university degree and a small child, had also left for Singapore in his late 30s, said that he was “one of thousands who had left Malaysia in the last two years.”
He said Malaysia had lost a lot of talents in technology because the skill is very transferable and that “Singapore is a good example of a vacuum cleaner, sucking talents out of Malaysia.”
He added that Malaysians in the banking and financial industry, especially accountants, are being offered better salaries and benefits abroad, whom he said, usually stay on in the country and do not return.
Fernandez used the biotech industry in Malaysia as an example of the many sectors which need to improve, to gain talents.
“Singapore went through that as well. They had a 10-year plan, bought global talents from the UK, the US, there were a lot of PhD students. They grew the talent pool and now they have more than 1,000 PhD holders,” he said.
He credited the government for its efforts and said that at least Malaysia is headed in the right direction as he noticed that talents are being paid better in recent years and that senior management salaries had gone up in government agencies as well as government-linked companies.
SOLUTIONS FOR THE PHENOMENON
Howard said that even though there is an incentive package for repatriating Malaysians which includes tax exemption for importing a car and leeway for their children to enter international schools, “however more could be done.”
Under the Human Resources Ministry’s “Return of Experts Programme”, an approved returnee is entitled to bring back two cars tax-free, as well as the applicant’s accumulated income, also tax-free.
However, this is hardly an incentive as in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries which do not have approved permits (AP) or prohibitive taxes on imported cars.
Howard said the solution to this brain drain phenomenon is twofold.
“In a broader sense, the same types of economic and social conditions which attract quality immigration will assist with repatriation, (for example) there needs to be material improvements in education, career and working life.
“At the same time, there are some very specific initiatives that would target and attract Malaysians to return home. All of them involve a considerably more detailed and proactive approach,” he said.
He suggested the government follow the footsteps of large multinational companies in the private sector that invest heavily in their employee value proposition (EVP) and review specifically at this target group.
He also said the level of outreach needs to be highly proactive as policies and standard incentive programmes can only go so far.
“(The government) needs to adopt a less passive and highly rigorous approach to identification, communication, and interaction with this pool of people. It’s not impossible to map out and identify Malaysians living overseas, it just involves work. Following up from this, the type of engagement programme needs to be sophisticated enough to have a long-term impact on repatriation numbers. Whether it’s accelerated resettlement, incentive programmes or fundamental changes to the Malaysian economy ... will also play a role,” he said.
“It may not come as a surprise that the private sector is already undertaking its own efforts to identify and repatriate Malaysians into mission critical roles within their organisations,” he said.
Fernandez said some of the ways to stop Malaysian talents from leaving are to have better physical security, better policing and opportunities, adding that “it’s not always about the money”.
“A trickle will be a flood. If there are opportunities, people will come back,” he said optimistically.
Currently, he said there is a net outflow rather than inflow of talents and warned that it will get worse next year.
However, Fernandez said that losing Malaysians might not be the end of the prime minister’s vision for the country to be a high-income and a developed nation by 2020.
“If we are losing Malaysians and can’t get them back, then hire foreigners. It’s not easy for a foreigner to get work permit here and that’s a mistake. It should be more difficult for unskilled workers,” he said.
In the National Economic Advisory Council (NEAC) report on the New Economic Model (NEM), it says that the numbers of expatriates have fallen from nearly 90,000 in 2000 to nearly half of that by 2008.
The net result is a “shortage of dynamic talent to push Malaysia into higher added value activities”.
“We are competing globally, so we need to look globally. It’s not a zero-sum game, it is not that if you bring in a foreigner, it’s at the expense of a local,” he said, adding that bringing in international talents can spur more job opportunities.
MALAYSIA IS NOT ALONE
Howard was quick to add that Malaysia is not alone in the brain drain phenomenon, and that every country experiences immigration and emigration flows, which constantly affects the calibre of the workforce.
“What you need to do is examine is the brain exchange, (for example) that you ensure the skills entering the country are at least the same or ideally superior than those exiting. Malaysia’s challenge is that our emigrants are more skilled than our immigrants (and our general population),” he said.
Howard stressed that the government should improve on the selection, settlement and integration of skilled immigrants to help boost the quality of the workforce in Malaysia. He said that not only do skilled immigrants provide a higher calibre workforce through their own efforts, but they also indirectly improve the skills and knowledge of those around them.
The report by the NEAC on the NEM laments that “we are not developing talent and what we do have are leaving”.
The report says that currently, some 350,000 Malaysians are working abroad, with over half of them having tertiary education.
This leaves more than 80 per cent of the workforce with SPM-level qualification, and their wages are being continually suppressed by the vast availability of foreign workers and other barriers like subsidies and price controls.
According to the World Bank, Malaysians residing overseas numbered only 9,576 in 1960 while the world’s total registered migration was 382,912 per nation. By 2005, the world’s registered migration increased to an average of 919,302 per nation, an increase of 2.4 times. However, Malaysia’s emigration numbers rose to 1,489,168, an almost 100-fold increase over the 45-year period.
Many first world countries have schemes to attract talents from all over the world. The closest example is Singapore, which has employer-sponsored (Scheme 1) working visas, which are issued within three working days on receipt of application. And under its Scheme 4, top-notch professionals are “purposely” sought from all over the world and attracted to reside in Singapore.
Jonathan Monteiro, 28, a headhunter, described this phenomenon as a chicken or egg situation, where because of the lack of talents in Malaysia in certain industries, investors hesitate to invest, hence the limited pool of Malaysian talents will opt to leave the country for better opportunities, mostly to where the said companies invested in.
Monteiro said most Malaysians are tempted to work abroad because salaries offered are more attractive.
For example, he said, certain jobs in Qatar pay Malaysians about 85 per cent more than what they do here. Monteiro said he is considering moving to Qatar next year to be in the human resources industry.
“When you come back, you’ll definitely need to take a salary cut,” he said, adding that no one he knows was working in a company in Malaysia that could match their salaries abroad.
He said, however, that some of them will eventually return to Malaysia, “simply because it is home.”
RETAIN AND RECRUIT TALENTS
Lyvian Loh, 27, a market analyst in the US, said among other things, health insurance is very affordable, there is freedom of speech and it has a less stressful lifestyle.
She said there is also “lesser expectations of entertaining your superiors to get a better positions or to get promoted”, the pay is relevant to your degree or ability, and that the purchasing power is higher there than in Malaysia.
“It is definitely a problem for the country but is a benefit for the particular individual. If a country doesn’t appreciate the talents and qualifications in their own country, the individual may as well go to a better place where people appreciate them while giving them a better life,” she said of the brain drain phenomenon.
Jesse Lee, 30, a senior accountant in the US, said following completion of her degree at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, she had only wanted to stay on for a few years to learn the culture and the working lifestyle there, but had since changed her mind.
“Gradually, I fell in love with the people, environment and the surroundings here. Not only there’s the higher salary, you get the freedom you don’t have back home. You know, here’s just like what Alicia Keys described in her song — if you can make it here, you can make it everywhere, concrete jungle is where the dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do.
“It gives you hope. You know as long as you work hard, you will achieve what you dreamed of. But there’s a huge trade off for working abroad. You don’t get to see your families and friends often,” she said.
Asked what the solutions might be, she said the government should “walk the talk.”
“1 Malaysia isn’t just a slogan. The government should really put in effort to unite the people and create a ‘home’ for us. Fix the corruption and reduce crimes,” she said.
Wong had similar initial plans as Lee and had also changed his course.
“I had wanted to return to Malaysia to help my family business when I was studying for my bachelor’s but some time in 2007/2008 but I changed my mind and decided to stay in Australia. This was because I saw no future in Malaysia with the current system in place. My parents had advised me to stay in Australia as well,” he said.
Wong called for open tenders for projects, lower crime rates and that the government should do away with race-based policies and emphasise on meritocracy instead.
“The brain drain phenomenon has been a problem since many years ago. Many Malaysians have realised that you will never get anywhere if you don’t pull the right strings. This has spurred many Malaysians to leave the country in search of greener pastures where they can be appreciated. Malaysia has been stuck in the middle-income trap for many years and will still be for many years to come because the level of education there is appalling.
“Malaysia can’t continue on with its manufacturing sectors because many other countries can do the same thing for a cheaper price but yet Malaysia continues to churn out many sub-par graduates with poor language skills. As it goes, Malaysia won’t move on to the next stage after manufacturing, which is to start designing and inventing products because of the lack of talent in the country,” he said.
Among other things that Malaysians working abroad complain about are the rampant racism which they felt is more tolerated in Malaysia compared to where they are, having to choose only one citizenship and oppressive laws such as the Internal Security Act.
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