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Asian Editors Circle

New thinking needed to retain talent

Brain drain seems to be an obstacle in Malaysia's development. Moves by Malaysians leaving home to seek greener pastures have never been stopped.

I have a relative, a young man in his early 30s, who joined an e-commerce company as an information technology (IT) engineer after his graduation and has a master's degree. The office is located in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. In 2015, his e-commerce company, despite achieving outstanding results, announced the relocation of its IT engineering department to Singapore, leaving the marketing and sales department in Malaysia.

It is learnt that after some careful consideration, the company, in sourcing for greater scale of development and better prospects, decided to relocate to Singapore as the island is more suitable for the expansion of digital business while the network environment in Malaysia is insufficient to support the company's expansion plan.

As the company's plan matched with his intention to seek greener pastures in Singapore, my relative decided to join the company's relocation, overriding his earlier plan.

Moves by such companies to relocate their core departments to Singapore, bringing with them Malaysian talent, indicate two types of brain drain scenarios in Malaysia:

•Corporate leaders opt to relocate capital, technology and experts to other countries after comparing the business environment, economic situation and infrastructure with Singapore. The criteria in Malaysia are relatively unfavourable for business development.

•People look for greener pastures. Malaysians used to think that there are better opportunities overseas. For the sake of a better income and future, Malaysians are ready to pack up and work overseas any time.

Malaysian talent can be found throughout the world. Right from members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to Singapore, you can find Malaysians.

Malaysians are found in almost every sector in Singapore - from IT and medicine, to research and business. Singapore has never stopped attracting the best expertise from various countries including Malaysia.

Such a scenario is a norm in globalisation. But comparing the number of Malaysians working and settling down overseas with the population of the country, the figure is huge. The World Bank's 2014 report on Malaysia said that 308,834 Malaysians with high technology skills migrated overseas in 2013, while Malaysia's population is more than 30 million.

The figure of those migrating overseas, when compared with the number of low-technology skill foreign workers brought in to cater for various industries, reflects the fact that capable and skilled Malaysians are leaving the country.

Foreign workers are relied on to complete the 3D tasks - the ones that are dirty, dangerous and difficult.

Another issue is that when large- scale foreign funds are brought into Malaysia, they do not offer technology transfers or change the working culture in Malaysia. And hence, this is not commensurate in terms of contribution and reward. The inflow of foreign funds does not help Malaysia depart from the middle-income trap or achieve its target of becoming a developed country.

Malaysians who leave the country are opportunists looking for better salary packages, fair promotion chances and a stable living environment. They retain their Malaysian citizenship.

However, after settling down overseas, the number of Malaysians giving up their citizenship seems to rise.

Depreciation of the ringgit and slides in crude oil prices have hurt the Malaysian economy. Many Malaysians, including the rich ones, are leaving the country.

There is hope that economic growth in Malaysia will recover this year. The ringgit may also rebound from its poor performance in 2016. However, all these are merely speculations. Without seeing practical change, Malaysians would still opt to work overseas.

Social and cultural factors are leading young people to opt to work overseas. Many of them settle down overseas after their graduation. They enjoy the freedom and openness. Returning home to confront declining freedoms in society, and religious and racial issues being politicised, prompt them not to return home.

The government takes a serious view of the severity of the brain drain and has set up Talent Corp to attract talent and encourage them to return home. In the past four years, the agency successfully attracted 3,600 Malaysians to return home through its Returning Experts Programme.

However, comparing this with the figure of Malaysians leaving the country, those returning home are just "a drop in the ocean".

Under the current economic and political environment, Talent Corp needs to have a more convincing and attractive package for Malaysians overseas to return.

However, instead of convincing them to return from overseas, how about changing the approach by retaining Malaysians who are still studying and working in the country?

Some experts have said that as many universities in United Kingdom, Australia and even China have set up branch campuses in Malaysia, such education opportunities would play a significant role in reversing the brain drain. Talent Corp should work with sincerity on students in such branch campuses to retain them. They should also include foreigners who are studying or working in such universities.

It is time for the Malaysian government to pay more attention to university students in the country who are graduating soon. Assisting them to experience fairness in job-seeking opportunities and remuneration packages will show that the government is genuine in showing concern about their future.

This would be more effective and spot on compared with various incentives offered by Talent Corp to attract those who have left the country due to disappointments to return home.

The Najib administration has launched the 2050 Transformation Plan TN50, starting this year, to encourage the country's talented youth of all races to shape Malaysia over the next 30 years.

The prospect of employment opportunities is included in the plan. It is believed that with the launch of the transformation plan, more young people would participate in nation-building actively.

This would also help to attract more talent based overseas to return home, while retaining bright locals and encouraging them to contribute to the country.

•This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and senior writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline 'New thinking needed to retain talent'. Print Edition | Subscribe