Home 2011: 5 The Great Migration Question

The Great Migration Question

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2Khoo looks at the big debate about migration and the brain drain. We suffer the worst of both worlds: at the low end, we have plenty of low-skilled workers despite official policy to reduce the number; and at the high end, we are unable to retain our own highly qualified people nor attract those from foreign sources.

When he was riding high in the early 1990s, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad grandly promoted Melayu Baru, Bangsa Malaysia and Vision 2020. Today, mudah lupa if not nyanyuk, and unnerved by the spectre of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, which he created, Mahathir desperately plays up Datuk Ibrahim Ali, Perkasa and ketuanan Melayu.

Before the March 2008 tsunami, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and ‘KJ’ wanted us to look to ‘Towering Malaysians’. Now, if we open our eyes, what we see piling up are liars, provocateurs, turncoats, and enforcers.

When keris-kissing went out of fashion, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak raised his finger and tried to sell us 1Malaysia. But this slogan or logo or brand of national unity – the brainchild of lavishly paid image consultants – is stillborn, smothered by 1Melayu, 1Bumi, 1Utusan, and, in every post-2008 by-election and the 16 April Sarawak election, 1Money, 1Money, 1Money.

No longer capable

One can continue in this fashion ad nauseam. But perhaps the above is enough to make a point: in the present state of politics, we’re suffocated by caricature, demonisation, betrayal, and character assassination. And because they and their accomplices are so deeply involved in those acts, so many of our leaders, politicians, senior bureaucrats, and ‘opinion-makers’ have lost the ability to engage in informed, thoughtful and productive debates on policies and public interest.

Take as an example the matter of migration – the emigration of Malaysians to other countries and the immigration of foreign nationals to our country.

When the World Bank released its latest Malaysian Economic Monitor (MEM), a report on our ‘brain drain’ (http://www-wds.world bank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2011/05/02/000356161_2011 0502023920/Rendered/PDF/614830WP0malay10Box 358348B01PUBLIC1.pdf), some of its highlights appeared in print and online media. In response, some business and political analysts lazily issued tired refrains about discrimination, talent and meritocracy. Others, politicians, predictably turned on the issue as if it were an ethnic flogging horse.

Research and analysis

There’s always a time and place to criticise the World Bank and, where necessary, reject its policy prescriptions that have been disastrous for the development of many countries. Still, we learn and prove nothing if, like the multi-million-visitor blogger, Che Det, we reflexively denounce the World Bank as Anwar Ibrahim’s tool or master.

In this country, government agencies habitually conceal ‘sensitive’ information from public view and independent analysis. At least, World Bank research, including this study which was conducted in cooperation with the government, provides data and analyses. We need those to inform responsible public debate on the impact of migration and related policies on our economy and society.

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For a start, the MEM’s estimates of out-migration are acceptable. The reasons cited were also sensible, even if they were mostly known, especially the frequently criticised discrimination in public policy and practice. Many might, therefore, think that addressing discrimination will stem the volume and pace of out-migration. That will work for people emigrating for that reason.

Yet we lose highly qualified people for other reasons.

Going, going … home?

Let’s briefly interpret the information in the accompanying table from the MEM. What reasons might persuade the survey respondents, now abroad, to return home?

The most important reasons were a commitment by the government to switch to ‘needs-based affirmative action’ and to undertake reform of the public sector and institutions. Just under half of the respondents wanted greater investment in public education and policies that welcomed skilled migrant labour.

It is encouraging to note that the least valued item on the ‘wish list’ was a ‘favourable tax structure’ – which suggests the respondents were not obsessed with material incentives.

Forget, then, about offering would-be returnees 1AP to bring home an imported car or two, as if such things feature prominently in their big life decisions! That kind of thinking exposes a mentality used to bribing people with 1Noodles and 1Tupperware.

Our leaders, policy-makers and implementers should heed the views of the MEM’s survey respondents. They should realise that existing ‘brain gain’ and talent-tapping programmes won’t bring people home unless the overall working, living, social, and political environment is positively changed. That same positively changed society will keep people home, not push them away.

Public education

Consider, too, the survey respondents’ concern over education – but specifically public education, an entirely valid point. Presently, about 70 per cent of tertiary students in the USA study in public colleges and universities. During USA’s great growth in the 1950s and 1960s, over 80 per cent studied in public institutions at a nominal cost.

In contrast, the government here projects that about 50 per cent of all our tertiary students will study in private institutions by the end of this decade. Quite possibly, a large proportion of them will be funded by government. Is this a way of making greater and better investment in public education – or another way to transfer public money to private institutions?

For that matter, are our leaders aware that a tertiary qualification carries a lower premium relative to secondary education in Malaysia than, say, Thailand? How did this situation arise? Can we redress it with self-deluding praise of our ‘apex universities’ which can’t secure reasonable ranking among universities in Asia, let alone the world?

Education policies and practices here have for too long been the playthings of too many of our politicians. It’s time for hard and honest work to raise the quality of our education all the way from primary to tertiary levels. (But, remember, we also cannot do so if our educators, including historians and language experts, want to soak us in pseudo-nationalistic history and insensitive lexicography.)

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Pulling away

No doubt, we must remedy as far as possible the conditions – the ‘push factors’ – that drive people away. From the MEM, though, one can see that ‘pull factors’ also draw people elsewhere.

Those ‘pull factors’, including higher compensation, brighter career prospects and less aggravating quality of life issues, will persist as long as we remain a developing country unable to advance towards high- or higher-income.

Even if we become wealthier, emigration may continue, as our perennial benchmark, Singapore, illustrates. Singapore may be wealthy, efficient, meritocratic (in a narrow sense), and full of good career prospects but it experiences substantial out-migration. Indeed, from 1990 to 2000, Singapore’s gross rate of out-migration to OECD destinations was higher than Malaysia’s.

In other words, emigration, especially the outflow of highly qualified professionals, is a fact of life in today’s world. If we face up to that, then one of the things we need is to offset out-migration with the in-migration of highly qualified professionals. Singapore does that. It balances its out-migration with in-migration from different sources, including a large proportion of it from its ‘traditional source’, Malaysia.

But we don’t have a coherent policy with adequate initiatives to attract the immigrants we want. For example, our government departments don’t work together to provide far better Permanent Resident and Citizenship options. If anything, they appear to discriminate against the ‘coloureds’ of the world, or else they want to score political points by enticing home Malaysians abroad with incentives that will alienate those staying at home.

Lower and lower

Our problem is acute. Year by year, we’ve attracted fewer highly qualified ‘expats’. Our in-migrants are more lowly qualified and low-waged than before. How can this help us move out of the ‘middle-income trap’ and up the ‘ladder’ of technology, skill and income? (The opposite has happened in Singapore which attracts even more young Malaysian women than men, perhaps because there are many more women in university than men now.)

Data from the Economic Planning Unit shows that the number of ‘documented’ foreign workers increased from 410,000 in 1999 to 2.1 million in 2008 – half of them being from Indonesia. These workers make up one-third of persons employed in manufacturing, one-third in construction, and more than one-third in agriculture (including smallholders). The much publicised ‘maids’ only make up 15 per cent of all ‘documented’ foreign workers.

Ironically, there was an official policy to reduce the in-migration of low-waged unqualified workers. However, when businesses objected, the government did not implement the policy for a decade, making it easy for businesses – government, multinational, Malay, Chinese, and Indian – to live off a rapidly growing reserve of cheap foreign labour.

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No cables?

For us, the logical regional sources of highly qualified professionals would be India and China. But, negative reasons make Malaysia unattractive to those professionals. First, the income gap between Singapore and Malaysia has widened so much that the former is far and away ‘first choice’. Sure enough, Singapore in the past decade has had an influx of professionals from India and China.

Moreover, although some of them use Singapore as a stepping stone to depart for ‘western’ destinations, many settle down because Singapore generously offers them ‘PR’. In contrast, foreigners here must wait years to be eligible to apply for ‘PR’. How many brilliant professionals, often made to feel unwelcome, would be committed to Malaysia if they had a choice?

And, third, what these cyber-savvy professionals learn about ethno-cultural discrimination in Malaysia powerfully discourages them: why choose to be the new pendatang when Malaysia-born citizens are labelled ‘pendatang’ and told to balik kampung?

High and low

Of course, any influx of foreign workers brings its own problems.

At the ‘bottom’, in simple economic terms, masses of lowly qualified, low-waged foreign workers are typically used to keep down the wage levels of local workers. This is our domestic scenario. (Was it any wonder, then, that the police harassed and arrested Sungei Siput MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj and others during the May Day rally for minimum wages?)

At the ‘top’, large numbers of highly qualified, high-salaried expatriates intensify competition for good jobs and introduce new tiers of income inequality. This is Singapore’s situation. (Was it a surprise that so many of Singapore’s voters were so fed up with it that they swung against the ruling People’s Action Party in the general election of 7 May 2011?)

We suffer the worst of both worlds. At the low end, we have masses of low-skilled workers although official policy is to reduce their number. At the high end, despite our desire to have them, we can neither retain a large number of our own highly qualified people nor attract highly qualified people from foreign sources.

To put it bleakly, only the truly ignorant or the proudly bigoted can be blissful about our unhappy position. Too many of our so-called leaders and politicians, in and out of Parliament, shun intelligent public debates on the ‘migration question’. Instead of formulating workable policies to secure our future, they think they will secure their positions with politics of smut, sex-videos, and sickening stereotypes.

Actually, if we must sink in all that, let’s do it in style. Ask National Laureate, Shahnon Ahmad, to write a sequel to his runaway Reformasi bestseller, S***@P***M**. Then, we shall know once and for all that our political system, bereft of decency, is still stuck in deep s***.

Unlike 1This and 1That, 2Khoo supports real pluralism and shared purpose in diversity.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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31 Jul 2011 8.56pm

Talent Corp is a waste of tax payers money.
Get the meritocray policies right without discrimination on race, religion, age or creek .

charlie chan
charlie chan
26 Jul 2011 5.59pm

why migrate? malaysia is the best nation to come to- millions of illegals are on our shores. how did millions land in malyasia, just walk in< n now an amnesty is considered for the millions . so generous. talented malaysians can migrate but can be easily be replaced by 2 millions illegals- the best brawns. welcome to a clean nation

26 Jul 2011 5.41pm

Yes, I can imagine what might have happened when Talentcorp sent anyone, young or old, cikus or dukus, to talk to the overseas Malaysian professionals. The problem is not so much arrogance (though I can again imagine it being the case) as the fact that they DON’T have anything credible to sell. If the leaders of this country cannot understand what is going on in the rest of the world, after all this time, then they MUST be replaced. I think its obvious a change in government will not only give a ray of hope, its the only chance for Malaysia to get back on top!

26 Jul 2011 10.43am

This topic has been talked over many times,but have we seen any real concrete actions or results(other than the setup of Talent Corporation which I read before was snubbed when they sent a young arrogant cikku to talk to those overseas Malaysian professionals).
May be a change of present govt will give some ray of hope but this is yet to be seen.
But as the saying goes ‘no venture,no gain’.

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