Why is Malaysia experiencing a brain drain?

In the past six months, there’s been a surge of local interest in the trend of brain drain in Malaysia. Out of a population of 27 million, there are an estimated 1.5 million Malaysians living abroad. Many of these Malaysians are skilled workers who emigrated to Singapore and OECD countries such as Australia, UK, and US. In response to this, the government has set up the Talent Corporation under the 10th Malaysia Plan to attract and retain highly-skilled human capital. Operating under the Prime Minister’s Department, Talent Corp will commence operations in January 2011.

While this is a promising step towards ameliorating the problem, the causes of brain drain are complex and deeply-entrenched in other aspects of Malaysian society. My personal research deals with the personal side of brain drain: in other words, what drives Malaysians’ decisions to leave the country, or to return home? I focused on Malaysians who are studying and working abroad, or have done so in the past. Over two weeks in June 2010, I surveyed 841 Malaysians on their opinions of various aspects of Malaysia; such as its political situation, its economic situation, safety, education and human rights. For statistical analysis purposes, respondents were asked to rate these abstract factors on a scale of one to ten, with one being not important at all and ten being most important. The survey also asked respondents to rate how important job prospects, religion, family ties, and a sense of moral duty to the country were to their decision whether to return or not. Finally, I asked how much the respondent believed young people coming home would make a difference to the country, and left a space for her to express her feelings about Malaysia in their own words.

A full report can be found at pluggingthebraindrain.wordpress.com. One illuminating find was that across the board, only three factors were statistically significant in whether a Malaysian decided to return: perception of whether returnees can make a difference, job prospects, and moral duty – a mix of the pragmatic and the philosophical. The more importance job prospect were to a Malaysian overseas, the lower the desire to come home. On the other hand, a higher rating on moral duty and making a difference corresponded to an increased desire to return to the home country.

In addition, I found that both experiences based on personal attributes (gender, ethnicity, family ties) as well as general perceptions of how the nation is progressing (economy, politics, education) play into one’s decision whether to return home. For example, men and Malaysians of Chinese descent were more pessimistic about Malaysia’s future. In general, younger respondents were more idealistic – a hopeful sign for the future generation, perhaps?

Personally, I found the comments section where people could express themselves freely the most interesting part of my research. For many émigrés, there is a deep sense of being wronged and not feeling welcome in Malaysia that propels them to make a living and a home elsewhere. In my opinion, it’s not too late to stem the brain drain – there are many young and young-at-heart Malaysians who still call Malaysia home. It’s going to take more than lip service or even financial incentives to draw most back, though. In an increasingly globalized world with porous international borders, Malaysia is at a turning point: to clean up her act and enter the developed world, or to continue stagnating and fall behind. The decisions of many, many Malaysians will depend on which way they believe she will go.

Evelyn Wong is a sophomore at Scripps College, California, pursuing a dual major in Politics and International Relations, and Economics. She hails from Ipoh, Malaysia.

About Evelyn Wong, Guest Contributor