Malaysia is poised to become a high-income nation by 2020. “Wawasan 2020” or Vision 2020 was first coined in 1991 by then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad to describe Malaysia’s aspiration to join the high-income league of the world and to establish a one Malaysian society that is civilized and prosperous.
Turning that aspiration into reality is no easy task. Although the Malaysian government under different leaderships has consistently channeled investments into seemingly concrete nation building plans and economic transformation blueprints, the question of whether that aspiration can materialize remains unanswered.
One of the precursors to achieving high-income status requires the establishment of an educated workforce that is highly skilled and well qualified. The current workforce situation in Malaysia, however, runs at odds with the aforementioned building block. The reason for that can be attributed to an increasingly growing number of qualified Malaysians who choose to work abroad.
According to the World Bank, the number of Malaysians who live abroad has grown threefold in the past twenty years. With a population of 27 million people, Malaysia has experienced the migration of one million citizens, one-third of whom are professionals. Higher wages, better and equal opportunities, and a level playing field in other countries are among the impetuses that have driven Malaysians away from their homeland. When surveyed, most Malaysians quoted the country’s affirmative policy that favors one race over others, widespread corruption, and draconian Islamic laws that increasingly infringe upon civil liberties as the main factors preventing the country from moving forward.
Every leader can agree that human capital is one of the most, if not, the most important tool on which a country can capitalize in order to achieve economic success. Understanding the importance of that, the Malaysian government launched TalentCorp, a taskforce assigned to reverse brain drain and craft strategies to attract overseas Malaysians to return home. Thus far, the government’s efforts have yielded disappointing outcomes. In 2011, TalentCorp won the approvals of only 680 citizens intending to return. That number is a drop in the bucket, considering that there are at least one million Malaysians abroad.
That said, as with any business or organization, the first few years of inception are generally the most challenging. In order to lure more Malaysians home, the mere presence of TalentCorp is insufficient–the government shoulders the bigger responsibility of offering lucrative packages. There are several viable options the government should take to not only reverse brain drain, but also change the perception of overseas Malaysians about the prospects of the country. Abolishing the affirmative action policy is the first step. Doing so provides equal opportunities to everyone in terms of access to education and healthcare, home purchases, etc.
Meritocracy is the cornerstone of a successful democracy. For a democratic country such as Malaysia, the apartheid style of governance is archaic and no longer applicable. It makes perfect sense for the government of Malaysia to take the right steps to preserve the talent it cannot afford to lose and incentivize its citizens who had left to come back and serve the country. After all, the premium membership of “High-Income Nation” is something for which Malaysia has been yearning even before the advent of this millennium. Letting it slip away that easily will be a bitter pill to swallow.