Sunday, May 6, 2012

Human capital, talent outflow and football

Nov 24, 2011
Raymond Woo

I barely have time to sit down and contemplate about issues other than work nowadays, since my team is (or should be) wrapping up a major project in the coming few weeks. However, despite the hectic schedule, three different things piqued my curiosity.

The first thing is an interview with a director from the World Bank which I read in a local online newspaper. The director said that, while Malaysia has one of the most pro-business friendly regimes in the world, the main thing that is hindering us from progressing further into a high-income nation is our lack of skills and talent for high-level professional and technical jobs, and the resulting mismatch between demand and supply in the labor market. Indeed, our international rankings on business openness is pleasing: top 20 trading nation in the world (last I read Malaysia was Number 17), Number 18 in the World Bank’s Doing Business Index (a pretty good rank despite my grumblings in my October 20, 2011 article), a slew of tax and other incentives to attract foreign and local investment, a reasonably good record of the rule of law particularly in property rights, and so on.

But no matter how hard we try, we still lack the right people to man our growing and rapidly diversifying economy!

The second thing is related to the first issue, which is why (often extremely talented) Malaysians choose to return from a comfortable life overseas and contribute to our country. In my few months of being back from abroad, I have heard many stories, often heartwarming, sometimes heartbreaking. Of course, some returned due to ingrained idealism and confidence to help the country and community, and idealism and confidence are commodities that are not particularly abundant in this country. Others returned due to family commitments, while quite a few returned due to the economic and employment crisis engulfing developed economies. No matter what, these cosmopolitan Malaysians who have competed with the best in the world and earned their stripes are back to feed Malaysia’s growing appetite for advanced managerial and technical talent.

However, there are still more than 1 million Malaysians abroad, and more than 2/3 of them have at least an undergraduate degree. We all know that a lot is changing within the Malaysian government, the economy, politics, culture and many other aspects of life. The returning Malaysians I have met have often made tough decisions and took great risks to return, and returned they did, because of their confidence that Malaysia is changing for the better at an acceptable pace.

From the consultant point of view, I do agree that both government and society, and especially government, are changing for the better (often at a pace faster than we expect), becoming more accountable with public funds and performance, and becoming less tolerant of old diseases such as corruption and apathy. How else are private-sector consultants in Malaysia able to clinch an increasing number of jobs from the government such as PEMANDU and Khazanah Nasional Berhad? Cynicism aside, a great number of people do believe that public policy in Malaysia is far from moribund.

But, despite positive changes that are unprecedented in decades, what is holding back the return of the 1 million-plus Malaysians abroad, including the 60-70% of that number who are in the little island state less than 1 km south of Johor Bahru?

The third thing that struck my interest was of course, the victory of the Harimau Muda (Young Tigers), the Under-23 Malaysian football team in the final SEA Games football match with Indonesia just 2 days ago. Not since the days of legendary striker Mokhtar Dahari in the 70’s and 80’s has the Malaysian team clinched a back-to-back victory in SEA Games football, as the team was also champion in the previous SEA Games 2 years ago. Letters to the press were full of descriptions of tears flowing freely, or relieving the glory days of Malaysian football, or believing that Malaysia’s time has come again.

Wow, quite a spike in the level of confidence there, eh?

We know that confidence is the bedrock of the economy (just ask Ben Bernanke about confidence and the Great Depression, as he wrote his PhD thesis on it). At the same time, we also cannot underestimate how national pride and cultural confidence can lead someone to sacrifice a comfortable life for his country or community. Our deepest memories and feelings are etched in the land of our birth and upbringing. While memories and feelings cannot feed us, what can tip the balance between considerations of financial stability/career opportunities, and feelings of national pride/confidence in an overseas Malaysian’s decision-making in staying put abroad or returning? How can we help capitalize on such feelings through public policy to bring back our talents from abroad?

Perhaps, a revival of Malaysian football, and increased national pride?

Too wishy-washy and emotional a statement to be coming out from my mouth, isn’t it?

But, can there be a relationship the upsurge of positive changes in the Malaysian government, society and economy, and the upsurge of Malaysian football prowess? More importantly, how can one capitalize on either upsurge (or both upsurges) to convince overseas Malaysians that returning is not a bad idea?

Just some rambling thoughts on Thursday evening. 

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