Transform brain drain into wisdom gain

Mapping the relationships between variables explaining "brain drain" helps us evaluate the situation's gravity and envision ways to address it.


Published in The Star, BusinessToday, MYsinchew & Astro Awani, image by Astro Awani.

It is the year 2040. The best brains are employed by many governments, world-renowned agencies and multi-national co-operations that govern the world, ride the 4IR and 5IR and thrive as Societies 5.0. Among them, many hail to be born in Malaysia, but none reside in Malaysia anymore. That is the reality we will have to bitterly accept if the things in our country remain status quo.

Whether you like it or not, the Malaysian brain drain is happening due to old-school, outdated policies/methods/thinking here in Malaysia.

This article will take the healthcare industry as an example, although the points can be extrapolated to near every industry in Malaysia.

For example, 2,581 Malaysian doctors and nurses are currently serving under the National Health System in the United Kingdom.

We might feel proud that our doctors are in demand by the most advanced economies. Still, rightfully we should be greatly concerned, alarmed and questioning why these individuals chose to contribute to another country’s progress, well-being, and nation-building. Weren’t they born here? Didn’t they receive their education here? Don’t they like living here?

A recent talk with a couple of doctors can give us some insights.

Poor industry development and low standards of earning opportunities

The word “industry” is now synonymous with 4IR, and already soon 5IR. 4IR and 5IR are reformatting every industry at the speed of thought, and those who refuse to embrace the technology will eventually be left behind. Therefore, there is now a dire and urgent need for medical doctors to equip themselves with solid technology, research and innovation skills.

Of course, the task of digitalisation can be conventionally subcontracted to data scientists and IT engineers. But this will not only seriously dampen the innovation, creativity and digital transformation potential in the medical field itself but open the door to serious business processes misspecification.

Therefore many doctors in Malaysia continue their education on their own accord (self-sponsored) in information technology, artificial intelligence, research and other relevant fields as the government provides little to no opportunities for doctors to continue their education in these fields.

After spending so much of their own money, many return to the service aspired to contribute to the ministry with their newly acquired skills. However, only a few lucky continue working within the fields of their choice, whilst many are just lushed around.

Many are not given a promotion or pay rise, or specialist title even after acquiring such valuable skills with the excuse that they are not clinical specialists. So they are now stuck with a degree scroll, skills, talents and passion that are not appreciated and utilised while continue servicing another education loan.

Even worse, some doctors related that their time-based promotions (as promised in the service) might also be in jeopardy. This is a sheer disrespect to these medical officers, many of whom have worked day and night fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

This causes frustration, and many decide to leave the service and eventually end up either in the private sector or leaving the country to a place that will recognise their newly acquired skills whilst paying them what they deserve.

Sadly, simply irreplaceable tacit knowledge, skills and experience that they could have contributed to the industry or passed to their trainees, colleagues or students walk out of the country together with them. This is how at the crux of the pandemic, we end up having the best example of a contact tracing system developed in New Zealand by Malaysian.

Why have these individuals been overlooked? Why are they not granted a pay rise, salaries that match their job descriptions? Why do not job opportunities evolve in our country as technology and science move forwards? What is seriously wrong in our country if these individuals cannot find application to their high-tech skills here while being simply snatched elsewhere in the world?

Identity politics offspring continue robbing us of national success

Promotion and recognition are not given based on merit at every level of our society. On the contrary, corruption, nepotism, racism and other identity politics offspring continue to sideline the talents while paving the way to mediocrity and substandard.

Discussing this with a few doctors, some shared the heartbreaking stories of how they have been outright neglected multiple times for the role of the head of a department despite being the most qualified and due to personal favouritism, nepotism, belonging to a particular ethnicity and even standing the moral or ethical ground.

Sadly, this not only deprives the individual of what they truly deserve for giving their very best in service, but it robs the department, the system, the people of capable decision-makers and servants.

Pervasive complacency and resistance to change

When the progressive world welcomes change and disruptors, the agents of change are brushed off more often than not in Malaysia. Why disrupt the “system balance”? Why change if it is already working? Why manufacture what we can buy from our neighbours? The only problem is that the boiled frog was probably thinking along the same line.

Many who have suggested different methods to improve and clean the system have been deemed trouble-makers and punished for being outspoken, while those who opt to keep quiet and ignorant eventually are celebrated as heroes—the “team players”.

For example, the individuals who are passionate about improving the public healthcare system eventually give up and either join the individuals who are complacent/ignorant or they simply resign and move to the private healthcare sector/other countries (Singapore being their common choice) and make their ideas flourish there.

Unfortunately, the dynamics described above are omnipresent in Malaysia, and we can visualise the bigger picture behind brain drain in the form of a straightforward framework (figure below). A picture is sometimes worth thousands of words—mapping the important relationships between the concepts of interest helps us better evaluate the situation’s gravity and envision ways to address it.

The power and money grab race without focus on issues of concern to the rakyat result in inconsistency and short-sightedness of government policies. Manipulative populism and identity politics greatly disturb the societal fabrics leading through various pathways to the poor economy, low industry development and substandard quality of life.

Again, the low industry development is now synonymous with the low infusion of 4IR technologies. With the low industry development, the greatest value potential through digital transformation—the hallmark of the Society 5.0—cannot be unlocked, and quality of life moves in the opposite trajectory—towards the deterioration of healthcare, education, standards of earning opportunities etc. The latter, as we saw, results in brain drain.

At the same time, brain drain reinforces poor governance, poor economy and low industry development. And every subsequent round of this vicious cycle can be more and more devastating.

When are we going to wake up and transform brain drain into wisdom gain? When are we going to realise that we are a blessed country with brains much sought-after worldwide, well appreciated all over the world EXCEPT IN MALAYSIA? Wake up!

Rais Hussin and Margarita Peredaryenko are part of the research team at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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