KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 28 — Malek Ali recently lost two staff members of the radio station he runs for a reason he sees as unnecessary.
One was an Australian radio station engineer and the other was the man’s Malaysian wife. The couple returned to Australia after the husband could not renew his work permit.
“These are good people. He was among the best in his field,” Malek said. “He and his wife are now contributing to the Australian economy.”
That was a stark contrast to his own experience — in Singapore.
In 2000, he became a permanent resident there, while working for the Singapore operations of a Malaysian company. Six months later, he was asked if he wanted to apply for citizenship.
He did not. He came back to start the BFM radio station, but without his family. He felt it was better for them to continue living across the Causeway. He commutes every weekend to Singapore.
Malek’s stories tell a succinct tale of the double whammy Malaysia is facing in the global grab for talent. Its citizens are being wooed by other countries, while its labyrinthine process of applying for permanent residence or even work permits drives away those who might want to stay.
This is not a new story. But it came to the forefront last week when complaints poured out on Internet forums after the Home Ministry held a high-profile exercise to award citizenships to 92 people.
The 92 were among the 33,000 “stateless” persons in the country. Most of them were born in Malaysia, but did not have legal papers as their births were never registered or the papers lost.
Among them was Leong Chwee Chun, 64. She had waited 36 years after her papers were lost during the Japanese Occupation.
But many of the best-qualified of these “stateless” residents have not stayed. Some left long ago, frustrated with inconclusive outcomes of their applications.
Plain-speaking Gerakan politician Dr Hsu Dar Ren tells of a former classmate who did not have citizenship, even though he was born in pre-independence Malaya, because his mother did not apply for it then.
The classmate was consistently top in his class and was later offered a scholarship to study in Singapore, where he became a citizen after graduating as an engineer. No one could blame him.
“The brain drain is really one of the biggest problems in Malaysia today, and this sort of thing does not help,” said Dr Hsu.
The citizenship ceremony was held with pomp last week to showcase the Home Ministry’s pledge to clear the backlog of applications by the year end. It has already processed 70 per cent of the 32,927 outstanding applications for citizenship, 16,812 for permanent residency and 93,360 cases of late registration of births.
Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein did not say how many of the applications were successful.
Malaysia’s difficulty in retaining talent has become more acute as the government tries to lift the economy up and out of the low-cost, low-wages model. It needs to replace brawn with brains.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had asked the government’s Economic Council for a new economic model to emphasise innovation and creativity.
But as Malaysians like Malek have noted, this requires being more efficient about keeping talent. The Malaysian process is opaque and convoluted and the delays are legendary.
Many have complained that they are kept in the dark about the criteria — unlike countries such as Australia, which uses a clear points system.
There is widespread belief that much hinges on what Dr Hsu describes as “a numbers game”. In a country where race is linked to power, the racial balance is always part of the consideration.
It may not be an official policy, but there are scores of stories that hint of unspoken racial considerations.
But as it has been pointed out, even if they number in the thousands, new immigrants will hardly change Malaysia’s demography.
“The demographic trend clearly shows that the major ethnic group is going to form a bigger and bigger proportion of the total population as time goes on,” said Dr Hsu.
The pledge to clear the huge backlog — which is part of the Home Ministry’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) — is welcomed, but it will not go very far as long as the process itself is not reformed.
Management-style KPIs may focus on statistics, but not necessarily the right decisions.
“They can easily say ‘no’ to everyone and meet the KPI,” said Malek. “But we haven’t done what is needed — provide a clear policy, transparency and speed.” — The Straits Times
Please read my article on this issue: A most frustrating hassle.