by Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, Thursday 30 December 2010 (AFP) - When computer engineer Wan Jon Yew left Malaysia in 2005 for a job in Singapore, all he wanted was to work in the city state for a few years before going home. Now, he says, he will never return.
With a family, a home and a car, he now plans to settle in Singapore for good -- just one of the many Malaysians stampeding abroad every year in a worrying "brain drain" the government is trying to reverse.
"I wouldn't consider going back to Malaysia, I won't look back. If I were ever going to leave Singapore, I would migrate to Australia," said the 28-year-old, who now has permanent resident status.
"It's not about the money. I could have a better quality of life in Malaysia with my pay. I could have a semi-detached bungalow and have a maid there, but I would rather live in a government flat in Singapore."
Wan, who is ethnically Chinese, is one of some 700,000 Malaysians -- most of them highly educated -- who are currently working abroad in an exodus that Prime Minister Najib Razak's government is struggling to reverse.
The "brain drain" has a number of causes. Some have been lured by higher salaries, but others blame political and social gripes including preferential policies for Muslim Malays, who form the majority.
Many feel constrained by life in a country where the ruling coalition has been in power for half a century, and where progress on freedom of expression, the right to assembly, and tackling corruption has been slow.
A decades-old affirmative action policy which hands Malays and the indigenous groups privileges in housing, education and business, has been criticised as uncompetitive and improperly benefiting the elite.
As a consequence, many of those who have left are members of Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, who make up some 25 percent and 10 percent of the population respectively.
Najib in December launched a "Talent Corporation" with incentives to woo back these highly skilled workers, as well as foreign professionals, to live and work in his multi-ethnic country.
Malaysia, Southeast Asia's third-largest economy with a population of 28 million, has ambitions to transform itself into a developed nation by 2020, but a lack of human capital is a barrier to reaching that goal.
World Bank data cited by the Malaysian press shows that while globally the number of migrants rose 2.4 times between 1960 and 2005, Malaysia's diaspora registered a staggering 155-fold increase over the 45-year period.
"I don't want my children to go through the unfair treatment," said Wan, who believes Singapore offers "fair competition".
"I'm not proud of being a Malaysian because I think the government doesn't treat me as a Malaysian.
"I would rather be a PR (permanent resident), a second-class citizen in a foreign country, than to be a citizen in my own country."
Wan said his wife, an IT analyst, renounced her citizenship in July this year, joining a queue of about 30 Malaysians lining up to do so on that day alone at the Malaysian embassy in Singapore.
Commentators are sceptical over whether the government's latest effort to reverse the "brain drain" will be successful, warning it will be tough to persuade those in self-exile.
"Money does have a significant role but the most important factor, I think, is opportunity. Malaysia is too politicised and opportunities are not evenly available to everyone," political analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan told AFP.
In one example, he said academics are reluctant to work in local universities as they must sign a "loyalty pledge" barring them from, among other things, criticising government policies.
"In such an environment, obviously those with talents will find opportunity elsewhere," said the chief executive of think-tank the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).
Wan Saiful, who himself returned to Malaysia last year after living in Britain for 17 years, said the newly launched Talent Corporation will be "another expensive failure" if it does not tackle these structural problems.
"When I apply for a job, buy a house, register my children for school etcetera, why does it matter what my race or religion is? This should stop," said the analyst, himself a Malay.
Ethnic Chinese and Indian professionals who have left the country commonly say they felt a sense of marginalisation in Malaysia.
"When I went back to Malaysia, it was a culture shock in terms of politically how they promote the rights of the Malays over everyone else," said Chee Yeoh, a stock analyst who migrated to Australia three years ago.
Yeoh was educated overseas from the age of 10 and returned in 1998 to take up a position with a bank, but felt like leaving again "almost immediately".
"I just didn't feel at home in Malaysia. I can't speak the Malay language -- essentially I felt like an outsider even more," said the 35-year-old analyst, who took a pay cut to move to Australia.
Najib has admitted the talent issues are "broad and complex", and will not set a target on how many Malaysians he hopes to lure back under the new programme.
The initiatives include a "resident pass" which will give foreign skilled workers, and Malaysians who have gave up their citizenship, the long-term right to live and work in the country.
But Fong Chan Onn, Malaysia's former human resources minister who was instrumental in previous "brain gain" efforts, said the government must tackle the issue holistically.
"The government needs to rectify this sense of marginalisation. We also have to improve the mechanism so it can be more effective to ask these talents to come back," he told AFP.
"We have a long way to go. It is better late than never."