MALAYSIA: Universities must help find talent overseas

Universities and professors will join the ministry of education to support Malaysia's much-vaunted 'Talent Corporation', officially launched this month by Prime Minister Najib Razak to woo skilled workers to the country, particularly in the science and research sectors.

Higher Education Minister Mohamed Khaled Nordin has said the ministry would provide guidelines to public universities on how to spot and bring home academic talent.

"It will be a key performance indicator for public universities as we can gauge the strength of their [international] networking," Nordin said.

He added that the country would benefit from overseas academics' extensive networks and also their "publishing history", a key measure in international university rankings. They would also "improve the local academic culture and raise the rankings of local universities".

Ministry guidelines already say that foreign academics must constitute 20% of a research university's faculty.

The academic community will advise the government through the National Professors' Council formed by the prime minister in April this year. The Council comprises some 1,426 professors from all of the country's public higher education institutions.

Council chairman Zakri Adul Hamid, who is also Science Advisor to the prime minister, said he hoped the Talent Corporation would attract and retain "the most talented research scientists and engineers".

Council deputy chairman Shansul Amri Baharuddin said it was hoped initiatives to attract talent were "not just focusing on the researchers, scientists and engineers but also should include the social sciences and the humanities".

The Talent Corporation was formed to coordinate the policies of different ministries and departments including Higher Education, Science, Economics and Immigration.

The initiative focuses on Malaysians currently living abroad but will also include other foreign academics looking to further their careers.

Among the key initiatives to bring "world class talents" to Malaysia will be the introduction of a residency pass in April 2011, which will not require the holder to be tied to a specific employer to remain in the country. The 10-year limit for foreigners to work in Malaysia is also being relaxed.

"Some countries are offering a lot of incentives to attract talent," said Professor Zaini Ujang, Vice-chancellor of Universiti Technologi Malaysia. "Malaysia is offering not just jobs but also residence, research facilities and research partnerships."

But some are sceptical that the policies can reverse the brain drain of recent years, let alone set the country on the path to becoming a high income country by 2020, which is the prime minister's stated goal.

"Malaysia at the moment is trying to transform itself into a centre for education excellence and is internationalising higher education," said Noorsaadah Addul-Rahman, a professor of chemistry at the University of Malaya.

"But it is not clear what the objectives and functions of the Talent Corporation are. They are looking to bring in talent from outside. We are also doing that at our university but we have to train our own talent as well, we can't forever be bringing in brains from outside," Abdul-Rahman told University World News.

The country's previous Brain Gain Malaysia, managed by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation from 2006 on, and before that the Returning Expert programme launched in 2001, attracted fewer than 3,000 applicants, despite offering incentives such as tax exemptions and access to permanent residency for foreign spouses.

Only around 1,050 "networking scientists and knowledge workers" were brought into the country under Brain Gain Malaysia in the last four years and some of them may have since returned abroad.

"Brain Gain Malaysia was almost like the Talent Corporation but it was not successful. We have to provide the infrastructure and the environment for returning academics and researchers, apart from the money," said Abdul-Rahman.

She said Malaysia could be in competition with Singapore and China, which have similar policies to lure back talent. But she said Singapore had good research infrastructure to attract people from abroad, including excellent laboratories, while China was concentrating its efforts on a small number of universities upgrading the facilities to world-class standards to attract back top professors.

According to officials some 700,000 Malaysians are living abroad, around half of them in Singapore, with sizeable diasporas also in Australia, Britain and the US. Many companies complain of a lack of skilled workers and the government sees it as hindering its efforts to attract high-technology industries.