Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Malaysia’s next export: Maids?

Malaysia’s next export: Maids?
By Lee Wei Lian

Malaysians could soon find themselves filling the same roles as these Indonesian migrant labourers. —

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 24 — The nation’s mismanagement of talent could have serious repercussions not only on its ambitions to become a high income economy on par with that of developed nations but could also lead it to fall further behind even its counterparts in the region.

Head of research at Corston-Smith Asset Management, Lim Tze Cheng, recently did a tour of South East Asian countries and came away sufficiently impressed that he feels Malaysia may soon be found lagging behind its neighbours that it was once ahead of.

He cited a recent visit to the Philippines, a current major supplier of maids, where he visited a company, International Container Terminal Services Inc (ICTSI) and he drew comparisons to local port champions Westport and Port of Tanjung Pelepas.

He said that ICTS now draws 50 per cent of its revenue from eight profitable ports outside the Philippines, and noted that no Malaysian port company can boast of similar achievements.

“I give it a 70 per cent chance that Malaysia will be exporting maids in 20 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens unless we get our act together,” he said.

Lim says that the issues plaguing Malaysia includes its “problematic” education system and distressingly low ability to retain talent.

“Whoever manages to excel in our education system will be courted by Singapore,” he points out.

Lim is not the only one who is worried about Malaysia’s talent issues and there has been warnings from other parties as well including the World Bank and the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF).

MEF executive director Haji Shamsuddin Bardan says that Malaysia is currently a net exporter of talent with outflows exceeding inflows.

According to Haji Shamsuddin, Malaysia has only about 38,000 expatriates as compared with seventy to eighty thousand in the 1990s even while some 785,000 Malaysians are working abroad, two out of three of which are professionals.

“Our ability to attract expatriates is quite challenged,” he said.

If Malaysia falls further behind our neighbours in the next twenty years, it wil be a case of history repeating itself.

Lim points out that Malaysia in the 1970’s was once economically on par with Korea.

“Electronics will be dominated by Thailand and Philippines, plantations by Indonesia, financial services by Singapore and our oil could be depleted in 20 years,” Lim predicts.

Malaysia’s future? Bangladeshi workers wait at an airport carpark turned immigration depot in KLIA. — Reuters pic

“The (Malaysian) economy seems to be caught in a middle-income trap - unable to remain competitive as a high-volume, low-cost producer, yet unable to move up the value chain and achieve rapid growth by breaking into fast growing markets for knowledge and innovation-based products and services,” the World Bank said recently.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak appears aware of the problem and has been stressing the need for the country to embrace innovation to escape the “middle-income trap” as well as attract overseas talent, Malaysian or otherwise.

He noted recently as an anecdote that half of the medical specialists working at the Mt Elizabeth hospital in Singapore were Malaysians and two weeks ago hosted a dinner for about 100 Malaysians in Singapore and told them that the government would make Malaysia a better place to live and work in, to bring back its citizens who are residing overseas and also attract global talent to the country.

“We will create more opportunities, more excitement and more buzz in Malaysia to attract the Malaysian diaspora and expatriates to the country,” said Najib.

Lim says that revamping the education system could take years and one fast way to lure talent was to open the Malaysia My Second Home programme to talented individuals such as scientists and researchers instead of limiting it to just retirees.

Haji Shamsuddin says that the government needs to put in place the right policies and structures to retain local talent.

“Otherwise, we become a training ground for others,” he said.

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