Tue, 08 Mar 2005

Nation needs brains as well as brawn

Wong Chun Wai, The Star, Asia News Network, Selangor, Malaysia

Malaysia is like a magnet to illegal immigrants from Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and other countries. It's their land of milk and honey compared to the unemployment and impoverishment back home.

According to some estimates, there are 1.2 million foreign workers in Malaysia and that at least 400,000 of them, mostly Indonesians, are illegal and have yet to return home despite the end of the amnesty period.

Most Malaysians believe there are probably more illegal immigrants than the reported figure. We have been told that the illegal foreign workers would be allowed to return to Malaysia in a more organized manner.

Without doubt, the country needs these foreign workers in our homes, estates, construction sites and restaurants. In fact, there are about 500,000 jobs available for these foreigners.

These are manual jobs shunned by Malaysians because the pay and working conditions are regarded as unattractive. If employers were to pay higher salaries to attract locals, it would only increase production costs, which would make Malaysia less competitive from an economic point of view.

Like it or not, the country needs these foreigners even if most of us do not want so many of them. With a population of only 25 million, the huge number of immigrants is certainly not good from a security standpoint.

The number of legal foreign workers outnumber our police force of only 80,000. Their presence, especially Indonesians with families, has put a strain on our medical and education facilities. Some have even posed a security threat.

While Malaysia has become a favorite home away from home for these foreign laborers, we have not been successful in attracting the best brains. The program to attract Malaysian professionals, launched in 2001, has not taken off as planned either.

It was reported that only 300 doctors and engineers took up offers under the "returning professionals" campaign because many were unwilling to settle for the lower salaries in Malaysia. Human Resources Minister Fong Chan Onn said the main snag was the reduced income despite the many incentives offered.

While doctors are easily absorbed by medical centers and private hospitals, information technology engineers say they find it difficult to get jobs that commensurate with their expectations.

The campaign was aimed at filling vacancies in six fields -- information and communications technology, manufacturing industries, science and technology, arts, finance and medicine.

The government, however, should not give up on this push for more professionals to work in Malaysia because their expertise and skills will greatly benefit the country.

The present non-monetary incentives include the right to bring back two cars and two years' income. Their children and spouses, who are non-citizens, would be given permanent residence status.

The Human Resources Ministry has taken the right step but what it needs is the support of the private sector in its promotion campaign. A more concerted program can be carried out overseas to explain the opportunities and incentives offered. A one-stop agency may be needed to help reduce red tape.

Malaysia needs to create the right environment if we are serious in wanting to attract the best, regardless of whether they are Malaysians or foreigners, to work here.

We also need to find out from these professionals what we can offer to create a conducive and congenial environment to woo top talent to Malaysia.

In the academic world, many feel that our universities lack the facilities and leadership to strive for cutting-edge research. Some even feel that we still do not fully comprehend the looming competition resulting from globalization.

As for the smaller pay cheques, these professionals must understand that Malaysia has a lower cost of living.

It must be impressed upon them that one can earn a higher salary in Tokyo and live in a cramped apartment, while in Malaysia a lower income could be sufficient for a landed property.

It is heartening to hear Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi give his personal assurance to Indian IT professionals that they are welcome in Malaysia.

During his visit in December, he urged Indian professionals to consider Malaysia as their second base, or even second home, because there was much to gain from working together.

Malaysia needs to attract the best brains -- not just the cheapest laborers -- to drive forward in a highly competitive globalised world.





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