Driven to greener pastures

Driven to greener pastures

What drives a person to uproot from a peaceful, modern country like Malaysia, known to the world for its easy-going charm, divine food and friendly people? The reasons are more varied than just earning better wages to have a higher standard of living.

MENTION the names Ignatius Rasiah and Dr Malini Catherine Olivo and few Malaysians would have heard of them.

These are two outstanding individuals, unacknowledged at home, who have contributed much to the advancement of science and technology in the world.

The couple is among 784,900 Malaysians working overseas, many of them highly educated or skilled. In foreign countries, these professionals claim to have found fertile ground to grow and develop their talents, through opportunities and facilities provided by both the government and private sectors which recognised their potential.

Ignatius and his wife Dr Malini left the country in the mid-1990s but not by choice. They were unable to get jobs after their post-graduate studies despite applying to several major local universities.

Today, Ignatius is a well-known materials scientist while Dr Malini is a pioneering medical scientist in the field of biophotonics – the use of lasers and light for the early detection and treatment of cancer.
On the winning end: Countries which play host to Malaysian talents have benefited greatly from their skills. – AP

Each time someone turns on a computer or snaps a photo with a mobile phone camera, he or she is using an electronic component developed by Ignatius and his fellow scientists.

“I touch someone every day of their lives each time they turn on the computer or take a digital picture,” Ignatius, currently based in Ireland, said in an e-mail interview.

Ignatius, 52, was previously the Global Technology Manager at the giant US firm Honeywell where he was in charge of research teams in Asia and the US which developed and launched thermal solution for microprocessors that continue to be used by top microprocessor companies today. He is now head of research and development with Western Automation Research and Development Ltd, an Irish company.

Dr Malini, who has won several international awards for her work, is currently Stokes Chair Professor of Biophotonics, National University Galway, Ireland and also a visiting Professor of Harvard Medical School.

These are the same people whom Malaysia needs to catapult the country into a high-income economy by 2020 and whom the Government is now trying to woo home.

In his Budget speech on Friday, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced that a Talent Corporation (Talent Corp) will be established under the Prime Minister’s Office in early 2011 to increase the number of talented and quality workforce in the domestic market.

Talent Corp will formulate a National Talent Blueprint and develop an expert workforce database to help the Government attract, motivate and retain talented human capital from within the country and abroad.

Former Human Resources Minister Tan Sri Dr Fong Chan Onn is all for bringing our talents home, noting that the country has suffered as a result of the loss of highly qualified and skilled Malaysians.

“More than half of the medical specialists in Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital (one of the country’s top hospitals) are Malaysians,” said Dr Fong. “There are also many Malaysians working in Silicon Valley, working as IT experts.”

Countries which play host to Malaysian talents have benefited greatly from their skills. From Silicon Valley in the US to China’s booming city of Shanghai, Malaysians are part of the dynamics which innovate and invent to bring new technology to the market.

They are also bankers and lawyers, handling multi-million dollar acquisition and mergers which create jobs for thousands of people.

Some have claimed that the lack of meritocracy and openness has left them without jobs or miniscule prospects of promotion to develop their skills, forcing them to leave the country to seek employment in foreign countries.

Others left the country over low wages which became insufficient to live off after they got married and had children. The high crime rate, congested traffic and lack of good public transport system were also cited as factors which led to the decision to leave.

But before one gets judgmental and labels these Malaysians as unpatriotic, it has to be pointed out that some had in fact returned earlier to serve the country but found themselves stone-walled, unable to find employment and ultimately ended up leaving.

Take the case of Ignatius and Dr Malini who were completing their post-doctorate studies in Canada when they heard Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad calling for Malaysian scientists to return home to help develop the country.

Well-meaning and idealistic, the couple returned to Kuala Lumpur in 1995 and applied to major universities and two government departments for work. For 10 months, they waited and hoped for a job offer but none was forthcoming.

“Each time I called up a university, I was told my application was being processed,” Dr Malini recalled.

The couple survived on Ignatius’ private consulting jobs. But as the months went by with no permanent job in sight, Dr Malini applied to Singapore and was offered a job as a research scientist at the Singapore General Hospital.

The couple moved to Singapore together and Ignatius landed his job with Honeywell within a month of arriving.

“We wish so much to contribute to our country what we are contributing to the world,” said Dr Malini.

“I would still love to come back but only if there is the facility and infrastructure to conduct research in biophotonics.”

“The work I do is on the cutting edge of science and for such research, we need to work together with talents from all over the world. The country will need to open up to allow foreign talents in. We also need adequate funding for such research.”

Kenneth Teh, 52, works in one of the largest US science research laboratories as a data acquisition physicist where he develops data acquisition systems for nuclear physics experiments.

A major consideration for returning, he shared, is his son’s education.

“If I do not return, it is for a myriad of reasons,” said Teh.

“Is the Malaysian education system positioned to train my son to compete effectively in this century in what will most likely be the Chinese century?

“Is the society progressive and forward-looking, with a blurring of racial lines and heading towards a common Malaysian identity,” he asked?

Nor Eleeza Abu Bakar, 38, and her husband left Malaysia in 2007 to work in Bahrain as architects for higher salaries and a better quality of life which gave them more time with their children.

Eleeza would love to come home if the salaries here were better and security in the country improved as she is a mother of five.

“If we can earn the same amount of income and enjoy a good quality of life, we would love to come home,” said Eleeza.

“The working culture in Malaysia has become unhealthy where the employers demand more and more from the employee, and yet pay inadequate wages. We are also concerned over the crime rate in Malaysia, the gory news that we read in the newspapers every day.”

The Government and the private sector could do well to listen to the concerns of these overseas Malaysians – they represent some of our finest talents – talents that are of global standing and crucial human capital critical to the next phase of Malaysia’s development.

The country cannot lose any more talents who ultimately end up advancing the competitiveness of foreign countries to our own detriment.