In addition to drawing Malaysians home to work, we should equip, educate and train citizens so that they have equal opportunities to excel.
The success of Talent Corporation – a brilliant idea by the prime minister to lure Malaysians abroad to return home to live and work – has been quite impressive.
I am told that many talented Malaysians have answered the prime minister’s call to help transform the nation’s economy and I’d like to think that these Malaysians have returned not just because of the lower tax rate and other personal incentives (such as tax exemptions for two completely knocked down cars) but because they truly have something valuable to offer the country.
I do not for a moment think that these Malaysians returned because they found it tough to work abroad.
Instead, I think they have taken the opportunity under the Talent Corp programme to contribute their expertise and talent to Malaysia’s growth and development.
Although it has been successful since its inception in 2011, Talent Corp (and other organisations that provide incentives to lure Malaysians home) can only be a short-term solution at best.
The longer we rely on Talent Corp, the deeper the failings of our system will get and the more serious they will become. We will continue to be unable to provide the educational training necessary to produce a skilled workforce or to retain existing Malaysians.
There are many reasons why people emigrate and work elsewhere but most leave the country because they believe that their prospects in life will improve or because they no longer feel they belong – alienation and social injustice have driven them away.
Hence, while many millions have been spent on Talent Corp (and spent wisely), I urge the government to remain committed to building capacities within our country as well.
I am not thinking of spending millions of ringgit a la BR1M (people’s aid) but of giving the nation the right dose of the good old work ethic.
Schools, besides exhibiting photographs of leaders, should be places where the right values can be inculcated.
The government, via the state apparatus available to it, needs to emphasise on a daily basis the importance of hard work and the inherent character-building effects of such an effort: for example, we’d certainly have enough television airtime for educational programmes if we were to dispense with some of the more sensational shows.
The effects on employment will be obvious. If we look objectively at why we need so many foreign workers, a large chunk of our workforce neither has the right work attitude nor does it feel sufficiently motivated to work hard.
It’s true that some employers take advantage of the presence of foreign workers to depress wages but it also quite clear to many employers that foreign workers work harder and smarter.
It’s not good policy to live with this situation and look for the easy way out (that is, to keep relying on and exploiting foreign labour) without putting serious effort into changing the values and attitudes of our own workforce.
In my experience there is hardly anyone who is incorrigibly bad and beyond help.
People want to better themselves but sometimes they need to be given a leg up. Everyone is capable of realising his or her true potential through nurture, patience and perseverance.
The attitudinal change we need in this country must come from our political leaders as well as employees and employers.
Malaysians are capable of many things and must never doubt this: the sacrifice we all need to make is to be patient, to endure the difficulties of training, and to help the less able and skilled to achieve their goals.
If an analogy is required, I shall say that leaders must learn to appreciate growing their own vegetables and rearing their own chickens. The satisfaction that comes from this is far more valuable than just depending solely on buying groceries from air-conditioned supermarkets.
This is where we must embrace the culture of meritocracy wholeheartedly.
In Malaysia today, meritocracy is a bogeyman, especially among Malays, who are terribly afraid of it without even knowing what it is, and we must discard the notion that meritocracy will have unintended discriminatory or negative effects on any given social group or ethnic community.
Let’s start by understanding what the word means, which is simply this: if we have ability and talent, then we should be rewarded.
We should not reward someone merely because he or she belongs to a certain class or has some inherited privileges.
The idea is simply to inspire and motivate all citizens through ability and sheer hard work. It also means that society and government have a grave responsibility to equip, educate and train citizens so that they have equal opportunities to excel and contribute to our nation.
Citizens can then propel themselves forward and build bigger and better things for the country, which in turn transforms our economy and society. It’s a liberating idea.
Women in our workforce, for example, are fully capable of taking on more demanding tasks at senior levels but we only hear of policies intending to provide them more access to top positions – little has happened to translate policy into action.
The prejudice against women bosses is still widespread and is based on a lack of appreciation for the positive contributions they make.
The skill sets that women bring to the table are largely ignored by men who are worried that their own positions will be threatened.
But as long as women are ignored at the top levels of decision making, the country will lose out on capturing the special talents and skills they possess.
There is also a great deal of prejudice in our society against gays and other minorities who, from my personal experience, are as diligent and capable of great achievements as anyone else.
I have friends who are world-class professionals and possess great ability and integrity who belong to these minorities, and yet we seem to love waging war against them for reasons I cannot comprehend.
If we put more emphasis on creating enemies among our own people, or putting up barriers to excellence because others “threaten” our own positions, then we will never produce the right attitudes or values.
The government must lead, inspire and motivate our workforce by example and through the effective implementation of policy. Malaysians deserve fair wages, adequate training and just rewards when they achieve their targets.
This is a long-term project, of course, but nothing worthwhile can be achieved if we lack perseverance.
As such, Malaysia continues to need Talent Corp but the local workforce needs respect and encouragement if the transformation of our country is to succeed sustainably.
Contributed by Zaid Ibrahim, The Star/ANN