Malaysia stares at brain drain syndrome as local talents head to ‘Mars’

AS corporate Malaysia crawls its way to oblivion – or to borrow a phrase from, “institutions are being intimidated” (namely, judiciary and the Securities Commission) – yours truly decided to take solace in cherishing the success of Malaysians who have successfully knocked on the door of NASA (yes, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

We are talking about NASA of all places because yours truly thought visualising the sun, moons, stars and planets would provide a reprieve from the bleakness of reality and the sorry state of his motherland – socioeconomically, politically, financially and emotionally.

While transmitting his kudos to Muar-born Florence Tan whose watching re-runs of Star Trek has paved the way for her to be appointed the chair of the Small Spacecraft Coordination Group (SSCG) at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, yours truly came to realise that Bolehland is indeed a land of abundance – full of ripe and juicy fruits for the picking.

But unfortunately, the fruits – many a time – are left to waste and rot although occasionally, they were grabbed by bats and squirrels who seemingly know how to better appreciate them.

But back to Tan who is today NASA’s deputy chief technologist for the agency’s science mission directorate – how could one not be amazed that she is overseeing the development of spacecrafts which are headed for Mars.

The sad thing, however, is that she has traded her citizenship for that of the country which knows how to treasure her talent.

Florence Tan

Hailing from a fishing village in Muar, Johor, Tan left Malaysia when she was 18 after finishing her secondary education at the Kuantan Mara Junior Science College.

She went on to study at the Western Michigan University in the US and transferred to the University of Maryland a year later where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering.

Her parents, Tan shared, saved money in every way they could with her father having to use a worn pair of shoes. He kept walking in them even though they had holes.

“I watched him put in pieces of cardboard to cover the holes in the soles. Years later, when I earned my first pay cheque, I bought him a pair of Christian Dior shoes from the US and sent them to Malaysia,” she recalled.

Tan is obviously not the first Malaysia-born talent to have walked past the corridors of NASA. In 2014, Malaysiakni highlighted that a young scientist by the name of Dr Wan Wardatul Amani Wan Salim became the first Malaysian to launch a NASA satellite to space.

Just 36 years old at the time, Amani was the principal investigator in a team of scientists, technologists and engineers to work on NASA’s first-ever device that can measure extracellular ion from a single cell in microgravity.

The project was eventually launched as a nanosatellite together with a SpaceX rocket as part of NASA’s Journey to Mars mission.

The Penangite’s journey to rocket science began when she still an electrical engineering student at the University of Minnesota. Out of curiosity, she volunteered her spare time working in laboratories.

While Amani is back conducting research at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) whereby she has shifted her focus from satellites to creating simple devices for local communities, Tan’s link with Malaysia is sadly by the sole virtue of her birth country today.

Malaysia has for years been left grappling with brain drain which culminates in the emigration of highly-trained talents to a new land of opportunity, often triggered by lack of meritocracy more than anything else (other contributing factors include salary and compensation, job satisfaction, political instability or economic condition, to name a few).

Eventually, the emigration of talented citizens can create a dearth of skilled workforce, thus making it difficult for a country to maintain a high intellectual standard as many of its educated and most intelligent people have migrated elsewhere.

While Malaysia has to quickly plug its outflow of talents or talent leakage, it also needs to harness talents who possess zest, intelligence and above all else INTEGRITY given that turbulent times await the country as rogue politicians and businessmen are lurking to undermine the credibility of key institutions like the judiciary and the Securities Commission (SC). – May 5, 2022

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