Monday, 7 February 2011

Home, not so sweet home

Ceritalah By Karim Raslan



Many students abroad are thinking of staying back to work in London, New York or other cities, with their parents agreeing — and some even encouraging their kids not to return.

LAST month, just before I went to Davos, I gave a talk at Cambridge University. I first went there in 1982, some 28 years ago, and this visit made me feel very old. I suddenly realised that for the current students, I was like a relic.

Still, Cambridge — even after a gap of almost three decades — remains a lovely place. The town has barely changed, with students on bicycles everywhere. Indeed, the centre has been almost entirely pedestrianised, and ancient College buildings scrubbed clean.

The morning after the talk I found myself walking along King’s Parade — the town’s most prominent thoroughfare and through my old college, St Johns. It was a beautiful wintry morning, misty and with a light frost on the ground.

To my surprise, the colleges now charge tourists an entrance fee. However, with all the bravado of a former student, I just marched through the entrance, striding from one pebbled courtyard to another, past buildings that had seen the test of time.

It’s hard to express the sense of time passing. Here I was 28 years older, striding past buildings and a landscape (the trees and the river Cam) that has remained seemingly unchanged. I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d spent all the years.

I was in Cambridge to give a talk on Indonesia. It was also a thinly veiled opportunity for me to recruit people for my consulting practice, and indeed I was to do the same with students from Kings’ College, London, and from a dynamic Malaysian students group called UKEC.

My small business depends on drawing in bright, curious and hard-working young people who are willing to challenge assumptions, hit the ground, talk to businessmen, politicians, regulators and media practitioners while also ploughing through thousands of newspaper articles and reports.

In short, it’s not easy work; and the boss is very, very demanding.

I used to worry about recruiting, but nowadays, I’ve begun to realise that my regional focus — advising corporates, individuals and funds across South-East Asia — is an exciting proposition for young people hankering after experience and exposure.

Indeed, being in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand as well as Singapore has given me an enormous advantage in terms of recruitment in that, I’m able to offer the young people a real taste of doing business both inside and outside Malaysia.

Back when I was a young student, I couldn’t wait to return home to Malaysia. My enthusiasm to go home was infectious. I’d sit up all night with friends and talk about what I wanted to do with my country.

To be frank (and this is one of life’s little lessons), I’ve forgotten and/or failed to achieve the things I had set out to do. Instead, I’ve gone on and done other things.

However, nowadays when I meet with students, I sense a growing reluctance to return home. Many of the students are thinking of working elsewhere and making plans to get jobs in London, New York or other cities.

Indeed, when I check with friends whose kids are studying abroad, virtually all of them have agreed to let their kids stay on and work. Some have actually encouraged their kids not to return.

In the 1980s, this was a non-Malay phenomenon. In the 2010s, it’s a Malaysian trend as Malays have also joined the ranks of those who have elected to stay abroad.

Many of the students who choose not to return are sons and daughters of the middle class. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with us losing these young people? Maybe they’re not loyal enough? Maybe their semangat ke-Malaysia-an is too weak?

However, having chatted with the students, I’ve come to see that they love their home country as much as anyone else. But, when presented with alternative options, they chose not to return.

Isn’t this something we should be concerned about? Shouldn’t we be trying to make Malaysia more attractive for our bright, well-educated, young people? Shouldn’t we address the issues they face?

Top of the list is salary. Malaysian wages are caught in a deflationary trap — especially when compared with what’s on offer in the UK, the US or even Singapore.

Next up is a sense of frustration with the unnecessarily bureaucratic and unresponsive government machinery as well as the controls on personal freedom.

The breakdown between public and private morality also causes anguish for many, especially those still experimenting with life’s endless possibilities.

Young people don’t want to demonstrate all the time — they just want to know there’s a real and effective legal and political system that offers them a choice of leaders.

Malaysia won’t lure back the many tens of thousands of young people till we address these problems.

Despite all these hurdles, I’ve found that bright, ambitious young men and women will jump at a chance to work — even if the salaries aren’t great — so long as they’re given exposure and experience across South-East Asia, its 11 countries and 500 million people.

In short, we have to tell our young people that Kuala Lumpur, indeed Malaysia, can be a platform to explore the whole of Asean. Then they’ll come, and in their thousands.

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