Brain drain: Understanding the root causes

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Unless the government and the private sector tackle the real issues, the brain drain will continue to haunt Malaysia, says Ronald Benjamin.

The ongoing brain drain has become a topic of intense debate since a World Bank official said that Malaysia would have had five times foreign direct investment if not for its pro-bumi policy. This comes at a time where there are about a million skilled Malaysian workers overseas who have no intention of coming back to the country.

Perkasa has claimed that even the Malays are leaving Malaysia due to the discrimination in the private sector, but fell short of providing detailed arguments on what it means by private sector discrimination.

All these debates only deal with positions that interest a particular political position without any serious attempt to resolve the issues through objective criteria that require politicians to accept truths about the real situation. Politicians need to have the courage to take the nation along the right part – especially in creating an environment and cultural mindset for work excellence and in reducing the chronic brain drain.

Some of the problems include ethnic and neo-liberal policies that favour big business, a low-cost labour pool, a poor work culture among the Malaysian workforce, the mismatch of supply from the education institutions and the needs of the market, and the gulf in power relations between the management and employees in the private sector. These clearly show that development in Malaysia is basically physical and material at the expense of human development resulting in a brain drain from the country.

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The first thing that the government should do if its honest in tackling the brain drain is to conduct a serious survey of local perceptions of discriminatory policies in the public and private sector. It is vital to conduct this survey to understand the realities on the ground. Complaints of discrimination often centre on the ethnic Chinese and Malays, while there is hardly any comment of how other ethnic groups such as the Indians, Kadazans, and Dayaks perceive their situation in the public and private sectors.

Second, it is vital for the government to take a closer look at our education system and its content, which seems geared towards theories while failing to create all-round individuals capable of progress through intangible skills such as drive, desire, diplomacy, playfulness, humour, awareness and insight..There are a co-curriculum activities in schools that help in these skills, but are the teachers qualified and do they take interest in reigniting and explaining learning experiences to students after these activities?

Understanding behaviour that creates success is vital, and teachers should be role models in facilitating such behaviour in schools. Are our current teachers in schools meeting these criteria? Is this not one of the of the underlying reasons for the brain drain taking place? Many Malaysian parents are concerned about the type of education their children are receiving in this country. There is a preoccupation with ethnicity and religious ideology over meritocracy and excellence.

There is also the unresolved mismatch between the skills required by the private sector and the type of vocational training given in training institutes. For example, during my interview sessions for recruitment among college students, I found that students have gone though robotics studies, but the majority of SMEs are still dependent on manually operated machines. How can skilled workers remain in the country when there is limited avenue to use their skills?

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Third, from my experience in the manufacturing sector, I find that Malaysian workers lack the necessary culture of excellence to succeed. This is made difficult through a hierarchy-based management structure that is ‘top down’ with wide power differentials and where there are no common goals between management and employees. Such a management structure creates a win-lose situation made worse by the policy of employment of foreign workers that keeps wages low. Such power differentials in the private sector have prompted highly educated individuals who prefer a ‘flat’ organisation with greater empowerment to leave the country. They leave behind disgruntled low-wage workers who do not feel a sense of belonging to their organisation and whose only concern centres around wages.

Finally, it is vital to look at supply and demand and the resulting productivity of workers within ethnic groups in Malaysia that keeps wages low. We need to examine how the private sector employers evaluate their employees in terms of productivity and recruitment – and how ethnic perceptions come into play – and how these employees are paid accordingly. This is where the missing link is when academics and government officials discuss increasing productivity, without elaborating on the mindset of employers on how they pay their workers. The ethnic Chinese community are no takers of low salary, and this is proven when they make up the least numbers in low-end operations jobs. This is the context of how the brain drain takes place; low wages are linked to low productivity and it is also linked to employers’ perceptions of the work culture of the various ethnic groups.

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Therefore it is vital to understand not only the macro aspect of the brain drain issue but also the micro aspect of it. Unless the government and the private sector tackles these issues honestly, the brain drain will continue to haunt Malaysia. The Talent Corp that is formed by the government will not succeed unless critical issues are expounded in detail. Solutions must be found that encourage a human development perspective instead of regressive ethnic sentiments that do not do the nation a service.

Ronald Benjamin is an Aliran member based in Ipoh.

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