MARCH 10 — Wars teach us difficult lessons. And different ones too.

A detour to human convergences in Slavic Europe before coming back to Kuala Lumpur.

Within a fortnight of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, up to 25,000 Russians have arrived at neighbouring Georgia whose capital Tblisi is over 1,800 kilometres away from Kyiv. 

They pick an ex-Soviet republic further from NATO and Ukraine — sanctions include air travel — as a transit stop before an embark to the rest of the world.

While most eyes are — and rightly so — on the millions fleeing Ukraine away from Russian tanks, this column gazes at the smattering leaving Russia which may swell soon. Which Malaysia needs to pay attention to.

The Ukrainian refugees currently stand at 1.7 million and most fled with what little they can wear or hold. Far different from the types in Georgia now. 

The arriving Russians are fed up with their nation’s latest misadventure and seek better futures elsewhere. They are not refugees, instead they are the wealthy who would rather vote with their feet than fight the authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While they amount to only 0.02 per cent of Russia’s 144.1 million people, they are highly prized individuals; those primed to be residents of any liberal economy — USA, Australia, United Kingdom, maybe Singapore — who’d gain at Russia’s expense. For they have a combination of money, education and knowhow.

The numbers are set to rise while Putin remains hell-bent to return his country to its misguided past.

Sounds familiar, Malaysians?

Ignoramus alert

Malaysian flags are pictured in Putrajaya August 12, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Malaysian flags are pictured in Putrajaya August 12, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

While so much is made of Malaysia’s maybe already net oil importer status, what passes notice is our long-term net talent exporter status. We’ve bled plenty.

Unaffected politicians at the Johor polls aren’t bothered. They are busy — and callously — demanding that Malaysians get to withdraw their EPF savings prematurely, in order to gain votes even if the trade-off is longer term class poverty.  

They ignore the structural problem of Malaysia failing to yield from its social services — education and healthcare — investments. The talent keeps leaving and it is beginning to show too painfully.

Please leave TalentCorp out of the conversation. The less said, the better. But neither leave the blame at its doorstep. It exists to show there’s effort, nothing more. And yes, produce statistics the minister can wave to the gallery in Parliament.

The problems are far more complex and certainly structural. No political leader on either side of the divide dare provide honesty about the issue.

In this country we are trained to appear to solve a problem by appearing to discuss the problem, only to conclude after a delay that the problem was never there to begin with. The magic tricks performed here is astonishing.

Let’s chuck one in for clarity. The vast number of departers are ethnic minorities. Did someone say Chinese from the back of the room?

How to attract young or vastly trained/experienced professionals back without guarantees they would have a fair shake in the Malaysian system? However much our academics thrive in foreign universities, it would require a brave and maybe naïve person to appoint a minority to head any major public university in Malaysia.

Mic drop.

There were hundreds of thousands of Malaysians employed in Singapore before Covid-19. The higher paid professionals remained in Singapore through the lockdown to sustain their 5C distractions, while their children attended Singaporean schools.

Now, those Malaysians see five or six parties likely to form government for the next 10 years argue in Johor about who loves Malays more rather than argue about policy. How depressed the Malaysian looking from across the causeway would be about the country’s future?

He’d vote here till he dies — out of habit — but the children are Singaporean-bound. Or further.

In an asylum elsewhere, a right winger cheers on as more Malaysian Chinese leave, for it reduces the threat of Chinese control — a warped Manchurian Candidate fear peddled for decades with alarming effectiveness.  

What they fail to comprehend is that the majority who leave are the ones highly desirable to other economies or doggedly enterprising or both. Those who end up creating jobs in Singapore, San Francisco or Melbourne, when they could have been here to solve Malaysia’s middle-income economy riddle.

But that’s too layered an idea for the hateful to contemplate.

Campaign on it

The economy of natural resources has long been replaced by the economy of talent. Malaysia refuses to participate in what all sane countries have committed to, talent hunting.

While the rest look for talent — over 140,000 Indian-born residents in Germany and over 300,000 Filipinos in Italy — Malaysians out of fear for any number of irrational reasons refuse to discuss the millions exiting every decade.

Or our politicians cannot communicate ideas which do not centre around race interest.

Related and most definitely expected, the exodus is increasingly Malaysian Malays. Check out Radio Melayu Perth, and communes in Auckland. It’s a middle-class curse — or gift, history can decide.

The growing middle-class in every country in the world, except for North Korea, is mobile. Whether in Seoul or Buenos Aires, they are raised to care enough about their country but equally to care enough about themselves and their families.

Countries must be attractive to them, and not the other way around.

I draw my last mention of the Johor election. Without hesitation, the average quality of candidate is diabolical — apologies to the sliver of capable, contesting and likely to lose. 

Those likely to win are not the best of the best prepared to lead the state, let alone the country. All party leaders do not name a mentri besar candidate because it won’t make a difference. 

None would inspire confidence, they can only assure they wear a songkok and sit in Nusajaya, and wait for the state to sort itself out.

The candidate list is brazen proof that the talent scarcity has reached epic proportions, and slowly Malaysia reaches a dangerous precipice, the tipping point.

A memory comes to mind.

The driver and security officer kept quiet, as the military man turned MP seated at the back with me recounted the history of Cambodia as the car traversed a dark lonely road from near the Vietnamese border heading back to Phnom Penh. 

It struck me deep when he said the reason why they relied on foreign talents to drive the country was because Pol Pot in the 1970s almost killed all intelligentsia in a foolish pursuit to raise racial purity. The MP escaped death by being in France.

Cambodia lost its talent in a genocide and we have leaked away talent in silent drips for over five decades with no clarion voice to explain the cold facts to the population. Stay this path, soon we’d struggle to tell Kampuchea and us apart when it comes to talent count.

Malaysia has to prioritise talent retention. Prioritising requires an unprecedented will to reconsider pillars of our society, and to speak about them to the public. To campaign on them. 

Not at Johor, too late. Not only at the general election, because the idea needs time to disseminate. But, surely in time when the realisation is widespread, the people would know who spoke about it long before, and who just kept yapping about hate and fears.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.