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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Trapped Multiple Times

Editorial for Penang Monthly, June 2014

This month’s cover is about Malaysia’s brain drain; and what is fascinating is how old—and yet how current—the story reads.

Indeed, we should be talking about a Brain Drain Trap, as we do about the Middle Income Trap. And we should be worrying just as much—Malaysia’ GDP per capita has stayed at about 30% of the USA’s since 1994. No improvement in 20 years.

“Trap” is not necessary a good analogy here because it suggests an unchanging status. In reality, traps are gently sloping downwards. There is really never an unchanging status quo.

Where the brain drain is concerned, there is hardly enough foreign inflow to offset the shock to the economy caused by the outflow of educated Malaysians. This means that for a long time now, the country has had to make do—and has had get along as best it could within what perhaps should be called the Middle Talent trap.

To be fair, according to some international rankings, Malaysia has not progressed too badly. In the Corruption Perception Index put together annually by Transparency International, the country has improved in ranking over the years from 60th position to reach 50th spot in 2013. This slow improvement is menacing, however, for slow progress in fighting corruption signals low political will to eliminate corruption. Do we spy a Middle Corruption Trap here?

Let’s take a look at education. The 2013 Times Higher Education Asia University Ranking had among the top 100 only one Malaysian university—Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia at 89th spot. Universiti Malaysia has no doubt climbed on the QS Worldwide Universities rankings over the last five years from 42nd to 32nd position. However, this resulted from the sharp rise in the proportion of international students, and not from improvements in educational quality. Very few will protest if I say that the country has for decades now been caught in a Middle—in fact, Middling—Education Trap.

What other traps are we in? The 20% ownership of equity attained by the bumiputera category in 1990 remains the same today—suggesting statistical manipulation more than staticness. More believable is how the 45% participation rate of women in the economy already attained in the mid-1980s remains at 45% today.

A more recent trap is actually the democracy trap. Voter sympathy is now cut right down the middle, and this divide runs so deep that the government has given up on trying to win back lost support through good policies. Instead, it plays to the ethnocentric and religiously bigoted elements within its right wing.

As a whole though, Malaysia is not caught in a series of traps. More correctly, its tendency to get caught in apparent traps intimates that it is actually on a slippery slope. This is most obvious where the economy is concerned. The budget deficit is huge, and has been so since 1998; oil revenues are diminishing; subsidy costs remain exorbitantly high; and the unpopular GST is being implemented despite the political risks involved. The latter is desperation indeed.

The comfort given those caught in a trap is not given those slipping down a slope.


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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