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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Brain drain, education,racism

Brain drain gains momentum


Malaysia’s brain drain is not limited to adults as increasing numbers of children are also leaving the country.

RECENT reports on the two school heads accused of racist slurs bring to mind a question that an expatriate, newly arrived in Malaysia, posed to me. “Why,” she asked, “do Malaysian parents send their children away?”

I was momentarily stumped. And then I realised she was right. So many people send their children overseas when they reach a certain age, sometimes right after primary school, or more often, after third year secondary school. Their kids are in Singapore, Australia, Britain – anywhere but here at home, and the situation has become so normal it didn’t strike me as strange.

It is said that some half a million Malaysians have left the country to work or live abroad and the papers these days are full of reports on the great Malaysian brain drain. Much has been written on the whys and wherefores, with much hand-wringing over how to get these brains back.

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All the while, under the radar, children whose families can afford it continue to leave. After finishing secondary school overseas, they attend university. Chances are, unlike a decade or two ago, many won’t come back. It seems young brains, too, are draining away.

Malaysia likes to promote itself as a centre of educational excellence. So why is this happening, and is there a reality gap somewhere?

The two school principals’ racist remarks just seem the tip of the iceberg.

Racism is at the root of these ridiculous comments but I would venture a guess that ignorance also plays a role. After all, I was told by friends that history textbooks have been revised to exclude much of world and important segments of local history. I hope this is not true but from what I have seen at the National Museum (Muzium Negara), I find that perfectly believable. If a national repository can ignore the seminal role played by one-third of the country’s population – i.e. the Chinese and Indian minority ethnic groups – then this really comes as no surprise.

Given this one-sided view of national history, should anyone be surprised that a school head allegedly called certain ethnic groups “passengers”? Clearly, that also reflects the shortcomings in their own education and poor training as well as the quality of some Malaysian schools. Being educators, they should know better but with the shrill racist and religious rhetoric of certain extremist political factions, it should not surprise anyone if there are more who think that way.

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Recently there have been debates on whether the two crucial subjects of Maths and Science should be taught in English or Bahasa Malaysia. Looking around Asia, it is obvious that developed nations like Japan and South Korea do not teach in English and neither do rapidly developing countries like China. Yet they have surpassed Malaysia in so many ways. Rather than the language of instruction, it is ultimately the quality of the syllabus, the materials, the teachers and the teaching that make a difference.

Given the situation, it is no wonder that parents are sending their children overseas at an early age or even emigrating with them. Away, the children can have an opportunity to develop their full potential in a meritocratic system that rewards ability and results without the suffocating burden of political and ethnic strictures.

Outside Malaysia’s borders is a competitive, knowledge-driven world where there are no protective mantles and only the fit will survive. One need not look far to see what is happening. In economic powerhouse China, for example, competition is part and parcel of the national fabric.

Meritocracy has been practised since the first imperial (civil service) examinations over 2,000 years ago, and is still practised through assessments like the annual gaokao university entrance exam. And the education system is currently being fine-tuned by a series of sweeping reforms to meet the country’s future needs.

As for attracting Malaysians back from overseas, I shall never forget what a potential employer in a listed Malaysian company told me when I applied for a job after several years working with a multinational in the Asian region. He glanced at my resume and said: “In Malaysia, it is not what you know, but who you know that counts.” Later, at the Human Resources department, I discovered for the very first time my overseas education and American university degrees were a negative as “things are different in Malaysia”.

Meanwhile, young and not-so-young human capital are continuing to leave Malaysia, the country is unable to produce enough engineers, managers and other professionals to make a difference and FDI has fallen through the bottom. What is needed now is the courage to step out of the comfort zone and make the changes that are so long overdue – or brain gain will just remain wishful thinking.

This column will take a break until early November. Ziying can be reached at

Racism Malaysia NAH!!! ... 


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