Malaysia's Brain Drain
Malaysia's brain drain appears to be picking up speed. According to a recent parliamentary report, 140,000 left the country, probably for good, in 2007. Between March 2008 and August 2009, that figure more than doubled to 305,000 as talented people pulled up stakes, apparently disillusioned by rising crime, a tainted judiciary, human rights abuses, an outmoded education system and other concerns.
The general assumption is that Chinese and Indians form the majority of those abandoning the country of their birth because ethnic Malays consider them pendatang – aliens in a Malay land, regardless of how long they have been in the country. However, increasing numbers of Malays have already emigrated as well, or are seriously thinking it, dismayed by corrupt practices as well as the rigid confines of Islam and the rise of fundamentalism embodied in the revelation on Wednesday by Home Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein that three women had been caned in Kajang Prison in Selangor on Feb. 9 for having had illicit sex under shariah law.
In 2000, according to figures compiled in 2007, 40 percent of Malaysian emigrants headed for Singapore – at the same time Singaporeans are headed somewhere else. By one estimate, (Singaporeans Seek Asylum Elsewhere, Asia Sentinel, Jan. 7) the number who put the Lion City behind them is as high as 15 percent of annual births. In 2006, the Transport Minister, Raymond Lim, expressed concern that 53 percent of Singaporean teens would consider emigration. One website survey put Singapore's average outflow at 26.11 migrants per 1,000 citizens, the second highest in the world - next only to East Timor (51.07).
Of the other émigrés, 30 percent go to OECD countries (Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Britain) 20 percent to Asian countries (Brunei, Philippines, Indonesia) and the rest of the world (10 percent). Malaysian Employers Federation executive director, Shamsuddin Bardan, said in an interview that 785,000 Malaysians are working overseas. Unofficially, the figure is well over 1 million.
Nor are people all that is leaving. Asia Sentinel reported on Jan.11 (Malaysia's Disastrous Capital Flight) that there has been an exodus of money from Malaysia on a scale which surpasses that which occurred during the Asian crisis. The decline is also reflected in a sudden decline in base money supply – even while, thanks to Bank Negara, broader M2 has continued to grow modestly.
A major problem is the flight of graduates. As early as 2004, former Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was becoming concerned, pointing out that as many as many as 30,000 thought to be working in foreign countries, many of whom had held scholarships in top universities from the Malaysian government but chose to stay overseas at the end of their studies. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad demanded that other countries pay Malaysia for having seduced them to stay, " since, by right, the graduates' training and knowledge should be called intellectual property."
The typical reasons are well-documented: improved employment and business prospects, higher salaries, better working environments, greater chances of promotion and a relatively superior quality of life.
Three Malay women put a personal face on statistics in conversation with Asia Sentinel, sharing their decisions to emigrate. Two are graduates of overseas universities, the third is from a local school. Their decisions to leave were made, they say, after a lot of soul searching. But for these women, money and economic incentives were not the end-all. Their names have been changed to protect them.
Anita claims to have left because of her sexuality. She graduated from a university in the United Kingdom but continued with a post-graduate degree course. At the end of her studies, she worked in a multinational corporation in London and is now a department head. She was recently married, in a civil ceremony, in the UK. A Malay, Anita is naturally Muslim. Her partner is another woman, Nadia, an Iraqi Jew. They met as undergraduates.
For a decade, the two made the annual pilgrimage to Malaysia to visit Anita's ageing parents, Anita says. When in Kuala Lumpur, they are regular patrons of lesbian joints in Bangsar. After the Malaysian National Fatwa Council issued an edict banning lesbianism in 2008, Anita travelled alone. Nadia dislikes the risk of being 'caught,' The clues to their sexuality are their short cropped hair, Doc Marten shoes, preponderance of masculine clothes and, on closer inspection, their identical wedding rings with each other's names inscribed. Anita is in self-imposed exile because her partner will not be allowed to reside in Malaysia.
Although male homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia and sodomy incurs a punishment of 20 years jail, Malaysia's civil code does not ban lesbianism. Malaysian men are just so big-headed that they cannot imagine any woman not wanting to sleep with a man.
"It is unacceptable to see women who love the male lifestyle including dressing in the clothes men wear," said Abdul Shukor Husin, the Fatwa Council chairman. Harussani Idris Zakaria, the mufti of Perak, says that the council's ruling was not legally binding as it had not been passed into law. He wants tomboys to be banned because their actions are immoral. "It doesn't matter if it's a law or not," he says,
In 2000, Malaysia had around 80,000 official expatriates. By 2008, this figure had shrunk to 38,000 as the collapsing global economy cut into trade and thus trade and Malaysian exports. When Bibi worked in an electronics factory in north Perak, little did she foresee marrying her expatriate quality control engineer. After his conversion to Islam and their subsequent marriage, he attempted unsuccessfully to gain permanent residence. He claims to have spent a small fortune on lawyers, on 'proof' and photographs for the application process, and several trips to the immigration offices to be 'verified'. He claims that one low ranking government official even offered him a birth certificate for RM60,000, as a pre-cursor to a 'red' identity card, which would help facilitate the PR status.
When Bibi's husband's work permit expired, he attempted to form a trading company. He travelled to the border every few months to renew his immigration-social visit pass, while he explored this avenue. He was ineligible for a sole proprietorship and although he could form a limited company with 51 percent bumiputra ownership, he found that for one reason or another, it was not viable. Local partners wanted maximum profits for little or no work. A Caucasian, he was seen as a cash cow, he says.
In addition, the Perak town they lived in was very provincial. Had he lived in Kuala Lumpur or Penang, he could be anonymous, like the expatriates married to Malay women in these cities. As an expat convert in his local town, the Malays expected him to uphold Malay values and scrutinized his every move, right down to his religious obligations. He was disillusioned with living in a goldfish bowl and both he and Bibi left for Europe.
According to one local daily, the number of Malaysian researchers, scientists and engineers working overseas exceeds 20,000 with 40 percent of them in the United States and 10 percent in Australia. When Ida graduated from Australia with a chemical engineering degree, she worked in a chemical plant in Selangor. Her friendship with a chemist blossomed into love, with talk of marriage. There was one problem - Anthony was a Catholic. He dutifully presented himself at the mosque for agama lessons in preparation for his conversion. The imam never appeared for their pre-arranged appointments. Frustrated with being let down repeatedly, he stopped going. His lucky break came when he was offered a job in a neighboring country. Ida joined him. She was free from parental and family pressures, he from the religious zealots. They married. He retained his faith, she remained a Muslim. They started a family and have since emigrated to New Zealand. Recently, she embraced Catholicism.
Malaysian emigration has critical policy implications. There are questions over what will happen when overseas students receive employment offers in the country where they are studying, when skilled people leave Malaysia, when pensioners retire abroad (the silver economy) and the nation registers an increase in unskilled foreign workers but a decrease in skilled expatriates.
The challenge for policymakers is to harness the economic and political potential of this largely ignored diaspora. There is no point pretending Malaysia does not have a serious problem. The incentives to reverse the brain drain and attract those who are abroad must be reviewed, as they are currently ineffective. For many like Anita, Bibi and Ida, it is not just politics and racial discrimination but also religious and social pressures that drive them away.