LAST_UPDATESat, 23 Jun 2018 10am

Brain Drain Update: Malaysians Tell Why They Still Prefer To Work Abroad

TalentCorp CEO Johan Mahmood Merican in a recent interview on September 2 said that in the past four years, it has attracted 3,600 Malaysians home through its Returning Experts Programme (REP), a figure he admitted was a "drop in the ocean", he had pointed out, Astro Awani reports.

Compare that with the number of Malaysians who have moved overseas. The World Bank reported in its 2014 Malaysia report that in 2013, a total 308,834 high-skilled Malaysians moved overseas. What's more alarming is the report said that this trend is increasing, that the number of skilled Malaysians living abroad rose 300 per cent in the last two decades, with two out of every 10 Malaysians with tertiary education opting to leave for either Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries or Singapore.

This is the reason TalentCorp was established in the first place to address  the worsening brain drain but Johan admitted that what was before already a challenging effort has turned into even more of an uphill battle given the sliding Ringgit and recent bad press about Malaysia.

"Malaysians abroad at this juncture would need more persuasion to return home given the current economic and political climate.

"We have learned from the analysis conducted by the World Bank and taken heed of their recommendations that the REP is most effective in ensuring the return of Malaysians abroad when it was connected with an employment offer," he noted.

What is clear is that Malaysia's brain drain problem has not improved, in fact public sentiment show it could have intensified although no statistics are available for the 2014 to 2015 period yet.

All this time TalentCorp has been targeting returning experts but the results are not encouraging, given the narrow pool of talent they are fishing in. Why don't they look at the majority of Malaysians who are choosing to remain abroad in huge numbers - fresh graduates and young working professionals who have just entered the employment scene?

Logically, won't it be easier to convince these people who are not earning huge salaries and have had the opportunity to settle down overseas to return if its attached to attractive job offers?

Where are the schemes by TalentCorp to bring back the graduates, or the young working professionals who, while they might not be a cardiothoracic surgeon or petroleum engineer, can also bring development to Malaysia with their skill sets and making Malaysia a ‘world-class workforce’.

Students And Young Professionals Tell Why They Don't Prefer To Work In Malaysia

 Malaysian-Canadian Adam McKenna is currently pursuing a degree in BSC Economics at the University of Victoria, and serves as President of the Economics Course Union.

He gave the following reasons for not wanting to work in Malaysia:

1. Low starting salary (assuming we're talking about fresh graduates)

2. Declining Ringgit (travelling is popular among young Malaysians)

3. Nepotism(or perceived nepotism) work culture

4. More meritocratic opportunities abroad

5. The love of 'working abroad' (as imbued during stints overseas as students, perhaps - assuming we're talking about overseas graduates)

6. A desire to bring parents abroad to retire, once they're settled

He also gives his points in making Malaysians come back:

1. Favourable fresh graduates programmes (tried with some success under TalentCorp)

2. An inward movement of foreign corporations (perhaps this will happen under TPP?)

3. A push for accountability and good governance at all levels of government (which should then translate into a more meritocratic work environment in the private sector)

4. Better amenities, such as schools and universities (if raising families is their concern)

“A lot of it might be purely sentiment - a corrupt government, while not 100% directly affecting citizens, might lead Malaysians to become disillusioned and aim for greener pastures.

“Or Malaysia may not have the fields graduates want to work in (certain high tech industries come to mind, where opportunities in Singapore may be more attractive)” he commented.

Lisa Hanim (not her real name) is a freelance video editor currently trying to find a permanent job in the UK.

“It’s been tough finding a job. Pretty much the career I have invested 5 years of my life in, and it seems like the UK film industry only picks up freelancers” she tells Malaysian Digest.

“But to be fair at this moment I'm willing to take on any job that would make me stay in the UK because I have more of a life here than in Malaysia.

“In Malaysia it is easy to do freelance because the regulations for it isn't strict. Here if you're pan-European, it's a little hard because you'd have to be registered as self-employed and registering as self-employed requires a specific visa that requires you to have access to £50,000.

“Right now, I'm on a student visa. which is actually quite risky for me to get a freelance job.

“Plus for me to qualify for the visa I need I have to be offered £20,800 per year”, she says with scepticism.

Her reasons for preferring to work abroad are social and cultural factors.

“I'm agnostic, and I have no place in Malaysia. I can't be myself without people jaga tepi kain. I want freedom actually, freedom to express, freedom to be your own person and not what your government dictates, not what you family dictates.

“Yes I understand as Asians we have a certain cultural influence growing up but I never liked this idea that race and culture is tied with religion.

“I hate the whole bit of if you're Malay you cannot be anything other than Muslim and f***ing hell Malays are f***ing narrow minded, and I cannot deal with it.

“My parents are pretty liberal but when it comes to religion it's "you were born a Muslim and you have to die a Muslim" - have to. And I think that’s a load of crap.

“Alternatively, the cost of living is another thing. The value of RM2000 and £2000 (not the actual price conversion) is so different.

“With RM2000, 3/4 of your salary is gone once you pay rent in Malaysia. Rent, bills, loans - the important stuffs.

“£2000 (if you live outside central London/anywhere else other than London) rental is probably around £600 - £700? Miscellaneous bills are probably an extra £300? So you still have half of it left for the rest of the month.

“£2000 is probably good enough if you know how to save because of course London being London you know, people who were born and grew up in London are moving out of London because property prices are getting too high but unlike Malaysia, England does try to develop places outside London.

“A lot of companies are moving out of London - design houses and production houses and video games companies are moving to the coast and the countryside to,reduce stress for the workers.

What will make Lisa want to come back?

“When people start keeping their religions as a personal matter,,but to be fair I'll probably come home in November because I have to and if I don’t get a job by the middle of this month, I would need to get a ticket back home, spend some time there, and then come back here again”.

Farhana Hamid is currently based in Czechoslovakia with her Czech boyfriend. She recently graduated from Malaysia and is working with Marcus Evans, which is in the in the events industry, handling conferences, forums, and professional training sports events for industry experts.

“I prefer going abroad because of the work culture here - there’s no extra working hours, we all go back on time, it's flexible here, and there’s more opportunities especially when you are earning in euros - also because I’m in Europe! With my boyfriend we travel a lot and having a long distance relationship is hard. Best part is I have 20 days of holidays a year here, compared with 12 in Malaysia!

While Farhana is unsure of working there permanently, she says that there are bigger opportunities to earn more and to get transferred to any other exciting locations.

“Another thing about working here is that their culture is non-judgemental. You can dress sexy or anything as long as it's formal, for example. If you ask me what will make me come back to Malaysia? Probably when I’m at the level of a senior manager and above”.

But she has not let go of all hopes of working in Malaysia.

“I was waiting to serve my country for the JPA or the government to call me, but they never did. This month my contract will be terminated, and hopefully officially. It was a long wait and so many graduates have to find their own solutions, especially when our salary is tiny.

My new job is based on commission, including my basic, I’m earning roughly RM8-10,0000 per month, total”.

 Evelyn Tang, is a theoretical quantum physicist (postdoctoral researcher) at the University of Pennsylvania, who just got her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believed that the racial disparity was her main reason for not working in Malaysia.

“I had to go abroad for university anyway because of the quotas against Chinese in local universities which meant that it would be very difficult for me to study what I want and where I want (experienced by many family and friends),” she explained.

“And I ended up in the US because research and academia are much more exciting and open here -- the US has many many great universities. I want to be a professor -- a professional within the university system so it's important to me to really learn good skills and techniques vs substandard ones.

“Research has to be based on merit and fair competition because otherwise it is strangled and stifled.

“Thought and inquiry rests on the freedom to investigate what one needs and thinks instead of following what your boss thinks (why corruption is so bad for research). Without this original progress is impossible unfortunately. Talent Corp's programs do not address these systemic issues”.

Reversing Brain Drain – Thinking Out Of The Box

Instead of focusing on getting highly accomplished Malaysians abroad to return why not look as retaining talent who haven't left and harnessing the migrant brainpower that is attracted to Malaysian shores without requiring TalentCorp to lay out the red carpet for their return.

In a report titled "How Asia is putting a plug in brain drain", CNBC featured how many Asian countries can prevent their best and brightest from even leaving their country's shores by establishing branches of top ranked foreign universities in their country.

As an example, they featured a medical graduate who is among the first batch of doctors to graduate from Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia (NUMed), the first overseas U.K. medical school that opened in 2011.

"The greatest reason I chose NUMed was the fact that I live in Johor," NUMed student Ka Liang said, referring to the Malaysian state where the university is located. "Studying in a place that is very near home comes with great benefits."

"The Malaysian government realizes that many of their brightest students don't come back from studying abroad, so through this model of asking us to come here and deliver our training in a Malaysian context, students are more likely to stay and hopefully raise the standards of health care in Malaysia," said professor Chris Day, Newcastle's pro-vice-chancellor for the Faculty of Medical Sciences, CNBC reports.

This shift in access to education could play a big role in reversing brain drain, experts say. To date, several highly ranked universities from the UK and Australia have already established branch campuses in Malaysia so TalentCorp might consider shifting their radar to this pool of talent who are already in Malaysia, including expatriates who have found their way into Malaysian shores.

However, the current 10-year Residence Pass-Talent (RP-T) by TalentCorp is only available to expats who have worked here for 3 years, possess 5 years working experience and earning a minimum of RM144,000 per annum, conditions which are nothing short of ridiculous for young professionals and graduates.

Ouf Abeda is from Egypt. He is currently freelancing as a web designer and recently had to go back to Indonesia as he had reached the limit of his tourist visa (90 days). He left on the 89th day, spent a week at Indonesia before finally entering Malaysia again.

“I am trying very hard to find permanent work here, but it's extremely difficult. I have the skills sets, but Malaysian companies have to offer me a full time job - thing is they’d prefer to have me freelance instead as it's easy for them.

“And the funny thing is that I need to have a work visa to work with them - but I can't get that visa unless they offer work to me first!”

Ouf had thought about marrying a Malaysian, in hopes that perhaps having a Residence Pass or Permanent Residence should make it easier for him.

“Of course I don’t want to marry just because of work, also for love, as I’m looking for someone religious to marry. But if marrying a Malaysian can help me get a job here as well, why not?”

TalentCorp hosting a networking dinner organised as part of the Returning Expert Programme in Dubai. FilePic: GulfNewsTalentCorp hosting a networking dinner organised as part of the Returning Expert Programme in Dubai. FilePic: GulfNews“While Malaysians are going abroad to work, I, and many other foreign freelancing friends of mine, including my friend Pat from the UK who is also a freelance video editor, would love to work and live here. I love working here in Malaysia, it's different than working in Egypt. But I feel sad that the government is not making it easier for us.

“I understand if we are labour workers trying to find work here - but I believe we aren’t labour workers, we have skills in IT and in the media, blue collar work, and can contribute for Malaysia.”

And truth be told - returning Malaysians, despite being guaranteed extremely high pay in addition to their benefits, and for expats to come under the Resident Pass-Talent, if they had not been offered these perks they would not have come under their own initiatives.

Perhaps we should instead focus on the graduates who are here already, looking for jobs in the country, or those who are abroad and willing to work here if certain conditions change, and most especially for talented foreigners who wish to work here - and not even claim for any special treatment such as TalentCorp, especially when they cannot even receive it.

So, instead of the handful of experts overseas, we should put more effort to attract the many more hopefuls and potentials out there who do want to work in Malaysia, who would come back or who are already here.

- mD