By Martin Jalleh
On 4 Oct. last year, PM Najib Razak expressed his concern that the exodus of local talent to developed countries has threatened his vision of transforming Malaysia into a high-income nation by 2020.
Below are some statistics gathered from various sources and highlighted in 2010 to show how serious the brain drain is and the fact that more and more Malaysians are leaving since Najib took over:
785,000 Malaysians are working overseas. Unofficially, the figure is well over 1 million (or even 1.5 million) (Malaysian Employers Federation executive director, Shamsuddin Bardan).
Of those who have left, nearly 40% of them have settled in Singapore; 30% in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries such as Australia, USA, UK, Canada and New Zealand; 20% in other Asean countries and 10% in the rest of the world.
An Australian immigration agency in Perth with offices in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor has reportedly said that the number of Malaysians enquiring about moving to Australia rose by 80% since 2008.
There were only 9,576 Malaysians living abroad in 1960. The number of migrants from Malaysia rose sharply to 1,489,168, a near 150-fold increase over the 45-year period! (World Bank).
The number of Malaysians relocating to Singapore jumped from 120,104 in 1981 to 303,828 in 2000. The number of Malaysian migrants to Australia, meanwhile, shot up to 92,337 in 2007.
140,000 left the country, probably for good, in 2007. Between March 2008 and August 2009, that figure more than doubled to 305,000 (according to a recent parliamentary report).
Companies have complained about the lack of skilled labour in Malaysia and economists have cited this problem as a hindrance in the country’s ability to attract more high-technology industries. About 80% of the country’s workforce have only secondary school education.
Around 350,000 Malaysians, half of which have tertiary education, are working abroad (according to the National Economic Action Council (NEAC) ).
The number of Malaysian researchers, scientists and engineers working overseas exceeds 20,000 with 40% of them in the United States and 10% in Australia.
304,358 Malaysians had migrated from March 2008 till Aug. 2009 compared with 139,696 Malaysians in 2007.
There are around 7,000 plus research scientists, i.e., about 70% of the total in Malaysia, working overseas.
Bird-brained over brain drain
In response to the disturbing diaspora scenario, the government announced in Dec. the setting up of “Talent Corporation” (Talent Corp.) under the 10th Malaysia Plan to attract and retain highly-skilled human capital. Operating under the PM’s Department, it will commence operations in January 2011.
Judging from the statements of the political elite in 2010 and their glaring contradictions of each other, Talent Corp. will eventually meet a fate similar to past attempts such as the ambitious “brain gain” programme of the 8th Malaysia Plan implemented some 10 years ago.
It had a two-pronged strategy: (a) An annual “brain gain” of 5,000 “extraordinary world citizens of extraordinary talent” to “lure the best brains regardless of race or nationality, from Bangalore to California” and (b) Encourage 500 skilled Malaysians overseas every year to return home with their expertise from 2001.
Lim Kit Siang called the ambitious “brain gain” programme an “unmitigated failure” – with Malaysia losing even more talents in the past decade.
Malaysians living abroad have often cited affirmative action policies as hindrances to them returning to their homeland. In response to this Najib said that affirmative action would be made “market-friendly, merit-based, transparent and needs-based” under the New Economic Model.
His deputy Muhyiddin Yassin insisted that the economic plan would protect the Malay agenda. Malay rights groups jumped on the Deputy PM’s bandwagon, Najib backtracked and called the policy a “trial balloon”!
In an article entitled “Treat returnees as real national assets” Khairy Jamaluddin wrote on the “need to offer enough opportunities and scholarships to our top performers all the way through to university and prepare a lucrative and rewarding career path for them so they end up contributing here rather than elsewhere.”
On 16 June 2010, Nazri Aziz was on another wave-length: “Sending overseas students causes brain-drain where some of them won’t want to come back after studying there for a few years. If you keep sending students overseas, when are we going to improve our standards (locally)?”
He also believed that the money saved from the scrapping of the Public Service Department’s (PSD) overseas scholarships will be put to better use in “improving the facilities” of local universities. (Two days earlier, Nazri had said the government “did not have the “capacity” to finance the studies of the growing pool of bright students in the country”!)
On 24 July 2010, whilst commenting on Talent Corp., respected academician and retired politician Toh Kin Woon said that it may not succeed because the government has failed to tackle the real causes of the diaspora – “racial discrimination; the lack of an open, democratic space; and declining quality of our country’s education”.
Stripping the government bare of its hypocrisy, Toh said that the “haemorrhage of skills, knowledge and talents” was mainly due to the “continued resort to using race as a tool by power elites at the Federal Government ostensibly to help the Bumiputeras, but whose aim is in fact to nurture cronies. The victims of this race-based policy are the poor and middle class of all ethnic groups.”
The latest government statement on Talent Corp. came from its CEO Johan Mahmood Merican who in an interview with Malaysiakini (2 March 2011) was adamant that its operations “will be based on merit” despite mounting pressure from Malay rights NGOs for the Economic Transformation Programme to cling to policies benefitting bumiputeras.
Will Johan’s assurance turn out to be a big joke one day? Will Talent Corp. be Talent Crap? It is indeed difficult to be optimistic considering the on-going exodus and that very little has changed!