Malaysia

Malaysia’s brain drain getting worse, says World Bank

By Lee Wei Lian
April 28, 2011

KUALA LUMPUR, April 28 — World Bank senior economist Philip Schellekens painted a gloomy picture of the Malaysian brain drain situation today saying that it not only grew rapidly but is likely to intensify, further eroding the country’s already narrow skills base.

Schellekens said that the number of skilled Malaysians living abroad has tripled in the last two decades with two out of every 10 Malaysians with tertiary education opting to leave for either OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries or Singapore.

“Brain drain from Malaysia is likely to intensify in the absence of mitigating actions,” he said at the launch of the World Bank report titled “Malaysia Economic Monitor: Brain Drain”.

The report defined brain drain as the outflow of those with tertiary-level education.

The economist said Malaysian migration was increasingly becoming a skills migration with one-third of the one million-strong Malaysian diaspora now consisting of the tertiary educated.

“Expect the trend to continue,” he said.

He added that the outflow of talent was not being replaced with inflows, thus damaging the quality of Malaysia’s “narrow” skills base, noting that 60 per cent of immigration into Malaysia had only primary education or less, even as the number of skilled expatriates declined by 25 per cent since 2004.

The report also noted that there was a geographic and ethnic component to the brain drain, with about 88 per cent of the Malaysian diaspora in Singapore being of ethnic Chinese origin.

“The numbers for US and Australia are similar,” said Schellekens.

Report figures also show that 54 per cent of the Malaysian brain drain went to Singapore while 15 per cent went to Australia, 10 per cent to the US and 5 per cent to the UK.

The top three drivers for brain drain identified by the report were career prospects, compensation and social justice.

“(Lack of) Meritocracy and unequal access to scholarships are significant push factors and a deterrent to coming back,” said Schellekens. “Non-Bumiputeras are over-represented in the brain drain.”

He suggested that Malaysia implement important structural reforms in tandem with introducing targeted measures such as income tax incentives to reverse the brain drain.

“Once the highway is built, you must compete for traffic,” he said. “One suggestion is to hold a competition among members of the diaspora to get ideas on what can be done to attract them home.”

He added that while this report estimated the Malaysian diaspora at one million compared with about 1.4 million in a previous World Bank report, it was due to the lack of Singapore government information on the breakdown of its non-resident population.

“This is a conservative estimate and the diaspora could well be larger,” he said.