MALAYSIA: Foreign students could counter brain drain

Allowing in more international students could counter Malaysia's intensifying brain drain, which may become "a major stumbling block" to the country's aspiration to become a high-income nation, a just-released World Bank report has said.

"Malaysia needs talent, but talent seems to be leaving," said World Bank senior economist Philip Schellekens. But the problem could be reversed by enticing more Malaysians overseas to return, such as through the government's recently launched talent corporation and by allowing in more foreign students in universities, the report suggests.

"Once foreign students graduate they could be offered the opportunity to put their skills to good use in Malaysia," said the World Bank in the Brain Drain chapter of its Malaysia Economic Monitor report.

For every 10 skilled Malaysians born the country, one of them elects to leave. This is double the world average, according to the World Bank. Within Asia it is almost three times higher than China as a proportion of the skilled population, and nine times higher than Japan.

Malaysia's brain drain is "intensive", according to the World Bank, "not necessarily because too many are leaving but because the skills base is too narrow" so that the effect of high-skilled emigration is more damaging than for many other countries.

"Brian drain does not appear to have eroded the number of graduates available domestically to the Malaysian economy as universities have managed to replenish the outflows. But it is likely to have eroded the quality of the human capital stock," the report said.

The number of skilled Malaysians living abroad has tripled in the last two decades, with one in five Malaysians with higher education opting to leave for the West, and particularly for Singapore which took 54% of Malaysia's graduate migrants - compared to just 20% in the 1990s. Some 15% went to Australia, 10% to the US and 5% to Britain. These four countries accounted for over 80% of the entire diaspora.

Malaysian migration was increasingly becoming a skills migration as a third of the one million Malaysians who now live abroad have higher education, according to World Bank figures.

"This is a conservative estimate and the diaspora could well be larger," Schellekens said.

And the outflow was not being replaced with equivalent skills. Some 60% of immigration into Malaysia comprises people with only primary education or less.

Around 88% of Malaysians who migrate to Singapore are of Chinese ethnicity. "The numbers for the US and Australia are similar" said Schellekens, adding that non-ethnic Malays "are over-represented in the brain drain".

The country's policies favour ethnic Malays (Bhumiputras) over other groups such as Chinese and Indians, giving rise the feeling among the latter groups that the opportunities for them in Malaysia are lower than for ethnic Malays.

"Progress on updating Malaysia's inclusiveness strategies will be equally important as this is perceived by the diaspora as a key push factor that fuels the incentive to leave and serves as a deterrent to return," the report said.

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