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Malaysia's Got Talent

The chartered accountant by qualification is a Cambridge graduate, who returned and worked with several large companies and an accounting firm, before he joined the Government in 2004. In an interview with StarBizWeek's JAGDEV SINGH SIDHU and JEEVA ARULAMPALAM, he talks about plans to overcome the protracted and critical issue of brain drain and drawing talent back home.

SBW: What has been the feedback you have received so far?

There is no shortage of advice. The amazing thing is that you meet so many people who are so passionate about this. Sometimes you think Malaysia is the typical Asian country, where people are out to make money. But when you talk about the education of human capital, it's amazing how passionate people are. You meet various people who go out of their way to do good in this space.

I am at this early stage of trying to address policy impediments and see what can be done to better enable this process. The response has been quite overwhelming.

What has Talent Corp been up to?

A key enabler to achieve the ambition to transform into a higher income economy is talent. Clearly, the Malaysian diaspora is an important part of the equation; we have many Malaysians all over the world and many are successful. We want them to help Malaysia in the transformation. But Talent Corp's mandate has to go beyond bringing back the diaspora.

We have to accept that many people have left the country for a variety of reasons. Many of these reasons will not be immediately remediable. At the same time, we should be doing a better job of engaging with Malaysians overseas and convincing them of the opportunities here.

I strongly believe there are many ways that Malaysians can contribute without necessarily returning.

For example, Prof Danny Quah, who is head of economics at LSE. There is really no proposition for him to come home. To be fair, it would not be optimising him to come home. He now has a platform to contribute to the country. He is a member of the NEAC, which was influential in coming up with the New Economic Model and he regularly comes to Malaysia as part of his work.

There are others too, like Jimmy Choo who belongs in the global fashion capital. Now we see him coming back more often and setting up the shoe institute. There are others in the Silicon Valley or leading finance experts in New York. That is where they are optimised professionally.

There are other ways we can leverage off them, maybe through advisory positions, board positions, reverse investments, helping our companies go out and enter new markets. We also need to be quite open to foreign talent. The layman may take a simplistic view that foreign talent is a substitute for Malaysian talent and for every foreign talent that comes in, it is taking away a Malaysian job. I think that presumption needs to be challenged. If there are foreign talents that are committed and can contribute to the country, why not embrace them?

As Malaysia moves towards a knowledge economy, we recognise that the presence of diversity is good. In fact, Malaysia's strength is in its diversity.

Having a talent pool of foreigners and the mingling of workers from different backgrounds and expertise in effect raises productivity. In some ways, that is what you see in the Silicon Valley.

But we must not forget about Malaysians. That part of the job scope for Talent Corp does not immediately come to mind because there are many government agencies and departments that are addressing this. We see ourselves as a strategic intervention.

Essentially, the mandate seems very broad. What exactly does Talent Corp need to do?

To do what it takes. We are trying to be quite focused, in terms of interventions that make sense over a time horizon. In the short term, few specific interventions are required. The first is immigration. That tackles two segments - the foreigners and the Malaysian diaspora. Then, there is scholarships, and that is targeted at Malaysians.

Initially, it is identifying what the policy enablers are and removing impediments.

The resident pass has a multi-pronged purpose. On one hand, there are foreign talent that get posted here by their multi-nationals for, say three to five years. Typically, at the end of their tour of duty, the MNC will post them somewhere else but many expatriates grow to love Malaysia and would like to commit further to the country.

Sometimes work permits tend to be specific to an employer, so a resident pass is really intended to be a 10-year visa which allows a person to resign and work in Malaysia without really being tied to a specific employer. That is targeted to expatriates who can contribute to our economic transformation and will enable us to secure a longer term commitment from those top talents.

At the same time, we have to recognise that there are those who may no longer be Malaysians. For example, children of Malaysians who move overseas for education. These people should be given the opportunity to remain connected to the country and the resident pass would be an option to come back easily to work in Malaysia.

As for scholarships, we have bright Malaysians who often top various examinations everywhere and are funded by the Government. They have greater flexibility on where to serve their bond and this is important for scholars. They are optimised by working in various strategic sectors.

Wouldn't all of this hinge on job demand?

It needs to be premised on demand, in terms of what the industry needs. We wouldn't want a situation where a Malaysian, who is an expert in a niche area, comes back but there is no company, industry or eco-system to support his work.

So, we should focus on industries that are thriving, competitive and relevant for global talent. It is for Talent Corp to have a good understanding of these sectoral requirements and address the policy impediments and create policy enablers to enable talent supply to meet industry demands.

It is not our ambit to be a headhunter on a one-to-one basis and to crowd out the private sector. The Government's role is to address market failure or coordination failure and look at policy and work together with industries to understand their needs.

Many have left for better job opportunities. There is also dissatisfaction with local politics and race-related issues or parents who wanted a better future for their kids. Is there a line Talent Corp will draw in the type of people it wants to bring back to Malaysia?

Talent Corp needs to, using consultant speak, be focused on ?winnable spaces.? We ought to focus on the type of talent that industry needs and those who will want to come back or contribute from where they are.

People who have left have done so for a variety of reasons. Typically, there are three buckets.

One is economic in terms of higher pay, the other is professional development whose skills are best optimised elsewhere and the third is broader macro-issues such as public transport, education for their children and all that.

I strongly believe there is a strong proposition to Malaysia. We clearly have great opportunities arising from the government transformation and economic transformation and it is an exciting period in the country's history.

On the more economic side we have sectors that are regionally or globally competitive, whether it is palm oil or Islamic finance or electronics and within that, we clearly have companies that are best in class. There are exciting opportunities for top talent.

Do you think the success of Talent Corp hinges on the success of the ETP?

It's a symbiotic relationship. The economic transformation requires talent and if we don't ensure our best talent where they are best optimised, we may not succeed in our transformation. We want to have the means to shift the odds a bit so that we are able to channel our top talent to support our economic transformation. As that happens, that in itself creates more opportunities and becomes a draw for talent.

How does Talent Corp plan to get in touch with the Malaysian diaspora?

We have various means of engaging with them. At any one point, there are various missions from here that go out and these include corporate leaders. I hope they could be a part of it. Talent Corp will not succeed on its mission alone.

To have a conversation with someone to return, the credibility of that conversation will definitely be strengthened if it is done by someone within the same industry.

A doctor overseas will most probably want to talk to another doctor who has returned. One way is to partner with established individuals to reach out to those people.

We have established networks through our own embassies. In today's technology, we need to leverage on social media and that is one tract I need to develop.

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