Malaysia at economic crossroads as it fights the great brain drain Kuala Lumpur government announces new strategy to try and retain its brightest sons and daughters from emigrating
Dustin Roasa in Kuala Lumpur
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 21 April 2011 18.47 BST
Sheng Cai Lim is a skilled and experienced IT professional, an asset to a country that aspires to grow into a fully developed nation by the end of the decade. There's only one problem. Lim, 29, isn't sure he wants to stay in Malaysia.
Lim says it's 50/50 that he'll leave. "I'll likely go to Singapore for a few years, and then after that maybe Canada or New Zealand," he said. He's on a six-month sabbatical from work and recently registered with head hunters who place candidates abroad. "My friends overseas wonder why I'm still in Malaysia. They say there are better opportunities abroad," he said.
If Lim does make the move, he'll join the 1.5m Malaysians, or 5.3% of the population, who live and work outside of the country, according to the World Bank. By moving to countries such as Singapore, Australia and the UK, these migrants are creating a considerable brain drain that threatens the country's economic progress.
"Brain drain is hurting the country's drive to move up the value chain," said Dr Ooi Kee Beng, senior fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore. "The fact that Malaysians fill many of the top and middle management posts in the region, from Shanghai to Singapore, tells us that the country is bleeding talent."
The problem has been getting worse in recent years. More than 300,000 Malaysians left the country between March 2008 and August 2009, compared to nearly 140,000 in 2007, the deputy foreign affairs minister, Tuan A Kohilan Pillay told parliament. Many work in key sectors such as finance, technology and engineering.
Two factors are driving the exodus, said Tony Pua, MP and member of the opposition committee on the ministry of higher education. "First, there's simple economics. You can make more money overseas," he said.
The other cause is the country's race-based affirmative action policies, Pua said, which favour ethnic-majority bumiputra, or sons of the soil, over minority Chinese and Indians, who make up 24% and 7% of the population, respectively.
"The two problems exacerbate each other. The economy has not been growing, and there's an increasing demand for a bigger piece of the pie among bumiputra. As a result, the government is more prone to implement policies that favour them, and minorities feel excluded. It's a vicious cycle," Pua said.
Malaysian law provides bumiputra benefits such as rebates on property prices, quotas for university enrolment and civil-service jobs, and preferential treatment for government contracts, among other advantages. The laws, which were enacted in 1971 in an attempt to redistribute wealth in the wake of race riots in 1969, distinguish Malaysia from other Asian countries with brain-drain problems, such as the Philippines.
In interviews with Malaysians living in Kuala Lumpur and overseas, frustration with these laws and worries about rising racial tension and Islamic conservatism have led many to reconsider their futures in their country of birth.
"Malaysia is a very controlled and fanatic country," said Janath Anantha Vass, 29, an ethnic Indian accountant in Kuala Lumpur who plans to move to Australia. "Melbourne suits my lifestyle the best, and I feel that's the place for me."
The Malaysian government is attempting to respond to the problem with an array of programmes, including 1Malaysia, a campaign designed to ease racial tensions. In January, Prime Minister Najib Razak launched the Talent Corporation, which seeks to lure back skilled Malaysians. But many are sceptical that these programmes will address the systemic problems driving brain drain.
"I'm not sure how effective Talent Corporation will be. Past programmes like this have not worked, and I'm not sure how this one is different," said Evelyn Wong, an ethnic Chinese economics student at Scripps College in California, who blogs about brain drain.
But Dr Kim Leng Yeah, an economist at Ram Holdings in Kuala Lumpur, said Talent Corporation did at least demonstrate the government's willingness to address the issue. "There has been a lot of public scepticism," he said. "But it is a proactive move." Representatives at Talent Corporation declined to comment.
As Lim, who is ethnic Chinese, considers his future, he has spent time thinking about his place in multicultural Malaysia. "I do realise that I am a minority in this country," he said. "My family is encouraging me to leave. They say, 'Malaysia doesn't want us anymore, so why stay?'"
And while he hasn't given up on eventually returning, he would have to see significant changes before doing so. "It doesn't feel like the country is mature enough to tackle its problems right now. When we are ready to face our problems, I'll be ready to come back," he said.