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Malaysia And Singapore Competing For Talents‬
Malaysia Perspective | 09 June 2011


Veteran politicians in Singapore and Malaysia made the headlines once again in mid-May. 87-year-old Lee Kuan Yew has finally stepped down from Singapore’s Cabinet after spending more than five decades there as its anchor politician, thus ushering in the “post-LKY era” in the Lion City. Dr. Mahathir, who is two years his junior, was recently admitted to the hospital due to lung infection, but that had not stopped him from becoming the focus of media coverage; after he retired from the Malaysian Cabinet 7 years ago, he remains active in the political scene, often raising the heckles of many with his controversial rhetorics.

There are many similarities between these two strongmen, but they differ substantially over their national strategies and that in itself has had a profound impact on both sides of the Causeway. Contemporaries as political leaders, they began making their mark in the 50s and 60s, trading barbs often in the pre-separation Parliament in Kuala Lumpur. In the 22 years that Mahathir was in power, the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore was tumultuous. A most memorable moment came in 2005 when the Crooked Bridge project was aborted, and saw a fuming Mahathir turning up at the JB checkpoint, spewing venomous remarks that are aimed across the Straits.‬

These two strongmen share another similarity in the way they passed their batons to their respective successors. Lee Kuan Yew handed over the rein to Goh Chok Tong in 1990, but was obviously uneasy with his successor. It was not until his own son Lee Hsien Loong had been Prime Minister for 7 years that he finally decided to quit overseeing the Cabinet as its Minister Mentor. Mahathir was similarly ill at ease when he made way for Abdullah in 2003. That sense of dissatisfaction came to a boil in 2008, when he publicly confronted Pak Lah during the general election. After the political crisis that March, Abdullah had no choice but to make way hurriedly for Najib. Even though Najib is not the son of Mahathir, they shared an extraordinary relationship and Najib viewed Mahathir as his political mentor.‬

In this light, it should come as no surprise when occasional disputes surface between today’s new leaders in Singapore and Malaysia, for they may have inherited some of the political style of their respective predecessors. Fortunately, both Lee Hsien Loong and Najib have thus far strove for a win-win strategy to expand bilateral relations. Take the example of the relocation of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, which has been in an impasse over the past few decades. It took Lee and Najib all but a few rounds of talk to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, in which a joint venture will be set up between the two countries and is expected to reap tens of billions of dollars from the six plots of land held by the Malaysian Railway in the Lion City.‬

Obviously, relations between Singapore and Malaysia need careful management by the powers that be; friendly exchanges between the two countries will bring about mutual economic benefits, and ultimately benefit the hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the Causeway. With that objective in mind, Najib has actively campaigned to attract investments into the state of Johor, with the result that Iskandar Malaysia now boasts an accumulated investment of more than RM 73 billion ringgit. Crowning that achievement is the US$ 20 billion petrochemical plant in Southern Johor, both the results of clever manipulation of circumstances and amiable cross-straits relations.‬

In addition to capital investments, the success of these glamorous projects hinges on quality human resources. In this regard, we should pay careful attention to the World Bank’s report published in May, which states that “as of 2010, at least one million Malaysians are working overseas, more than half of which are in Singapore.” According to the Government’s report last year, 400,000 Malaysians have left for greener pastures elsewhere in 2008 and 2009 alone.‬

In a bid to address this brain drain, Najib has set up a talents institution and put in place tax incentives that are aimed at recapturing these lost talents. To be fair, the ubiquitous phenomenon of brain drain is happening everywhere, Singapore included. The difference, however, is the Lion City’s ability to attract more talents than those it loses; foreign citizens made up 20% of Singapore’s population ten years ago, while today that proportion has increased to 36%, reaching 1.8 million foreigners. For this reason, foreign talents has become a hot topic in its election in May.‬

The brain drain in Malaysia can only be attributed superficially to remuneration. The key reason is the bumiputera policy that is driving disenchanted Malaysians away. This policy began in the seventies during the leadership of Tun Razak and was blown out of proportion during the Mahathir era. It is now up to Najib to grab the bull by the horn and address this issue once and for all, for how else can we present Malaysia as a more attractive proposition than Singapore to this crucial pool of talents?‬

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