“The reality is, brain drain is a boon to the corrupt establishment”

THE brain drain problem is not a problem unique to Malaysia. Even economically advanced countries struggle with this.

The idea is quite simple. People leave for places where they find their skills are more appreciated in terms of financial rewards and better upward social mobility.

And often, the issue is coupled with a feeling that their excellence is not appreciated in their homeland and are usually due to discriminatory policies in the place.

Based on a study conducted by EMIR Research, it is estimated that there are slightly above two million of the Malaysian diasporas which are working in other countries.

Bear in mind that the number is a mere estimate, given that the authorities do not really provide granular data to study how severe the brain drain problem is in Malaysia.

In this piece, I would like to touch two problems related to Malaysia’s brain drain problem substandard wages and of course, Government policy.

In terms of wages, there is not denying that our remuneration scale does not commensurate with the skills brought forth by our skilled workforce.

To prove this point, I need not cite any data. Just to tell you of my own life experience, my starting salary after graduating was RM1,500, back in 2004.

And the Government has just set the minimum wage threshold at RM1,500 after much resistance from certain quarters. Can anyone tell me how much the cost of living has escalated since then?

Adding salt to injury to those who spent years to get a tertiary education, the salary for a fresh graduate in the early 1990s was between RM1,500 and RM1,800.

So, for the last 30 years, the salary range for fresh graduates was “set” at between RM1,500 and RM1,800 despite cost of living rising exponentially in lieu of our economic growth.

And why are wages not rising in tandem with the cost of living? Well, it boils down to the neo-liberal economic policies set by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad back in the 1980s.

Those who lived during the 1980s and 1990s remember that Malaysia was often marketed to foreign investors as a skilled yet low-wage country. Despite the country now in the 21st century with several prime ministers succeeding Mahathir, Malaysia did not really walk away from the “cheap labour” policies of the past.

Just look at our addiction to cheap migrant labour to drive our economic growth. Despite having an acute labour shortage in the manufacturing and commodity sectors, no one is talking about increasing wages to attract workers. Instead, we are still looking at how to get migrant workers back!

You can call the man a convicted felon all you want but former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had the right idea to enact a minimum wage policy, despite it being a small attempt, to address the income gap in the Malaysian workforce.

And he aptly pointed out that there is no point talking about Malaysia becoming a high-income country when workers are still getting substandard wages to feed themselves.

Pic credit: Council on Foreign Relations


Smart people, a threat to status quo

Touching on my second point when it comes to brain drain, there is no denying that it is also triggered by unjust policies of the Government, where discriminatory policies are rampant.

Now these discriminatory policies are not only prevalent in the civil service but also in the private sector.

I do not wish the elaborate on the second point too much as everyone knows what is it all about. The deal here is, why is the Government dragging its feet in addressing the brain drain problem?

The reason is simple. The establishment resents “critical thinkers” as the group can pose a threat to the status quo.

For example, we have about two million Malaysians working and living abroad. What if half of them return and ask the establishment to review the New Economic Policy (NEP), given that its core objective of eradicating poverty has failed over the decades?

Imagine one million people prodding political parties that ride on the 3R (race, religion and royalty) to make such review. It would definitely expose the politicians’ hypocrisy among the populace, given that data would show how the elites have hijacked the policy to enrich themselves.

And those who have worked in Western nations would be exposed to “bad ideals” of free speech and good governance. In countries like Japan, mediocre and corrupt leaders often resign in shame before even getting hauled up by the authorities.

If again, half of the two million Malaysians come back and demand such accountability from our leaders, how would impeccable leaders like our “do-nothing” former top civil servant Tan Sri Sidek Hassan stay employed?

Do you see where I’m going with this?

The current establishment thrives on brain drain as those who leave are usually those displeased with how things are going on with the country.

So, once these “troublemakers” leave, the establishment is content in dealing with those are “subservient and thankful” to whatever is being dished out, with those linked to the power centre amassing the lion’s share of the nation’s economic wealth by enacting laws which would protect their “grand scheme of things”.

However, one must understand that such a corrupt system that thrives on a docile populace would not last long as the current global economic volatility is wreaking havoc on Malaysia’s economy and social structure.

And this is where we need top brains to come up with long-term solutions to resolve our nation’s woes and direct the country back on the right track.

But is the establishment ready to listen to the smart ones and do what is necessary to dismantle the corrupt power structure that promotes servility and mediocrity? At the moment, it seems very unlikely.

And the brain drain problem plaguing Malaysia would continue unabated until we have people pushing for real reforms to the system. Hopefully, we do not need to end up being another Sri Lanka to realise our mistakes.

Because by then, it may be too late for us…while those linked to the establishment would have left for greener pastures with their ill-gotten gains. – June 19, 2022

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