Three Ways Southeast Asia can deal with Brain Drain

Opinion22.04.2017
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For the past two-odd decades, Southeast Asian countries have grappled with the fact that a fair share of their best and brightest packed their stuff and left for better opportunities abroad. Governments have tried to assess and deal with the impact of brain drain – the migration of qualified personnel in search of better education, better jobs and salaries, and better standards of living abroad – on their economies. Recent research has pointed out that the overall effects of brain drain on sending countries might not be entirely negative. Remittances of migrants to developing countries, for example, have reached three times the volume of official global development assistance. But governments of developing countries in Asia nevertheless worry about the potential ill-effects of brain drain in areas such as health care and education systems, or science and technology. And they are right to do so, considering that the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community will make it easier for ASEAN citizens to study and work in the member state of their choice. Here are three ways how governments can encourage their talents to lend their skills to the countries of their birth, either by staying there for their education or by coming back after obtaining qualifications elsewhere.

Education, Science and Technology Policies

Sensible education and science and technology policies can play a major role in preventing initial brain drain (i.e. giving talented students the incentive to study in their home countries) or luring those who obtained their qualifications abroad back home, turning brain drain into what has described as “brain circulation”.

A number of Southeast Asian countries suffer from a lack of high quality tertiary education on par with more developed economies (as well as deficient primary and secondary education systems, for that matter). High performers amongst students therefore often assign less value to a degree obtained at a university in their home country, compared to one from, say, a US or UK university, and may therefore chose to study abroad. In order to improve the quality of education in their countries, Southeast Asian countries should dedicate a bigger share of their budget to research and development purposes. According to World Bank figures Thailand, for example, spends a paltry 0.12% of its GDP on R&D. The Philippines and Malaysia only fork out 0.14% and 0.22% respectively, all well below the global average of 2.12%. Spending more money on teaching and research institutions, ideally coupled with policies that encourage partnerships between the private sector and universities in order to strengthen the link to local labor markets, would go a long way in retaining talent that otherwise might migrate abroad, thus contributing to social and economic development. It should be remembered that such policies are not just important for retaining talent, they are also imperative to help economies develop further by raising the productivity of the economy and especially the labour force.  

Review of discriminatory policies

Discriminatory policies can be an important push factor that contributes to the decision of talented personnel to seek education or employment abroad and to prevent their return. A Case in point is Malaysia and its New Economic Policy (NEP): Roughly 63% of this Southeast Asian nation’s population are ethnic Malays (referred to as bumiputra, roughly translated “sons of the earth”) who, in line with the New Economic Policy, are given special privileges such as extra assistance in starting a business, mandatory discounts on real estate, and a quota system as regards education opportunities at the expense Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indian population. Initially conceptualized as an only temporary measure to allow ethnic Malays catch up economically and academically, NEP has done more harm than good. It has led to a strongly ethnically tinted brain drain, with a whopping 81% of Malaysian emigrants being ethnic Chinese. A World Bank study in 2011 found that about 1 million Malaysians had at that point left the country, 60% of which cited “social injustice” as an important factor in their decision to leave. Malaysia’s New Economic Policy is just one example for policies that – even though they may have been well intentioned – have had detrimental effects and need to be abolished.

Return and Retention Policies

Surveys have shown that migrants from developing countries are in general more likely to stay in their host country upon completion of their education than migrants from advanced countries. Southeast Asian countries should therefore not only invest to improve education system (where deficient) but also take measures to provide an attractive environment for them to use their acquired skills and competencies. Good examples for countries that have successfully taken measures to foster return migration are Taiwan and Korea: The opening of their economies; the introduction of policies that foster domestic investments in innovation and R&D; and providing frameworks conducive to innovation and high tech entrepreneurship have attracted not only the return of migrants who in turn contributed their share to the development of these economies, but also made these countries more attractive for foreign talent.

In order to ensure sustainable economic and social development, it is important for Southeast Asian countries to not only give the best and brightest members of their societies an incentive to seek educational and work opportunities in their home countries. Ideally governments should also take steps to provide attractive environments for foreign talent, both through proper investment and the creation of favorable conditions as regards education, research and development, as well as through the introduction of sensible policies and getting rid of harmful ones. If these measures are implemented properly, a possible brain drain might turn in a sustainable brain gain.