Can Singapore and Malaysia keep their talents home?

Singapore and Malaysia are facing the serious problem of Brain Drain.  Many well-educated and highly-skilled individuals are looking to relocate abroad  for various reasons and this is worrying for both countries. While the governments are determined to attract these people home, the issue at hand is whether will they be moved by the determination?

By Dimitra Stefanidou

More and more people leaving Singapore

The number of people moving out of Singapore has increased by more than one third in the last ten years. In 2014 212,000 Singaporeans were living overseas, whereas in 2004 the number was 157,800.

However, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong believes that it is good for people to leave the country in order to gain useful experience that is much needed for Singapore’s future. Afterall, “Singapore is part of a global community and we have to accept that”.

“It’s not a bad thing at all for Singaporeans to be in demand all over the world, and to be distributed in many cities and research centres. (They can) gain experience, learn what the world is like, pick up ideas and perhaps one day to come back (to Singapore)”, he added during the annual meeting of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC).

But it is uncertain whether these people are ever going to return to Singapore. A recent news report mentions that the government has deep fears regarding a potential permanent outflow of talents. Many talents are enticed to stay overseas due to the abundance of opportunities and choices. However they would be much helpful if they were to stay and help to further develop Singapore’s economy.

PM Lee admitted at an interview with US-based TIME MAGAZINE that this outflow can cause Singapore to shrink significantly, which is a major problem.

“With Singaporeans, you speak English, you’re well-educated, the doors open everywhere. You can go to Silicon Valley, you can go to Sydney, you can go to Perth, you can go to London, Frankfurt, you’re welcomed and it’s not just talking about five, 10 per cent at the top who are like that but 30, 40, maybe even 50 per cent who are welcomed.

If the successful ones mostly leave, we’re going to be depleted. And if it goes beyond the successful ones, we’ll be shrunken.”

The government is making reasonable effort in order to make sure that they stay connected with those leaving. Organisations such as the Overseas Singaporean Unit together with Contact Singapore, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and the Culture, Community and Youth Ministry struggle to make sure that Singaporeans who left will still be engaged.

Although Singapore has a low overall unemployment rate, which was further reduced from 2.0% in 2014 to 1.9% in 2015, many Singaporeans still want to leave the country.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean speaking in front of the Parliament in 2012 said that about 1,200 Singaporeans give up their citizenship on a yearly basis.

“The reasons for emigration vary. Some emigrants leave for family reasons, because of marriage or to reunite the family members overseas, while others do so for a different living environment”.

Other reasons include the lack of space in the small territory of Singapore, too much stress, long working hours that compromise quality living, low wages, and the current political situation.

What are the numbers in Malaysia?

Brain Drain is also a serious a problem for Malaysia. One in four wealthy Malaysians owning more than US$30 million worth of investable assets are seeking opportunities to relocate abroad.

More than two million people have emigrated since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. As of 2015, the number of Malaysians living overseas is estimated to be between 800,000 and 1.4 million, which is a substantial number considering that the population of the country is fewer than 30 million.

According to a World Bank report on Malaysia, a significant number of those leaving the country choose to reside in Singapore. “The diaspora is geographically concentrated and ethnically skewed. Singapore alone absorbs 57 percent of the entire diaspora, with most of the remainder residing in Australia, Brunei, United Kingdom and United States. Ethnic Chinese account for almost 90 percent of the Malaysian diaspora in Singapore; they are similarly overrepresented in the countries of the OECD”.


Source: World Bank Economic Monitor Report 2011 on Brain Drain 

Malaysia also receives a lot of immigrants however they are lowly skilled as compared to the ones who leave the country.

“Brain drain is aggravated by a lack of compensating inflows. Malaysia is a major receiving country, but most immigrants are low-skill and the high-skill expatriate base has shrunk by a quarter since 2004. Many skilled migrants have spent their formative years overseas, which lowered the fiscal cost of migration but also the chances of return migration”.

“Brain drain is a wave to be ridden, not a tide to be turned”, the World Bank report claims.

The brain drain is an example of the extended globalisation that takes place in our years. All the countries have to deal with it and they should take the chance and get the most out of it.

It is also a good opportunity for young talents to travel and gain ideas and experience that will be useful to the Malaysian economy and general growth.

“The challenge for Malaysia, as for many other countries, is to embrace the global mobility of talent. As Malaysia needs talent, it will need to turn the brain drain to its advantage. It will need to reverse the deterioration in skill quality and expand the narrow skills base”.

Will they come back?

Figures show that many Malaysians who have left the country still maintain a strong bond with their homeland. However, while they may only be fairly satisfied with the life and career they accomplished overseas, they are, at the same time uncertain – although not negative – about returning home.

Therefore, Malaysia must tap into the strong patriotism within the Malaysians and create a favourable environment to attract these overseas Malaysians back home.


Source: World Bank Economic Monitor Report 2011 on Brain Drain 

“Brain drain is symptom—an outcome of underlying, more fundamental factors. Individuals respond to incentives and disincentives—these are the push and pull factors that drive the migration decision. Identifying these factors constitutes the first step towards formulating policy responses to brain drain”, the report suggests in order for Malaysia to be able to keep its brilliant minds home.