Migration of talent – how can Malaysia stem the tide?
By THEAN LEE CHENG and FINTAN NG firstname.lastname@example.org
Brain drain stands in the way of a high-income Malaysia, a World Bank report says. But the solutions are not easy.
FOR over 25 years, Malaysia was one of the few Asian countries blessed with an annual growth of 7% and up. The country’s growth spurt occurred between 1967 and 1997, which paved the way for the shift from low-income to middle-income. Among developing countries, Malaysia made tremendous progress in poverty reduction. In the 1970s and 1980s, income inequality was reduced dramatically while a Malay middle-class emerged.
These are laudable achievements no doubt. Nevertheless, in today’s fiercely competitive global landscape and Malaysia’s eye-popping data of escalating brain drain, the challenges for the country to move forward are far, far more complex.
Last year, Malaysia had recorded a strong recovery but the momentum appeared to have tapered off with jittery growth in the last two quarters. While business sentiment has improved in the first quarter of this year, consumer confidence has weakened on concerns of rising inflation.
Growth is expected at 5.3% this year and 5.5% in 2012. The three key risks in the near term are:
- A weaker-than expected global recovery, which will dampen growth momentum,
- A further strengthening of inflationary pressures, which may undermine consumer spending, and
- Weak fiscal consolidation.
Over the medium term, various government initiatives are being put in place to boost economic growth.
But over and above the Economic Transformation Programmes and New Economic Models, the heart of Malaysia’s transformation hinges on two fundamentals productivity, which requires a revamp of the education system, and policies of inclusiveness. Discontent with Malaysia’s inclusiveness policies is a key factor, particularly among the non-bumiputras who make up the bulk of the diaspora.
Human capital is, after all, the bedrock of a high-income economy or for any economy for that matter. Sustained and skill-intensive growth needs talent going forward. Malaysia needs to develop, attract and retain talent.
Brain drain does not square with this objective. Malaysia needs talent, but talent seems to be leaving.
Brain drain the migration of talent across borders has long been a subject of debate and controversy. Of late, it has been openly discussed in the media, which is to be viewed positively. At least there is that openness today which was not there 10 years ago. The creation of Talent Corp Malaysia Bhd to bring back our own, and to attract new talent, is also a tacit acknowlegement by the Government that we need to manage our human capital carefully and diligently.
Brain drain is by no means something unique to Malaysia. It is something faced by many others. Taiwan saw many of its talented leave for Silicon Valley; the former Irish president Mary Robinson, during her presidency, did much to engage the Irish diaspora.
Within Asia, the brain drain is most pronounced in South-East Asia, according to the Malaysia Economic Monitor: Brain Drain released on Thursday (www.worldbank.org/my). The report says emigration rates are the highest in middle-income countries, which have both the incentive and the means to migrate. The incentive would be less strong for high-income countries. For low-income countries, financial and human capital constraints may make emigration less likely. Malaysia falls into the middle-income category.
The World Bank’s Bangkok-based senior economist Philip Schellekens, who produced the report after an online survey among 200 respondents from the 1 million Malaysian diaspora around the world acknowledges that this number is small.
“But the World Bank, in the first place, does not wish to present this as a definite conclusion. Instead, it wishes to convey a qualitative feel of what is going on. The study can be seen as the first step towards understanding what has been driving brain drain in Malaysia and how policymakers can address it.”
The report measures the size of the Malaysian diaspora and brain drain, its key characteristics and its evolution over the past 30 years. It gives an updated picture on the basis of the most recent information available, including Singapore’s census results which were released early this year.
“We’ve avoided at all costs to use anecdotal sources for such a sensitive topic. So, whatever we present here we can stand by. We also document our sources of information so that other people, as part of this process, can continue the work, refer to our study, look at the numbers and update or improve them.”
It is an extension of previous reports on Malaysia, Growth through Innovation and Inclusive Growth.
Why do people leave?
Brain drain is a symptom, not a problem in itself. It is the outcome of underlying factors as all of us respond to push and pull factors. While not every person leaving Malaysia constitute a brain drain, about a third of them do. Seen from the long lens of emigration and its effect years from today, Malaysia is not only losing talent today, it is also losing talent tomorrow, because children who leave with their parents, and who spend their formative years abroad, are less likely to return.
The report removes the veil of doubt and uncertainty over some numbers. Some of the key highlights are:
● The Malaysian diaspora is large and expanding, with a conservative estimate of about 1 million worldwide last year. The diaspora has quadrupled over the last 30 years, and is geographically concentrated and ethnically skewed.
● Singapore alone absorbs 57% of the entire diaspora, with the rest residing in Australia, Brunei, Britain and the United States. – Malaysia’s brain drain is intense relative to its narrow skill base. – The brain drain is aggravated by a lack of compensating inflow. While many Singaporeans leave the city-state for greener pastures, many highly skilled expatriates also enter the republic.
The situation is different in Malaysia. While Malaysia receives many, most who come have low skills. Coupled with this dire situation, Malaysia’s high-skilled expatriate base has shrunk by a quarter since 2004.
● The number of skilled Malaysians leaving for Singapore has increased from 10% in 1990, 23% in 2000 to 35% last year. This is defined by those who have tertiary education. About 47% of all skilled foreign-born residents in Singapore were born in Malaysia.
Malaysia is not on the brink of a crisis, but it can do better as it has a lot of potential. Brain drain, says Schellekens, should not be viewed as potentially negative. It has its positive potential, as when it aspires a young person to pursue tertiary education, as when it allows those who remain to leverage on those who have succeeded abroad.
“There is an increased openness in Malaysia to discuss these issues and this is a welcome development,” he says.
The report goes beyond stating numbers and facts. It also identifies two areas the government needs to seriously look into the need to improve productivity and to strengthen Malaysia’s policies of inclusiveness.
Talent Corp CEO Johan Mahmood Merican says the report is not something new. “It lends credence to what the Government already knows and we have taken action even before the World Bank report was released. There is a lot of work-in-progress which supports the direction that we have initiated.
“What is important is there is an urgency for us to change the business model if we are to advance. It is not a case of whether we stand still or we advance. If we stand still, we are effectively regressing. Vietnam and Indonesia are getting their act together and recording high growth. In that sense, it is consistent.”
Johan says the usefulness of such a report is that while it highlights the potentially negative effects of brain drain, it also highlights the flip side, its positive effects.
“Malaysia has been spared from the detrimental part of it in the sense that our industries have not come to a halt, as in some other countries. At the same time, it has not been as beneficial to us as a country, as it has to some other countries. So at this point in time, it is neutral. The question is, how do we make it net positive? This is where Talent Corp comes in. We are beginning to engage with Malaysians abroad and with the private sector,” Johan says.
Courting talent back
Four months after its establishment, Talent Corp is primarily focused on facilitating initiatives to attract, nurture, engage and retain talent to support human capital needs of the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP). This has resulted in the Residence Pass that enables top foreign talent, especially those in the ETP, to continue working in Malaysia for a longer tenure and fewer restrictions. There has also been revisions to the Returning Expert Programme to encourage more Malayisan professionals working overseas to come home and help drive the nation’s economic transformation, especially in the ETP. Because of Malaysia’s base in manufacturing, parcticularly in electrical & electronics, an industry-led initiative to address the sector’s talent requirements, with an emphasis on nurturing local talent was launched last week. Similar groups in other key economic sectors are currently in the pipeline.
“This is clearly a long-term project. We are looking at small starting steps this year to ease the mobility of talent and to establish a baseline for future work,” says Johan. Other initiatives in the works will be announced later this year in due course.
Johan also brings up the success story of Pua Khien Seng, the Malaysian who invented the pen drive, and who has been residing in Taiwan for 16 years. Pua is now president and co-founder of Phison Electronics Corp, a listed technology company in Taiwan with a market capitalisation of almost NT$40bil (RM4.3bil).
“His business will always be in Taiwan. So how do we leverage on that? How can we facilitate that engagement with Pua, and other Malaysians, who are residing abroad?”
The larger question is: Can targeted measures such as talent management and diaspora engagement substitute more comprehensive reforms?
Schellekens thinks not. “Our observation is that the targeted measures developed by Talent Corp are helpful. These are first steps in the right direction but if the underlying deterrents are not addressed comprehensively, then these measures will only have a marginal impact.”
The fundamental issues, or underlying factors why people leave relate to economic incentives, which can be captured under the umbrella of low productivity, and social disincentives which reflect discontentment among the non-bumiputras with Malaysia’s inclusiveness policies.
“If you want to tackle the brain drain in a comprehensive fashion, it is not through reversing it or trying artificially to stop it. Tackle the fundamentals and things will happen automatically; people will feel incentivised not to leave the country, or to return if they have left,” Schellekens, the lead author of the report says.
The report highlights the progress made by South Korea. It was a third poorer than Malaysia in the 1970s in terms of average income but nowadays it’s three times richer. One remarkable aspect of South Korea’s development path has been its attention to investment in quality education. As with Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Japan, the bedrock of any country’s progress is its human capital.
A statement from RAM Ratings Services Bhd says: “While we may be comforted by the report’s finding that the brain drain has not reduced significantly the country’s stock of educated workforce, it highlights the disconcerting fact that the country has a narrow skills base and that its skilled human capital base continues to slide, exacerbated by the brain drain. We need to actionalise inclusiveness under the clarion call of 1Malaysia and sharpen the focus on competitiveness, meritocracy, good governance and productivity in both the government and private sector. Only by unleashing private sector dynamism, entrepreneurialship and innovativeness can we sustain the virtuous circle of high investment-growth-productivity increases.”
Its chief economist Dr Yeah Kim Leng adds: “It would be difficult to achieve the high income target by 2020. Productivity growth would slow as the labour market would be more confined to lower-skilled sets. The country’s industrial and technological upgrading and its shift up the value chain would be hampered by skills shortages, higher cost of foreign skilled manpower and deficiencies in innovation and entrepreneurship.”
While our challenge is to tap into our potential and we are blessed with an abundance in myriad areas and sectors this has become more difficult than a decade or two ago because competition in the region for trade, talent, and foreign direct investment has intensified. While we bicker among ourselves, other countries are forging ahead very quickly.
As Malaysia climbs up the income ladder, new challenges in form of innovation will come our way.
Says Schellekens: “Malaysia aspires to base its future growth on innovation. This means that growth will become more skills-intensive, creating a demand for skilled people as well as leading to rising wage levels for the skilled. This may accentuate the income disparity between the skilled and the unskilled, leading also to social challenges between the city and countryside.
Another challenge is the need for more internal competition. Iron sharpens iron.
“There is a sense of urgency for Malaysia to implement the structural reform agenda more quickly as well as comprehensively, else the underlying momentum of growth will deteriorate through an erosion of competitiveness. We are concerned that some of these trends may be happening already, as with the parts and components trade within the electrical and electronics of Malaysia,” he adds.