Why is Malaysia experiencing a brain drain?

by Evelyn Wong, Guest Contributor
New Mandala
December 20th, 2010

In the past six months, there’s been a surge of local interest in the trend of brain drain in Malaysia. Out of a population of 27 million, there are an estimated 1.5 million Malaysians living abroad. Many of these Malaysians are skilled workers who emigrated to Singapore and OECD countries such as Australia, UK, and US. In response to this, the government has set up the Talent Corporation under the 10th Malaysia Plan to attract and retain highly-skilled human capital. Operating under the Prime Minister’s Department, Talent Corp will commence operations in January 2011.

While this is a promising step towards ameliorating the problem, the causes of brain drain are complex and deeply-entrenched in other aspects of Malaysian society. My personal research deals with the personal side of brain drain: in other words, what drives Malaysians’ decisions to leave the country, or to return home? I focused on Malaysians who are studying and working abroad, or have done so in the past. Over two weeks in June 2010, I surveyed 841 Malaysians on their opinions of various aspects of Malaysia; such as its political situation, its economic situation, safety, education and human rights. For statistical analysis purposes, respondents were asked to rate these abstract factors on a scale of one to ten, with one being not important at all and ten being most important. The survey also asked respondents to rate how important job prospects, religion, family ties, and a sense of moral duty to the country were to their decision whether to return or not. Finally, I asked how much the respondent believed young people coming home would make a difference to the country, and left a space for her to express her feelings about Malaysia in their own words.

A full report can be found at pluggingthebraindrain.wordpress.com. One illuminating find was that across the board, only three factors were statistically significant in whether a Malaysian decided to return: perception of whether returnees can make a difference, job prospects, and moral duty – a mix of the pragmatic and the philosophical. The more importance job prospect were to a Malaysian overseas, the lower the desire to come home. On the other hand, a higher rating on moral duty and making a difference corresponded to an increased desire to return to the home country.

In addition, I found that both experiences based on personal attributes (gender, ethnicity, family ties) as well as general perceptions of how the nation is progressing (economy, politics, education) play into one’s decision whether to return home. For example, men and Malaysians of Chinese descent were more pessimistic about Malaysia’s future. In general, younger respondents were more idealistic – a hopeful sign for the future generation, perhaps?

Personally, I found the comments section where people could express themselves freely the most interesting part of my research. For many émigrés, there is a deep sense of being wronged and not feeling welcome in Malaysia that propels them to make a living and a home elsewhere. In my opinion, it’s not too late to stem the brain drain – there are many young and young-at-heart Malaysians who still call Malaysia home. It’s going to take more than lip service or even financial incentives to draw most back, though. In an increasingly globalized world with porous international borders, Malaysia is at a turning point: to clean up her act and enter the developed world, or to continue stagnating and fall behind. The decisions of many, many Malaysians will depend on which way they believe she will go.

Evelyn Wong is a sophomore at Scripps College, California, pursuing a dual major in Politics and International Relations, and Economics. She hails from Ipoh, Malaysia.

  1. #1 by drngsc on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 9:33 am

    I may not be a political scientist, but I know that this Talent Corp thing, is firstly, for show-it is politics. The elections is coming. Secondly, with every project, there is an opportunity to pocket. The government knows why people are running away. Infact, some of us think that it is their aim to drive the talents away, so that the non-talents left behind cannot challenge them. The toilet is stinko, putting some pots of flowers with a little perfume is not going to attract people to use the toilet, unless those who are so desperate. Of course, those who sell the flower pots and perfume gains.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 9:36 am

    This Talent Corp thingy can be put to more worthy use to select a better pm from umno.

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 9:41 am

    In my observation almost 10 in 10 Chinese emigres left Malaysia because of the NEP.

    If the NEP is repealed, not only the brain drain problem can be tamed (though not totally eradicated) but also Malaysia will start to experience a brain gain.

  4. #4 by Thor on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 9:48 am

    You asked why?
    Go and ask those UmnoB buggers!
    They are already brainless so what do they really care about brain drain.

  5. #5 by Bunch of Suckers on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 10:15 am

    Since Malaysia got independence, it has been led and governed by bunch of suckers. Instead of favoring and promoting “brain Gain”, they have been favoring “Brain Drain” What they are good at are to suck!!! Keeping sucking… They are bunch of sucky booms booms…

    If PR take over Putrajava and govern with meritocracies, I will be the first to return back to our great nation, Malaysia! Whereas sucky booms booms still monkeying and sucking around, forget it!!!

  6. #6 by johnnypok on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 10:40 am

    1. Abolish NEP and AP

    2. Practice 100% meritocracy

    3. Open PM post to any race

  7. #7 by NiceGuy on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 10:50 am

    We are the professionals in the aviation industry, aviation maintenance to be exact. Since 20 years ago, I have ‘lost’ about 20 of my batchmates to the middle east and europe. This year alone I have lost 4. Another I just met and he’s about to pack up and leave next year IF BN is going win the GE13 and Najib is still the PM. Need I say more?
    My response to my friend? I might just join them after trying and hoping for the last 30 years…

  8. #8 by Godfather on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 11:09 am

    At first, they allowed us to sit under the shade of the rambutan tree. Then as more and more people came to sit under the rambutan tree, they made excuses about their priority under their tree….so we moved to sit under another tree. Then they accused us of eyeing their rambutan fruits, so now we have to sit nearby but refrain from looking at their rambutan tree.

    In the end, it was just too much and we decided to go somewhere where we would have nothing to do with their rambutan tree, real or imagined.

    • #9 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 12:20 pm

      Godfather :
      At first, they allowed us to sit under the shade of the rambutan tree.

      Don, you should thank your lucky stars that they don’t ask you to sit under the durian tree.

  9. #10 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 12:41 pm

    In a “globalized world with porous international borders”, people leaving for greener pastures elsewhere and people coming in for (comparatively) greener pastures here is a continuous process. Whether a country gains more “brains” or brawns to compensate the brains that it loses is function of how green our pastures compared to elsewhere. Here the NEP has been a major “push” factor as it causes the country’s income to fall due to fall in competitiveness and also lack of opportunties for minorities. It is not the only major factor: the other is increasing politicising of Religion.

    Ultimately it is culture and mindset of majority of voters that count whether it enables or reverses the push factors.

    It is the perception that the mindset and culture will not change that drives the brains away because unless there is this change of mindset and culture, even a change of government, were it possible, will not bring change as politicians, even under a new government, are likelier to pander to this mindset and culture for staying in power than to risk lose it by trying to change this mindset (putting race/religion first) and feudal culture.

    This means that on balance there will be brain drain exceeding brain gain.

  10. #11 by undertaker888 on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 12:53 pm

    brain drain, brain gain? those goons dont care about that. they are more interested in money drain from rakyat, money gain by them.

    the only subject fit to rule by umno and cohorts are those animals living in the jungle. even then they would be eaten alive with their ketuanan and nep [email protected]

  11. #12 by k1980 on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 12:56 pm

    If Padma Patil is a malaysian, she, and not her father and brother, would be on trial and then locked up. Or else she would have to hide and change her name to Linda Joyless.


  12. #13 by monsterball on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 2:24 pm

    From a noble and sincere idea to help the Malays with the agreement of minority races….UMNO have made it into a political agenda and UMNO B formed by Mahathir…made sure race and religion dirty politics…..will make all Malays to vote for them forever…..being their Savior and ..Protector…sort of a Allah’s wishes for the good of all poor helpless Malays..and Mahathir make sure they stay helpless and depend on UMNO B forever.
    For 55 years….innocent minority Malaysians are being side lined in almost everything.. to frustrate them….making them happy to go somewhere…leaving Malaysia permanently.
    Mahathir had a program to encourage Malays to have as many children as they can produce.. and all will be taken care of by the Govt…get rewards and subsidies..in an attempt to make Malay population much stronger.
    Yes…force minorities to leave and encourage Malays to have more children….what can ordinary minorities do except leave and seek fortunes elsewhere..refusing to be tied down as failures by our devilish ..racist Govt..
    Najib said …”Don’t divide the Nation” in Star paper big headline today.
    And that is exactly how UMNO B going to defend themselves as a Govt to unite all and others are dividing and frustrating Malaysians…keep twisting and fooling Malaysians.
    It is very sad…..Najib choose to keep fooling Malaysians….with useless..shameless…MCA ….and MIC encouraging…their races.. to be second class citizens..
    What can helpless Malaysians..especially the Chinese do…except search for jobs elsewhere to feed their families…..and this have been twisted by Najib…as disloyal and insincere Malaysians.
    You can never find the real reasons for migrations..as there are so many.
    When a country have citizens migrating out to be doctors…engineers..teachers…elsewhere…it bluntly shows the Govt,…is evil. and applying clear double standards…..making the smart ones as failures …to be at par with their natural failures they have made of their own race..
    We see alot of factory workers and maids imported and those are from poor countries. You seldom hear Malaysians go out to be maids elsewhere.
    Identify seeking jobs else where…their reason and why…and not lump those coming to Malaysia as maids are having same problems like Malaysians.
    Ours is blatant double standards and mind control dirty politics to chase Malaysians out..so that the band of robbers and thieves can keep stealing and dressed with false titles….to live far better than Royalties…..and it is so clearly seen right now.
    “Suckers are born every second”…and these suckers are mostly UMNO B members.

  13. #14 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 2:29 pm

    Look at it another way. Would it be worst if the govt make it official what has been unofficial for decades already i.e., ‘good riddance’ policy that basically says they can all leave for all they care?

    Do people honestly believe the propaganda that the BN politicians, whose self-image is self-centered machiavellian gives a real hoot that all these people are leaving if there is no immediate profit in it for them?

    Even Singapore, even as they attract talent, they have a system in place to weed out those politically unfriendly to the ruling party. UMNO/BN do not control that kind of profit making enterprises and can afford waste, so there is no compelling reason for them to really attract talent that will challenge their power.

  14. #15 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 2:42 pm

    Always hv pull n push factors when a person wants 2 migrate
    M’sians who migrated must thank UmnoB/BN 4 d big PUSH dat made them decide 2 migrate
    A fovour indeed n a blessing in disguise
    Without d big push, many might not hv taken d plunge 2 uproot fr M’sia n might hv remained here 2 b insulted, bullied, n treated as no class citizens
    YES, those who can migrate, GO n build your future in your new found land
    Remember, “life is worth living, but only worth living, ’cause you’re born free”

  15. #16 by perampok cinta1 on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 3:46 pm

    You are right when you said that many Malaysians went to work abroad. That’s true. I have a few friends and family members that actually have PR and work in Australia.
    However, this phenomena was not caused by BN Government as claimed by the writer.
    Malaysians simply work abroad because they usually offer better experience to gain. Australia for example will give them more experience as a rich country than Malaysia. As a usual after their have an enough experience they will come back to Malaysia and open their own business and automatically give advantage to Malaysia because having a capable and competence company to growth our economy.
    Furthermore, some of our students abroad refuse to come back to Malaysia. They end up working there. Is it because of the government? I don’t think so.

  16. #17 by monsterball on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 3:46 pm

    We will be missing the point to treat migration as a blessing in disguise from UMNO B.
    If you want change in Govt….you need all the votes to fight the evil Govt…and hope some will return to Malaysia to sacrifice themselves..for people and country…for less pay and vote for a change.
    Never allow the Devil have his ways.
    I had so many opportunities to earn millions and get rid of this sick country..but I stayed for my children as a Malaysian and told all my children with degrees…to find a living and stay put..to defend their rights. as Malaysians…and our country is so beautiful and rich.
    Why should we surrender to crooks?
    If PR smart educated young ones…dare to fight and go to jail for people and country… why are some Malaysians..especially the Malaysian Chinese so selfish?
    Come back and fight them with your votes.

  17. #18 by Loh on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 4:11 pm

    The net outward brain drain in Malaysia is due to NEP. The government knows it. The solution lies in ending NEP. Najib
    declared NEM which included a pause on the infamous 30% equity requirement of NEP. Either he signalled the wicked Mamak, or the Mamak did it on his own, a few thousands temporary political demonstrators were gathered to voice its opposition to NEM. NEM is now NEP again. Najib later declared that though NEP was initially for 20 years, it is equired to continue. There was no need to have experts to prepare reports to say that NEP is still required, though NEM indicated that some of NEP policies have actually harmed the country.

    Najib considers his interest before that of the nation. He needed NEP to continue as UMNO chief and PM. Until UMNO is defeated in future GE, and UMNO would accept election decision like Abdullah Badawi, NEP would continue. With NEP which mandates inquality of people based on religion and race brain drains will continue. So is the low income trap.

    Razak’s initiation of making this a low income country will be continued with his son in the helm.

  18. #19 by danieltkb on Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 8:45 pm

    there are so many opinions posted here.
    the most important is OPPORTUNITIES and a better living, that made a person stay.
    i guess with these in mind, nobody will run away !

  19. #20 by Taxidriver on Wednesday, 22 December 2010 - 12:02 am

    Because of brain drain we are in need of brilliant and qualified leaders to take the country forward. What is left behind are the drain brain UMNOB/BN leaders who are very at lokang politics.

  20. #21 by joonhowe on Wednesday, 22 December 2010 - 12:44 am

    Because we as Malaysian are not treated as equal here. Because it is not a level playing field. Because of the discrimination by the ruling govt. Why does a Malay Malaysian get 7% discount when buying property in Malaysia regardless of how wealthy he is? Some developer has to sell 50% as quota to Malay Malaysian. Assuming we keep the profit of the developer unchanged, the non Malays are actually subsidising the Malays 3.5% of the property price. Keeping the profit unchanged, the developer can reduce the price by 3.5% if there is no 7% discount to the Malays.

  21. #22 by tak tahan on Wednesday, 22 December 2010 - 1:06 am

    BN is the main cause to all this problem.To put it simply;if a leader in a family encourage and pamper his/her family members to be dependent and having lavish lifestyle without succumb to oneself effort;the status quo or coming future is what we’ll be expected of the majority race.Change better goverment to re-tune their brain and gradually guide them to equip themself to this competitive world.

  22. #23 by tak tahan on Wednesday, 22 December 2010 - 2:00 am

    If a child is in/within his/her ethnic group or otherwise sensed another childmates playing foul in a game,he/she willl quit the game.It’s called Lopsided game.No one party to gain advantages.One side sure to loose and another side will never muster their desirable prowess.Might as well go home and bang one’s cock for plea..sure for nothing ideally achieved than totally nothing hoped for!

  23. #24 by raven77 on Wednesday, 22 December 2010 - 2:35 am

    At this point in time, I dont think there is anyone else competent left to run this country…

  24. #25 by Ray on Wednesday, 22 December 2010 - 4:50 pm

    Brain-Drain Rakyat malaysians why??.
    .Its all UmnoNajib 1 Malusia CRAP and DPM Malay1st Malaysian 2nd racist Policies…No job opportunity for Non Malay…all jobs are well plan and reserve for Malays ….
    >>Coming Soon ……
    .there will be lots of Pre- Election free gifts for every citizens…Umno had lots of Hari raya Ang Pow Haram money to give away lurring Rakyat to vote them…
    Sorry lah its End time for UmnoBN rule .
    >> Lets Not be FOOLed by BN Umno pre-election Free money kosong promises and Lies””

    Rakyat >>>What is the real motive of Najib 1-Malaysia crap …>>the answer is simple >>To divide and weaken society rather than strengthen and bring it together..
    and Umnoist ideology is always focus to assist their own race and propagate Islam Falsehood religion..
    why are these religion pursuits so blinded >>>the answer is simple as the Koran wrote it >> their endless Sins and deceitful obssessions and deeds daily…why so??
    RM ..Lets all decide absolutely at the Ballot boxes >>VOTE PR into PutraJaya as our next 2011Kerajaan Baru.

  25. #26 by AhPek on Thursday, 23 December 2010 - 7:16 pm

    The main reason besides race and religion issues is the lack of opportunities in education,jobs and business that has driven so many Malaysians to seek greener pastures
    overseas.These have been the push factors for at least 30 years! So if the PM were to put forth a policy to attract them back one should be forgiven for doubting itcould be for real.For one thing many of the UMNOPUTRAS would be happier without them around,and for another was it not his father who replied when LKY commented on Malaysia’s brain drain that it was not brain drain but was in fact a problem drain!

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