Friday 6 May 2011

Of Brain Drain, Ethnicity and Class

by Tricia Yeoh

THE Chinese predicament in Malaysia is frankly one of survival. This ought not to have been the case, but it is evident in the various actions and reactions observed over the last several decades. But is this really the way in which Malaysians should continue analysing socio-political and socio-economic trends in the country? Is the ethnic community lens the only reference through which we are able to make sense of the world? Or is it not possible, despite the need to have head knowledge of statistical means within each grouping, to abandon such segmentation in favour of class and income disparities?

The recently concluded Sarawak state elect-ions saw a massive swing of Chinese voters away from the Barisan Nasional’s Sarawak United Progressive Party (SUPP), traditionally favoured by the ethnic Chinese. Months of hard work paid off for the Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) DAP, who won 12 out of 15 contested seats. Some main issues cham-pioned by the DAP and PR included corruption of incumbent Sarawak leaders, embezzlement of funds, native customary land rights, and the incident of Malay Bibles being confiscated due to controversy over use of the word “Allah”.

The immediate reaction of a Malay daily’s editorial to the election results, in which the Opposition made in-roads from seven to 16 out of the total of 71 state assembly seats, was to accuse the opposition alliance of intentionally playing the race card, in this case Chinese. It also stated unreservedly that this irresponsibly threatened the social cohesion enjoyed and preserved by the existing national government. Although many were in great uproar over this, others secretly questioned whether this really did reflect a movement towards a two-party system that pits one mono-ethnic group against the other – a serious question which nobody seems brave enough to confront at this point.


As if on clockwork, the World Bank released a revelationary report on Malaysia’s brain drain, an issue that before this has been skirted around by the government. As many as 1 million Malaysians live abroad, close to 60% of whom are in Singapore, and almost 90% of whom are Chinese. Two out of ten Malaysians with a tertiary degree migrated in 2000 to Singapore and OECD countries, more than twice the world average. To put things into perspective, an estimated 1 million Malaysians live abroad, with a third representing brain drain. Of those interviewed, 66% cited career prospects as the main reason for leaving, which is natural and expected, since the global migration phenomenon does dictate movement from developing to developed nations.

But the second most cited reason was that of social injustice. The debate has gone on far too long; that citizens born in a country do not rec-eive equal policy treatment. Economic, education and corporate policies initiated in the 1970s to alleviate bumiputra policy have outlived their due course, and departing from their original intentions have permeated the very raison d’etre of many, creating a cultural revolution in the mind of ethnic supremacy. This sort of psycho-logical dependency is the most difficult to treat.


The prime minister’s reaction to all of the above were first, that the brain drain has not unduly affected foreign direct investment into Malaysia, and that in any case, the country depends 70% on domestic investment (as if to say FDIs are no longer an important variable in the economic equation). He also called on PR’s PAS to with-draw from the coalition, since the coalition was not able to truly “live up to Islamic ideals”. This seemed like a move to perpetuate the people’s very fears of dividing people by race and creed – a philosophical principle quite unlike what he espouses in the heady 1Malaysia chant.

Finally, the most disturbing statement, in which he reminded the Chinese to make their political choice clear: to vote for the govern-ment (read: support the Chinese party within the BN – MCA) or give up Chinese represent-ation in government altogether, and along with it any major decision-making power. MCA itself affirmed it would not seek cabinet positions were it rejected by Chinese voters.

This series of events sees the Chinese react-ing in very different ways and one must not pre-tend to comprehend all of them intuitively. But whichever sub-cultural category one falls into, the gut reaction is similar. As citizens, each per-son of any ethnic origin deserves similar treat-ment. Despite the truth of the saying “every man for himself”, the nation must strive to ensure that any person of any race reasonably defends any Malaysian – simply because it is the right thing to do. Just because there is a Chinese cabinet member in place, does it mean I can necessarily rely on him to make conscionable decisions that will readily steer the future of my children? No. We should rather seek individuals of conscience, truth, freedom and justice – of any background – to make wise choices for the country.


Having said this, the past is a poor record of colour-blindness. The Chinese have scurried to make one out of two choices: to either play the game, get a share of the cake even if it means sacrificing ideals in order to survive; or recklessly oppose any sort of corrupt practice (of the loosest definition). Simply: work in the system with other well-oiled individuals; or stay out completely and be happy with the scraps that come your way.

But there is an alternative – to slowly but painfully wean ourselves off the addiction to race, which is after all, a cultural and geograph-ical development in itself. There may be cul-tural norms that should continue, but as far as national policies and benefits are concerned, let the principles of need and merit flourish. Politi-cal and policy analysts must primarily focus on the socio-economic and income imbalances within communities, as these class variables would be better determinants of present and future trends as opposed to ethnicity alone.

The reaction to the brain drain report should not have been defensive but optimistic. “We are aware of the situation and are putting systems in place that we hope will attract our valued talent back home. We acknowledge and affirm the great things they will contribute to the country, and welcome them home with open arms. Things will be different, starting now!”, is what I would have wanted to hear. Maybe then, our flock in neighbouring Singapore would cross borders again.

Tricia Yeoh is director at a market research consultancy, having worked in the think-tank and public sectors previously. She writes on national and socio-economic issues.

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