Why brain drain will continue (Part II)
|Kapil is an advertising strategist based in KL, who likes nothing better than to figure out why people behave the way they do. Naturally this forces him to spend most of his time lounging in coffeeshops and bars. He can be reached at [email protected]|
AUG 29 ― In my last column, I touched upon the role of education, media and politics in contributing to brain drain from Malaysia. In this piece, I want to examine the impact of all of these on creativity and innovation, and how this may exacerbate the problem.
The euro zone crisis and a slowing US economy may be hurting these nations in the short term, but they are producing an accent on innovation that shall change the drivers of economic growth in the medium and long term. Already many experts are convinced that the age of manufacturing driving growth in developed economies is over, being replaced by information and knowledge.
What is produced and how, and what is consumed and how, have changed dramatically in the space of a few short years. From purple-coloured potato chips to Siri in the iPhone, production processes are getting ever more complex. Geographical distances are no barrier as logistics get ever more sophisticated.
From 16 variants of a shampoo to websites that can help consumers decide between options of cars, choice is becoming central to purchase decisions. Information technology and knowledge systems are driving this change.
The Internet is the medium that has allowed information and knowledge to combine to take innovation centre stage. Highly-educated professionals armed with information are using creativity to churn out products and services harnessing the power of the Internet to make the world practically unrecognisable from even a couple of decades ago.
Twitter and Facebook, Yousendit and Amazon, Sensa and Skype, Xbox and Kickstarter are all using this confluence to change the way we diet, play, dance, heal, read, talk and practically everything else.
In a business environment this competitive, manufacturing becomes a mere executional element in a mix where innovation and access to capital dominate the landscape. China, India and South-east Asia, if they do not radically change their developmental priorities, will look back to today as the good times, because the value of low cost manufacturing in the business mix is going to be sharply reduced, if not totally commoditised through automation, much as agriculture was in a previous era.
This is fine if the country is aspiring to middle income status on the back of large domestic demand for entry level, low tech products, like India or Indonesia, but not if it wants to be a developed, high-income nation by 2020 on high-end exports, like Malaysia.
For this to happen, Malaysian policy makers need to sharpen their focus on fostering high-end innovation. High-income consumers are early adopters of ideas that provide incremental consumption benefits, like Facebook over Friendster, which can then go get investment capital to expand and be adopted by the rest of the world, like Google. To compete in this space, low-cost manufacturing or crude and palm oil exports are not the answer.
The reason why practically all the innovations mentioned above are emanating from the West has a lot to do with education, media and political systems in these countries. Silicon Valley is the result of kids with brains honed to be inquisitive, a media landscape that forces those brains to challenge conventional wisdom, and political systems focused on fostering meritocracy and economic growth, wherever it may come from.
Unfortunately, reverting to Malay as the medium of instruction, insisting on rote learning as a marker of excellence and lowering standards to increase the pass rate are not helping Malaysia’s cause, today or in the future.
Nor is stifling every contrarian voice in the mainstream media and banning books and cartoons at the slightest whiff of controversy. Nor is the currently pathetic level of political discourse where there are no public debates between competing ideologies, only mudslinging, name calling and the invocation of race and religion at every turn.
Add to that endemic corruption, declining oil revenues and profligate government spending, and there is a perfect combination of things not to do if getting to be a developed nation in this century is a real ambition.
For those young people smart enough to see these realities, there may be no real choice between staying and leaving. This is also why brain drain will continue unless urgent steps are taken now to align public policy with the way the future of the developed world is being cast.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.