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Articles, Commentaries, Philosophy

What Brain, What Drain?

Editorial, November 2011,

By Ooi Kee Beng

IN THE DAYS before nation states, polities in Southeast Asia were largely trading ports. These dots, constituted the maritime routes along which fortune-seekers of old travelled.

All sorts – those with brains as much as much as those with brawn – went where conditions were most promising for the moment. These could be people who originated in the region or from outside the region.

This is my first point. Migration was the norm in Southeast Asia. From founders of city ports like Parameswara down to the common Minangkabau, migration was a  necessity.

A voyage to greener pastures was – and is – the best career path to take in a maritime trading region.

The “drain” of people from A to B was a basic economic dynamic. It did not need to  be permanent, and it could flow further afield or simply loop backwards. Today, calling this flow a loss of brains confuses the matter badly.

My second point is that the notion of a brain drain comes from the biased perspective of the nation state.

There is no doubt of people who are educated by the state, who then move to work  elsewhere. The state does not like this phenomenon because it thinks it somehow wns the people it educates, at least for a time. It does not see it as its duty to educate its citizens for their own sake. These people are most easily denoted as part of the brain drain.

But then, there is a huge group of mobile citizens who moved first and then got their  skills and their education somewhere else. They would have been more correctly considered part of a Brawn Drain when they left. It was only after they became successful that the jealous state decided to consider them as talents lost. My third point is simply that “brain” is a difficult concept to use in this context.

May main point remains this, that it was the norm for Southeast Asians to move between urban centres in search of a better future for themselves and for their family. And it still is.

What hides this is that following the fall of colonialism, national leaders tended to champion the rural hinterland, mainly because that was where the numbers could be recruited to support them in their struggle against other urban elites.

The most dramatic case of this was Mao’s use of the peasant. Closer to home, we have Malaysia’s UMNO trying hard to represent the rural population despite its leaders being urbanites.

On the other end, we have a place like Singapore, which not only did not have to deal with a rural population and its pre-modern culture but latched itself to the global economy. In that sense, tiny Singapore, despite being the most modern city in the region, is highly reminiscent of the old port city.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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