(Malaysian flag by Matt Trommer / Dreamstime)
IN a July 2009 dialogue with Malaysian professionals and company representatives in Abu Dhabi, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak attributed Malaysia’s chronic brain drain to uncompetitive wages for professionals. If he is correct, then so are scores of exasperated blogs and hackneyed news articles.
Nevertheless, his statement is deeply appreciated; a prime minister’s words carry as much affirmation as they do executive clout. Najib’s remarks were also in full agreement with decades of scholarship that prescribe a shift from labour-intensive to capital-intensive industries to help productivity keep pace with the rising gross domestic product or GDP here. As he pointed out, a base of intellectual talent is a prerequisite for the knowledge-based economy that we aspire to.
And if all of the above is correct, we have cause for hope. But after his economically grounded reasoning, Najib’s follow-up comment — that we need to generate “buzz” about working in Malaysia — is perplexing.
Substance, not fluff
We don’t want buzz. If nothing else, our education has taught us to seek substance — not fluff.
Buzz will only last so long when a young doctor returns home with a hefty education loan and is forced into a medical internship that pays a fraction of what she or he could earn elsewhere. Extending the internship to two years is unlikely to build excitement about working in Malaysia, notwithstanding the “strong footing” that the posting purportedly provides.
Buzz will not shelter a freshly graduated architect who finds himself or herself disqualified from both low-cost housing and the inflated real estate market.
Underlying Najib’s suggestion is an understanding that the brain drain is not just about economics. This belief is absolutely true. The brain drain is also about how we are occasionally made to feel like pengkhianat (traitors), pendatang (immigrants) and penyebar budaya kuning (propagators of “western culture”).
Pawns (Pic by lusi / sxc.hu)It is, however, definitely not about “buzz”, and reversing the flow will require both sound economic policy and a demonstrated desire to welcome us home. We have pursued our education to be part of a symbiosis, not to serve as pawns.
Brain Gain Malaysia, an initiative launched by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation in 2006, is a sad archetype of the government’s efforts to draw foreign-trained Malaysians back. This programme, which offers an array of incentives for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) experts in certain fields who participate in collaborations with their local counterparts, is commendable but inadequate.
Publicising these so-called brain gain measures in the media is an encouraging step, but the ministry needs far more strategy if it is to outmanoeuvre the veterans, who are loath to lose those they have taught. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, for instance, has more than doubled the duration of the Optional Practical Training work permit for the same STEM graduates that Malaysia craves.
If we are serious about wooing such graduates, one place to begin would be the Brain Gain Malaysia website. With the appropriate presentation, this website could be a persuasive way of reaching savvy graduates in other time zones. But as of 10 Aug 2009, the “About” page had nothing of the detailed explanations that could sway critical minds to “be part of winning team!!” (sic).
It is difficult to envision scholars registering for the Malaysian Abroad Database when they see only patchy sound bites and are asked to fill in a vague electronic form from which “the info furnish by you will be treated discriminately” (sic).
In contrast, those who visit the Malaysia My Second Home Programme (MM2H) website are treated with distinct favour: solid documentation in fluent English and eight other languages, easy navigation, attractive graphics and lists of perks. Clearly this is a programme that the government values, and rightly so: MM2H participants enrich our country not just financially, but also with the wealth of their experiences and cultures. What is not so clear is why we do not see comparable efforts to reap the contributions of jetsetting Malaysians at their prime. Good grammar may be a gesture, but gestures precipitate relationships.
Brain drain (Illustration by Nick Choo) At the Abu Dhabi dialogue, Najib exhorted those present to speak well of our country. Of course, it is natural to praise that which you love, but it would be nice to invite foreign friends home without having to caution them about petty corruption and dirty restrooms.
As much as one appreciates Najib’s frank humour when he added, “I leave it to you whether you want to say good things about the government, but whatever it is, do say good things about Malaysia”, it would be nice to tell one’s friends that the Malaysian government is a true steward of freedom — the freedom for both the nation and her people to flourish.
Sometimes loving Malaysia is like loving an incorrigible teenager. You look at the dynamic, temperamental, hard-headed, loud-mouthed bundle of gorgeous potential in front of you, and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, embrace or withdraw. You understand that precisely because of this nation’s relative youth, you can have a bigger stake in her development if you persevere. Yet even if you are thoroughly enamoured, you yearn to move out from the castle-in-the-air into your home.
Hwa Yue-Yi is currently studying in Williams College, Massachusetts. She would love to make a long-term commitment to her homeland and hopes that the Najib administration will not leave Malaysians such as herself waiting at the altar.
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