Brain drain in Malaysia: Why Malaysians don’t want to come back home — Rueben Ananthan Santhana Dass

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JULY 6 — I refer to an article published in the Malay Mail on the 25th of June 2020 titled ‘Malaysia losing talent it needs to climb world ladder, Fitch unit says’. The article describes a research note by data analytics company, Fitch Solutions that states that Malaysia continues to face an exportation of talent and human capital due to racial discrimination as a result of race-based affirmative action policies and stalled reforms.

A study by the World Bank as early as 2010-2011 stated that one in ten skilled Malaysians born in Malaysia choose to leave the country and ply their trade and skills elsewhere. A large number skilled Malaysian professionals continue to hold high positions and work in many countries throughout the world but Malaysia. This trend has increased in recent times with many young individuals choosing to stay and work in foreign countries after having completed their higher education there. Some want to come back but are forced to stay overseas due to a lack of opportunities back home. Many parents are increasingly encouraging their kids who are studying abroad to look for work overseas and not come home. Numerous government administrations have acknowledged the fact that this remains a serious problem for the country but none have actually made a sincere, concerted effort to address the problem.

Other than the main reason of perceived racial discrimination and lack of meritocracy as stated by the abovementioned article, one of the prominent factors for brain drain in the country is the lack of suitable opportunities. The Malaysian economy is primarily centred around production and manufacturing rather than research and development. This results in a high demand for semi-skilled labour and a drastic lack of highly skilled job opportunities. R&D has suffered from low funding and ranks very low among the government’s list of priorities as the government has always had a disinterested view of it. As a result, highly qualified professionals with research backgrounds and many PhD graduates are forced to ply their trade in foreign countries.

The job market in Malaysia also caters only exclusively to ‘traditional’ jobs such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, finance executives, etc. There are very few opportunities for individuals who choose to traverse the ‘road less travelled’, i.e. those who have studied niche subject areas such as the pure sciences or arts. This ties in with the fact that there is an apparent lack of R&D in the country. It is almost a ‘sin’ for a young school leaver to want to pursue a degree in a non-mainstream subject at university due to the lack of job opportunities as a result. These individuals are forced to seek opportunities overseas where these subjects and skillsets are actually valued and where they actually have a decent opportunity to earn a living.

Another factor is the fact that the government is not making enough effort to ‘entice’ and encourage Malaysian professionals overseas to come back and contribute to the country. Agencies such as TalentCorp have claimed that more than 3,000 professionals have been brought back to work in Malaysia since 2011. However, this is just approximately 0.2 per cent of the total Malaysian diaspora currently living overseas. The total number stands at close to 1.7 million people. There is still a lot of work to be done.

In order to address this issue, the government needs to seriously consider a number of steps. Firstly, it should change its hiring policies from race-based to needs-based affirmative action. The government should look at the gaps in technical needs that the country requires and develop a structured plan to hire individuals who are able to fill those gaps. In order to do this, the government needs to prepare a structured talent scouting program. Like most other countries, the government should do their part by taking the initiative to actively scout for professionals whose expertise are required by the country. A detailed census of the individuals who are currently studying or working abroad by fields of expertise must be created and their skills matched to the requirements of the country. Graduating students should be scouted and offered employment opportunities back home even before they graduate. Attractive remuneration packages and career advancement opportunities should also be offered to these individuals. The government must change its outlook towards R&D and begin investing in high-quality research. This would provide a platform to tap the talent of the numerous brilliant Malaysian researchers who are forced to work overseas.

The grass is not always greener on the other side. Living abroad may look fancy on the outside but it is never an easy endeavour. Many have had to make numerous sacrifices. Most have had to endure the hardship of being separated from parents, siblings, loved ones, friends and family. Many have often had to miss out on celebrations and family events. Many have even had to make the difficult decision of being separated from their spouses and children just to be able to earn a living. Whilst some have voluntarily made the decision to go overseas for better remuneration, many who are there yearn to come home but are forced to stay put due to lack of opportunities back home. It is extremely unfair for Malaysians to be denied an opportunity to earn a living in their own country to which they have full rights to. I truly hope that those currently in power stop their current political bickering, take a moment to reflect on the problems the country is facing and take sincere steps to address them.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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