LAST_UPDATESun, 24 Jun 2018 11am

SPM Result Is Out, Next Brain Drain Begins


IT happens every year. SPM results are released to great joy and jubilation for the top scorers to be followed by news of dismay and disappointment a few months later when they fail to get into courses of their choice in local universities.

Eventually, many discover to their amazement, universities in Singapore, Australia , United States and United Kingdom are lining up to offer them scholarships to study the course of their choice so they leave Malaysia to pursue their dreams. How many will actually return?

Brain drain – defined by the World Bank as the emigration of a nation‘s most highly skilled individuals away from their country of origin is common – especially in developing countries. In Malaysia, brain drain has long been a contentious issue and a subject of intense controversy.

Before the same issue crops up again by middle of this year, let us take a closer look at efforts to check this annual brain drain over the years.

In recent years, the government has introduced various measures to try to check the outflow of talent including increasing their efforts to get top scorers places in local private universities if public universities placements are not enough. In 2011, the government had offered 86 SPM top scorers places in local private universities which cost the government RM26.1 mil to finance according to Bernama.

Since then, the government has strived to keep as many top scoring students as possible for as long as possible to study in Malaysia by offering bursaries to ALL SPM students, regardless and race and family background, who achieve 9A+ and above to study local pre-varsity courses including the Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia (STPM), matriculation, foundation, A-level and international baccalaureate.  The bursaries which were also announced this March 4 by the Education Ministry will cover course fees as well as living and accommodation costs.

Has this conscientious effort by the government to keep its best and brightest at home since 2011 bear any positive results?  A common question that still springs to mind is that why some Malaysians choose to migrate or remain abroad and do not feel confident for their own country?

Losing Our Best And Brightest To Our Neighbours

In the World Bank latest report published December last year, it stated that tapping into highly educated Malaysian dispora could help to fill the skills gap. There are approximately half of more than 300,000 Malaysians living in OECD countries in 2010 had completed higher level of study.

While the 2011 World Bank report revealed that Malaysia loses over 145,000 people who are categorized in the Brain Drain category to our nearest neighbour, Singapore. This is followed by Australia, accounting for 12 percent and third placing is shared by the United Kingdom, the United States and Brunei with about 8 percent respectively. Interestingly enough, these top five countries alone make up 83% of the entire Malaysian diaspora population.

Malaysia experiences chronic brain drain has seen the number of talents or professionally skilled individuals who migrated overseas increased dramatically in pace where between March 2008 and August 2009, there are around 305,000 Malaysians moved overseas, compared to 140,000 in 2007. Among the popular destinations included Singapore, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Besides, the report also concluded that 20 per cent of Malaysian graduates choose to leave the country, again with our southern neighbour – Singapore, cited as the main beneficiary.

Are educational opportunities the main reason for brain drain? If the Malaysian government is already making conscientious efforts to keep top academic scorers in its local higher educational institutions, why does brain drain persist?

A more recent survey published by The Penang Institute in 2013 highlights other factors beyond educational opportunities.  The study calculated ‘net income gain or loss computed from gross income, minus local income tax and then converted to US dollars using purchasing power parity exchange rates’ according to the report published in Penang Monthly in June 2013.

The survey also noted that ‘high-skilled emigrants can potentially command higher wages abroad by taking the expatriate package, but due to limited reliable data, we will assume that emigrants are treated as local employees overseas and are paid local wages, working in similar occupations as they would have done in Malaysia.’

So What Are The Underlying Factors Of Brain Drain?

The 2011 World Bank report had highlighted that the main cause of brain drain is attributed to the less attractive salary and benefits offered in Malaysia, and this difference is especially noticeable in the high-skilled technology sector.

For instance, the starting salary for a fresh graduate with a bachelor in Information and Technology Management is $45,000 in the United States. The starting salary is barely $15,000 in Malaysia and this is further aggravated by relatively high taxation in our country.

The World Bank Report suggested that brain drain was the outcome of underlying factors including differences in earnings potential, career prospects, quality of education and quality of life. Discontent with Malaysia’s inclusiveness policies was a key factor too.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that there are several types of brain drain namely organizational, geographical, industrial and academic brain drain.

In an interview with Malaysian Digest recently, former Vice Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Dato’ Prof. Dr. Ishak bin Tambi Kechik (pix) said there are several factors that lead to brain drain in Malaysia.Former Vice Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Datuk Prof Dr Ishak Tambi KechikFormer Vice Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Datuk Prof Dr Ishak Tambi Kechik

“The problem of brain drain in Malaysia, especially the industrial and organizational brain drain, stems from unrealistic expectation, lack of flexibility and freedom in workplace as well as the poor salary packages or schemes.

“When it comes to academic brain drain, one should not solely blame the merit-based university selection system for the intake of undergraduate into government-funded public universities. A student could be rejected if they perform unsatisfactorily in a face-to-face interview with university administrators,” he noted.

“Race has nothing to do with the entire university intake issue as well as the academic brain drain in the country,” he said, adding that the grass is not always greener on the other side and one should think twice before leaving the country.

Brain Drain Vs Brain Gain

In 2011, TalentCorp was established under the Prime Minister’s Department to facilitate initiatives to address the availability of talent in line with the needs of the country’s economic transformation in collaboration with relevant Government agencies and employers in priority economic sectors by developing demand-driven initiatives.

TalentCorp was asked with improving the effectiveness of the Returning Expert Programme (REP), which seeks to facilitate the return of Malaysian profeesionals to contribute to the workforce. In cooeprearation with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Department of Immigration , TalentCorp also initiated the Residence Pass-Talent (RP-T) to libralize the entry and improve the rentention of skilled foreign talent.

The Malaysian government has offered many incentives under its REP programme including tax exemption of up to RM150,000 for cars, factoring in work experience gained locally and abroad, current salary earned abroad as well as experience and expertise relevant to priority economic sectors or areas with critical skill gap in Malaysia.

According to the World Bank, more than 3,100 Malaysian professionals have been approved under the Returning Expert Programme (REP), which seeks to facilitate the return of Malaysian professionals abroad. The majority of REP applicants surveyed are primarily motivated to return in pursuit of better opportunities.

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 RP-T applications have been approved since its establishment in April 2011. Successful applicants comprise technical experts as well as top and middle-management professionals contributing to critical sectors under the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP).

These professionals hail from large key markets such as the US, Japan, the UK, Australia, China and India as well as ASEAN nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines, according to TalentCorp in its latest report.

The Malaysians who have returned under the REP comprise high-value C-suite professionals and technical experts mainly in the Oil, Gas & Energy, Financial Services, Information & Communication Technology (ICT), Healthcare, and Business Services sectors, according to TalentCorp.

Is The Grass Always Greener On The Other Side?

Brain drain as a phenomenon is not new. The term ‘Brain Drain’ was coined by the British Royal Society to refer to the exodus of scientists and technologists from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, according to a World Bank report published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

In more recent times, brain drain now refers to ‘emigration of a nation‘s most highly skilled individuals, in particular, the migration of engineers, physicians, scientists, and other very highly skilled professionals with university training from developing to developed countries’.

Besides Malaysia, many countries in South Asia, South America and the Eastern European bloc also experience some form of brain drain to developed nations.  Many highly skilled migrants leave their nation of birth in pursuit of career and economic opportunities, which is cited by World Bank as the top reason for brain drain at over 60%.

Joshua Ganesan, a stock analyst from Malaysia who currently resides in the United Kingdom shared his story with us in an email interview with Malaysian Digest recently.

“I moved to the United Kingdom with my family in 2011. Initially, all I wanted was to find a decent job with higher salary. But I don’t think I will come back to Malaysia now, not because the UK is better than Malaysia but I find the work environment here is comparatively conducive and ideal for my career growth.

“At the risk of sounding too straightforward, I must say I’m happier staying here in the UK and with that, I don’t mean to say I’ve no pride being a Malaysian. The reason is simple. I just don’t feel like I fit in Malaysia from an emotional point of view,” said the 38-year-old, who now has permanent resident status in the UK.

However, as Malaysia’s education and economic system develops, we are also attracting students and economic migrants from other countries seeking better opportunities. TalentCorp has a separate Expatriates package with attractive tax perks like flat rate income tax and tax exemption on car and personal effects.

There have been suggestions lately of measures to attempt brain drain reversal by focusing on the net talent gained.  For example, the US had also debated tabling a Bill to offer green cards to international students studying technology, mathematics and the sciences in American universities to boost the country’s edge in these fields.

Malaysia can also consider this brain drain reversal approach by focusing on a net gain of talent, regardless of whether they are originally from Malaysia, as long as they can offer the needed skills and talents, they will form part of the net gain to the country.

After all, being south-east Asia’s third-largest economy with a population of around 28 million, Malaysia needs a strong global network of talents to do well globally since we aspire to become a developed and high-income status nation by 2020.