Sun, Jan 02, 2011 - Page 12 News List

Malaysia struggling to prevent ‘brain drain’ as talent departs

World Bank data show that while globally the number of migrants rose 2.4 times between 1960 and 2005, Malaysia’s diaspora registered a 155-fold increase

By Beh lih yi  /  AFP, KUALA LUMPUR

Computer engineer Wan Jon Yew with his wife and their baby girl pose in front of their apartment in Singapore on Tuesday.


When computer engineer Wan Jon Yew left Malaysia in 2005 for a job in Singapore, all he wanted was to work in the city state for a few years before going home. Now, he says, he will never return.

With a family, a home and a car, he now plans to settle in Singapore for good — one of many Malaysians stampeding abroad every year in a worrying “brain drain” the government is trying to reverse.

“I wouldn’t consider going back to Malaysia, I won’t look back. If I were ever going to leave Singapore, I would migrate to Australia,” said the 28-year-old, who now has permanent resident status.

“It’s not about the money. I could have a better quality of life in Malaysia with my pay. I could have a semi-detached bungalow and have a maid there, but I would rather live in a government flat in Singapore,” he said.

Wan, who is ethnically Chinese, is one of some 700,000 Malaysians — most of them highly educated — who are currently working abroad in an exodus that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government is struggling to reverse.

The “brain drain” has a number of causes. Some have been lured by higher salaries, but others blame political and social gripes including preferential policies for Muslim Malays, who form the majority.

Many feel constrained by life in a country where the ruling coalition has been in power for half a century, and where progress on freedom of expression, the right to assembly, and tackling corruption has been slow.

A decades-old affirmative action policy which hands Malays and the indigenous groups privileges in housing, education and business, has been criticized as uncompetitive and improperly benefiting the elite.

As a consequence, many of those who have left are members of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, who make up some 25 percent and 10 percent of the population respectively.

Last month Najib launched a “Talent Corporation” with incentives to woo back highly skilled workers and foreign professionals.

Malaysia has ambitions to transform itself into a developed nation by 2020, but a lack of human capital is a barrier to reaching that goal.

World Bank data cited by the Malaysian press shows that while globally the number of migrants rose 2.4 times between 1960 and 2005, Malaysia’s diaspora registered a staggering 155-fold increase over the 45-year period.

“I don’t want my children to go through the unfair treatment,” said Wan, who believes Singapore offers “fair competition.”

“I’m not proud of being a Malaysian because I think the government doesn’t treat me as a Malaysian,” he said. “I would rather be a PR [permanent resident], a second-class citizen in a foreign country, than to be a citizen in my own country.”

Wan said his wife, an IT analyst, renounced her citizenship in July, joining a queue of about 30 Malaysians lining up to do so on that day alone at the Malaysian embassy in Singapore.

Commentators are skeptical over whether the government’s latest effort to reverse the “brain drain” will be successful.

“Money does have a significant role but the most important factor, I think, is opportunity. Malaysia is too politicized and opportunities are not evenly available to everyone,” political analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan said.

In one example, he said academics are reluctant to work in local universities as they must sign a “loyalty pledge” barring them from, among other things, criticizing government policies.

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