Malaysian tops Cambridge, heads to Singapore

October 19, 2010

Container ships are seen against the backdrop of the Singapore’s financial district. Singapore has honed its capacity to scour the world for top talent, including from Malaysia where students are recruited to the republic from as young as 15 years old. – Reuters pic
ANALYSIS, Oct 19 – Malaysian first-class honours law graduate Tan Zhongshan, who won a slew of awards at Cambridge University including the Slaughter and May prize for best overall performance, is heading to Singapore to join its Legal Service commission, it was reported today. But this is no longer an uncommon case in Malaysia which has been facing a brain drain problem for decades even as previous administrations did little to stem the tide of outgoing talent.
This has led to fears that the country is being hollowed out.
The Najib administration has taken the strongest steps yet to tackle the issue by proposing a Talent Corporation (Talentcorp) to lure talent and overseas Malaysians back as well as resolving the perennial government scholarship debate by awarding scholarships to all students who score 9As and above.
The prime minister has also been on a personal charm offensive abroad the past one year and told Malaysian communities in Belgium and Luxembourg this month that the Talentcorp will seek overseas Malaysians out and do what it takes to make them consider going home.

It is too early to tell however if the initiatives will be able to dent the numbers of qualified Malaysians moving abroad, particularly to Singapore which has over the years, honed its capacity to scour the world for top talent, including from Malaysia where students are recruited to the republic from as young as 15 years old.
In the case of Ipoh-born Tan, he was sponsored with an Asean scholarship by Singapore’s Ministry of Education after completing his A-Levels at the Temasek Junior College there, The Star newspaper reported today.

It is unclear however if the Talentcorp’s mandate also extends to preventing further hemorrhaging of talent even as it works to bring overseas Malaysians back.
While the prime minister’s campaign to bring lure the Malaysian diaspora back to the country has been widely welcomed, he faces structural and branding challenges including the widespread perception that in Malaysia, ability is not appreciated and ranks well below other factors such as race and political connections.
The country also lags behind favoured immigration destinations such as Australia, New Zealand, US and UK in terms of livability, lifestyles, education systems and opportunities in areas such as scientific research, making it harder for many returnees to adjust even though they want to serve the country as well as be closer to friends and family.
The government’s fledgling Economic Transformation Programme, which aims to elevate Kuala Lumpur to the top 20 in the world in terms of livability and economic activity could however help address some of the concerns.
The number of Malaysian migrants rose by more than 100-fold in a 45-year period, from 9,576 Malaysians in 1960 to 1,489,168 Malaysians in 2005, according to the World Bank which warned that a lack of human capital is a “critical constraint in Malaysia’s ambition to become a high-income economy.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Senator A. Kohilan Pillay also said recently that 304,358 Malaysians had migrated from March 2008 till August 2009 compared with 139,696 Malaysians in 2007.
The prime minister told Parliament this month that less than one per cent of 784,900 Malaysians working overseas have returned to the country during the past nine years with Singapore having the highest number of Malaysians with 303,828 people, followed by Australia with 78,858.



Not a question of loyalty

Comment by ROGER TAN

Malaysians who live, work or study in Singapore should not be regarded as disloyal to their own country.
LIKE many Malaysians, I am naturally proud of ex-Muar High School boy Tan Zhongshan’s extraordinary academic feat (“Malaysian is top law student at Cambridge University”, The Star, Oct 19).
By chalking up the record as the overall best law student in the entire Cambridge University, his performance has probably even surpassed that of the university’s luminary alumni like Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his late wife.

Tan is but one of the thousands of young and bright Chinese Malaysians who have received scholarships from the Singapore government to study at different levels from secondary one to university in the city state.
It is no secret that Singapore officials would only recruit the “cream among the crop” for this purpose and those who excel will be sent to Oxbridge colleges and the Ivy League universities. Upon graduation, they would be bonded to work for a number of years in Singapore or elsewhere in Singapore-owned corporations. By then, most will not return to Malaysia.
Needless to say, many such children from poor families who were unable to get state aid in Malaysia have benefited immensely from this financial assistance. In return, they generally feel grateful to the Singapore government.

In Tan’s case, he said he would join the Singapore legal service. This is another achievement because only the very best of law graduates would be selected to join the Singapore judicial and legal services. It is also financially rewarding considering that a Singapore High Court judge is said to draw an annual salary inclusive of perks amounting to about S$1mil (RM2.4mil).
However, one has to take up Singapore citizenship if he aspires to become a judge or hold a senior position in their legal service.

This reminds me of my own experience. Unable to get financial aid from the state, my family had to privately finance my law studies in England. At that time, the then British government had begun imposing full-cost fees on foreign students as well as prohibiting them from seeking employment while studying there.
I wrote to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher telling her that the common wealth of the Commonwealth ought to be commonly shared! I did receive a reply from the British Department of Education and Science on her behalf justifying the new policy on the grounds of national interest.
My father had to dispose of a six-acre rubber plantation in Yong Peng and I was also blessed to have my sisters who substantially financed my studies. Fortunately too, I had housemates in London from well-to-do families – like former Health Minister Tan Sri Chan Siang Sun’s daughter and the daughter of a cousin to Tan Sri Robert Kuok – who helped me whenever the cheque for my monthly £200 allowance arrived late.
When I emerged as one of the 38 out of 1,000 plus Commonwealth students to obtain a second class in the British Bar Final exams (there was no first class award that year), I decided to start my career in Singapore after being called to the English Bar.

But I returned to Malaysia after spending about a year in Singapore. There were probably two main reasons.
Firstly, there was this incident where I was chosen as one of the young lawyers to meet the then Singapore Chief Justice, Wee Chong Jin, to give our views on the inception of the Singapore Academy of Law. When I returned to report about the meeting, a Singaporean lawyer asked me whether, as a Malaysian, I was fit to represent them.
The majority of Singaporeans present were not happy with her and she probably did not realise that Wee was also a Malaysian. Though it was an innocuous question, the incident made me realise that, unless I took up Singapore citizenship, I would always be judged on my nationality if I had stayed.
Secondly, with a background as a hot-blooded student leader imbued with nationalistic feelings, I felt a bit awkward practising the laws of another country. Had I been a medical doctor, engineer or accountant, the story could have been different.

But this should not mean that the 300,000 or more Malaysians who live in Singapore are disloyal. The same goes for the 100,000 or more Malaysians who commute daily between Singapore and Johor Baru to work and study.
One interesting fact is that only a small fraction of them are prepared to give up their Malaysian citizenship despite many attempts to lure them to become Singapore citizens. Most of them still make it a point to return and vote during our general elections.

It is for this reason that our government must know why these Malaysians continue to stay on despite various restrictions imposed on them by the Singapore government.
These restrictions include:
> Foreign workers, students and PRs can only drive Singapore-registered vehicles in Singapore.
> All male PRs who reach 18 are required to undergo a two-year national service.
> Education fees for PRs and foreigners who study in Singapore will triple by 2012.
> Promotional aspects for sensitive and senior positions in the Singapore civil service are only possible if the PR becomes a Singapore citizen.
> Only a married PR couple or PR working siblings are entitled to purchase a resale and not new Housing Development Board flat provided they also do not own any other private property in Singapore or elsewhere including any property they may have inherited in Malaysia.
> New laws are in the pipeline to require Singapore citizens and PRs who own landed properties to dispose of the same within two years after they give up their citizenship or PR status; failing which there will be a penalty of S$20,000 (RM48,000) or three years’ jail.
If you ask many of these Malaysians (including my three sisters), who are all die-hard supporters of the PAP government, they will tell you that in Singapore their talent is being recognised and appreciated in a system based on meritocracy.
What is important to them is the ability to make an honest living without having to bend any rule or seek patronage under any person.
Hence, for the sake of their children’s future, these resilient Malaysians would not mind putting up with these inconveniences.
At the same time, they follow the political development in Malaysia closely, always favouring a cordial working relationship between leaders of our two nations. And I, for one, can feel that it is beginning to be reassuring under Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s leadership. It was him who transformed Malaysia into a regional education hub when he was the Education Minister, making foreign tertiary education more accessible locally.

It is hoped that the Talent Corporation set up to bring home highly-skilled Malaysians will also help stem the exodus of local talent. In this respect, the MCA leadership should be commended for securing more scholarships and university places for deserving non-Malay high achievers.

The writer is a senior lawyer. He can be contacted via Twitter @rogertankm