WORSE than Malaysia’s brain drain problem is the fact that little is coming in to replace what goes out. Losing skilled local talent to other countries is not unique to Malaysia, as statistics show. After all, the world was built on migration.
But what is unique, and not in a good way, is that we can’t seem to attract enough foreign skilled labour to equalise the outflow. “We’re a failed brain transplant,” said Dr Toh Kin Woon, a former Gerakan and Penang state exco member, at a 13 July 2010 public forum in Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia’s brain drain.
Part of this lack of inflow can be attributed to immigration rules that make it difficult and arbitrary for foreign spouses of Malaysians, and the children of such unions, to obtain permanent residency (PR), citizenship and employment. And yet, adjusting these rules would be the most sensible and practical immediate solution to the brain drain problem. So why aren’t we doing it?
Malaysians have long been going abroad ever since independence for tertiary education in Commonwealth countries. Between 1960 and 2005, a hundred-fold increase was recorded in emigration numbers. There were 9,576 Malaysians residing abroad in 1960. In 2005, the number rose to 1,489,168, according to World Bank statistics, said former Human Resources Minister Tan Sri Dr Fong Chan Onn, who was also a presenter at the public forum.
The figure in 2005, however, shows how alarming the outflow of human capital for Malaysia is when compared with the 919,302 world average migration per nation. Malaysia is losing people at a higher rate than other nations.
A high percentage of this outflow is skilled labour. Fong said there were 102,321 Malaysian graduates residing in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in 2000. This represented 77.24% of total Malaysian migrants in these countries. They also represent a 40.84% increase from the number of tertiary-educated migrants since 1990.
We could comfort ourselves that Malaysia is not alone in losing skilled talent to other countries. Fong said data from OECD countries in 2000 showed that Singapore had 67,560 migrants in these countries, of whom 74.04% were graduates. Of Thailand’s 222,550 migrants, 41.7% were tertiary-educated. South Korea lost 885,885 people, of whom 73.7% were graduates; and India had 1.5 million of its citizens abroad, of whom 69% had degrees.
And Malaysia isn’t the only one losing doctors, nurses and other medical personnel to other countries. There were 4,129 Malaysian doctors and 7,431 nurses in OECD countries in 2000. Other Asian neighbours with higher figures in the same year were Taiwan (5,332 doctors) and the Philippines (15,859 doctors and 110,557 nurses).
The reasons why Malaysians leave are varied, and have been discussed repeatedly in various other forums. But it is of little comfort when we realise that while our neighbours are able to draw an inflow of skilled talent through immigration-friendly policies, attractive rewards and open environments, Malaysia is only able to draw low-skilled foreign labour. There are an estimated 2.5 million foreign workers in the country, both legal and illegal, all largely holding menial jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, construction and low-paying service sectors.
In contrast, the New Economic Model report has noted that the number of expatriates from first-world countries, which was 90,000 in 2000, was halved by 2008.
If government reverse-brain drain programmes have only had minimal success, then it is time that due consideration be given to other approaches. For a start, as suggested by Fong at the forum, by relaxing immigration and employment rules for foreign spouses and children.
What turns highly-trained Malaysians and their highly-skilled foreign spouses away?
For one, the foreign spouse, whether the husband or wife, is not entitled to immediate Malaysian citizenship or PR status despite adopting Malaysia as their new home. Instead, they have to go through a repeated and tiresome application process, which involves the runaround with immigration authorities, endless waiting, and unexplained rejections. Their existence in the country, meanwhile, is validated by a renewable social visit pass that restricts their employment.
Children of a Malaysian woman married to a foreign husband also do not qualify for PR status or citizenship, until recently when the government announced a “new mechanism” to let such mothers obtain Malaysian citizenship for their children abroad. How well this is working out is unclear given that it was just announced. There is also the inconvenience of having to travel back to Malaysia to appear in person at the National Registration Department headquarters with the baby.
Foreign spouses have documented their difficulty and emotional trauma of being left in limbo over their PR applications, much less citizenship. These stories are many, and some end with Malaysians making the painful decision to uproot to settle in their foreign spouse’s country.
Cold War mentality
At the public forum, even Fong himself, a former cabinet minister, seemed bewildered as to why Malaysian immigration policies remain the way it is in this day and age. He described such policies as “Cold War mentality”.
To be less polite, the policies are actually xenophobic. For lack of any rational explanation from the government, people are left to conclude that at worst, the snail’s pace of processing applications is part of moves to ensure a certain racial balance in the country. At best, it is just plain inefficiency if foreign spouses have had to wait for up to two decades or more.
If Malaysia weren’t so xenophobic, imagine the talent we could have possibly laid claim to. Could former world number-one golfer Vijay Singh, a Fijian married to a Malaysian, be playing as a Malaysian instead? What other talents among the nearly 1.5 million Malaysians who have migrated, and their spouses, have we let slip through our fingers?
In his last interview on the subject in September 2009, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein offered little new insight into reasons for the lengthy and arbitrary process of approving PR and citizenship applications. But he did understandably say that vetting thousands of such applications to ensure they were bona fide cases and not “marriages of convenience” was a time-consuming and difficult process.
Fair enough. But when it comes to highly-qualified and skilled human capital, it doesn’t make sense that the government would still be as finicky and slow. If a foreign spouse has all the right academic and professional qualifications to contribute to Malaysia, why can’t PR or citizenship approvals be sped up for them? Isn’t it obvious to the policymakers that spouses with such experience and potential can be part of the solution to Malaysia’s brain drain?
The government was certainly clear on Indonesian badminton champion Rexy Mainaki‘s contribution to Malaysia, when he coached the national doubles team, that it gave him and his family Malaysian PR status.
Why can’t there be ways, then, to filter foreigners who are in marriages of convenience from those who can contribute to the skilled labour pool in Malaysia? For one, it is obvious that foreign spouses who are highly qualified and who have an established professional track record would not need to be so economically needy as to require the “convenience” of a Malaysian spouse to live here.
Throughout history, immigrants who have made good in places where they were given the opportunity to do so not only became giants in their fields of expertise, but added to the lustre of the countries and institutions they joined. Albert Einstein, a German Jew, migrated to the US to escape Nazism and joined Princeton University. He died a US citizen. Julia Gillard was born Welsh and migrated to Australia as a child, where she is currently the prime minister.
So really, the government should realise that simply clearing the backlog of citizenship and PR applications isn’t cause for applause. It simply was a job they failed to do earlier. And having done so isn’t enough. What’s needed is a reformed and unbiased way of approaching the issue of foreign spouses. Especially if the national issue at stake is to stem the bleeding of human capital.
Deborah Loh wonders when the government will appreciate the diversity of Malaysians, their spouses, and what they can contribute to the country.