14 August 2008

Why we can’t get our experts to return

The Star

THE most important asset of a country is not its natural resources but its human resources. This is especially true in a knowledge-based economy, which will be the trend in future if it is not already the trend in most Western countries.

My daughter, who is in her final year studying medicine in Auckland, told me that a team of Singapore recruitment officers just visited Auckland and talked to the Malaysian students there, offering jobs and training prospects for the final year students.

My daughter also said that over the last few years, quite a number of her Malaysian seniors, after graduating from medical courses in New Zealand, have gone to Singapore to work as house officers and subsequently stayed back for their postgraduate training. Similar teams have gone to Australia and UK to recruit Malaysians to work in Singapore.

Our government unveiled plans last March to spend US$553.3mil over five years to boost research, attract foreign investment and build new facilities. But such efforts are going to waste unless it can retain more talented people.

Iskandar Mizal, head of the state-run Malaysian Biotech Corporation which oversees the Government’s strategy, was quoted as saying that by the time we have the research environment in place, every other country would have taken a slice of the biotech investment pie.

We have a serious problem and the problem is brain drain. Why are Malaysians overseas not coming back to work? Well, pay may be part of the reasons but it is not the main reason.

The Singapore recruitment team offers Malaysian students a salary several times more than what they would expect to get in Malaysia. For example, Singapore pays S$40,000 a year for houseman after tax (equivalent to RM86,000), which is about five times the pay of a houseman in Malaysia.

But, as I say, pay is not the main problem. Living expenses overseas are higher and for a person working overseas, the loneliness and the stress level are also much higher. So not everyone opts to work overseas because of pay; many would not mind working for lower pay if they can stay near their loved ones.

Why do people choose to work overseas away from their loved ones? Malaysia has many state-of-the-art hospitals and research centres, which may even be the envy of many overseas countries. But hardware alone will not attract these experts to come home.

In the medical fields, I have so many friends and classmates working overseas, many in world-renowned medical centres. Some of my classmates and friends did come back as specialists but after working a few years – many lasted only a few months - most got disillusioned and went off.

There is really not much prospect of career advancement here. How many can hope to become a professor even when they are acknowledged experts in their field? On the other hand, others are promoted to professorship for doing much less.

How many of them can have any say about how things are to be run? How many of them can blend into the local team where the work attitude is vastly different from overseas? There is an unwritten rule that the head of the team has to be someone from a certain ethnic group who may not even be half as good as you.

In everyday life, some become disillusioned with the corruption, red tape and tidak apa attitude of the officialdom. For an overseas doctor applying to come home to work, the application for approval can take up to six months whereas Singapore sends teams to recruit them on the spot, giving them the forms to fill and offering them jobs immediately as long as they pass their final examination. See the difference?

It is the sense of being wanted and being appreciated that make these people stay overseas. Back here, they are often made to feel they are of a lower class. They do not feel wanted and they do not feel appreciated and that is the main reason.

It is really sad. Parents spend huge amounts of money educating their children, but the ones who stand to benefit are the Singaporeans, Americans, Australians and the British. For as long as race politics is not done away with, the problem of brain drain will continue and Malaysia will always fall behind advanced countries, no matter how many twin towers and Putrajayas we build.


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