Many Malaysian parents, mainly the non-bumiputeras, have a dilemma regarding their children's education and future. I just met a friend who has this to tell me. He is an engineer earning a decent living but not really rich. He has two children, and he is grateful that he has only two. The eldest is a son who has just finished his studies in engineering in Australia. The second one is a daughter who has just gone to Australia to study business management.
His dilemma is this. He had no choice but to send his son overseas in order to provide him with a good education and at the same time to broaden his perspective. He could have asked his son to study locally but the problem was that his son might not be given the course of his choice since majority of places for medicine and engineering courses are reserved for bumiputera students.
My friend had to work very hard and had to be very thrifty in order to save to send his children overseas. And he is now near retirement age. He wants his son to come back Malaysia to work but he fears that his son may not get a good job and the prospect of promotions may be limited.
So he asked me what to do. I told him this is the dilemma faced by many, many Chinese and Indian Malaysian parents. Who doesn't want their children to be around them? But at the same time, if the children don't good job prospects here, what would the parents do?
They would want the children to have the best chances and do something that they are happy with. And that means letting their children work overseas where the employment prospects are better, and where work satisfaction and upward mobility also better.
I asked my friend, 'Why don't you join your son Down Under?' He answered that he loves Malaysia, he was born and bred here, his friends and relatives are all here, and his business is also here. He would feel out of place and it would not be easy for a middle-aged man to start his network and friends all over again in a foreign country.
What can we do about this? When a citizen's child studies overseas, we lose precious foreign exchange and this is no small sum as an overseas education runs into hundreds of thousands of ringgit for each student. Over the years, how many Malaysians have gone overseas to study? One hundred thousand? Half a million? One million? I don't have the figure. But Malaysian used to be the biggest group of foreign students in Australia, the UK, etc. How much money was lost?
And how many of these did not come back? I have so many classmates working as consultants in the UK, Singapore and Australia that I have lost count. This is 'brain drain' and 'brain loss'. Human capital is now recognised as the most important asset in this flattening world. Many of these who stay abroad become very famous scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs, etc. How much 'brain' was lost? No one can quantify that.
Who knows, Malaysia would have become a First World country by now if we had all these brains realising their potential locally. Everyone, both bumi and non-bumi, would have benefitted more by now. How about the human cost? How many families were separated? How many parents died a lonely death because their children were overseas?
The lists go on and the dilemma is getting more acute. We should in fact be more farsighted. Intake for local tertiary education should be based on merit, with maybe a small proportion reserved for socially-handicapped people. For those studying overseas, try to lure them back, place them in GLCs such as Petronas, TNB, Telekom and government departments and let their promotion be based on merit.
That way, these companies can be much more successful, the country be more prosperous and there will be that much more job prospects. In turn, the economic cake grows bigger and we then have a bigger capacity to offer affirmative action for the less-advantaged groups. By being farsighted, we will be rewarded with every ethnic group getting a bigger share of the economy.