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Jakarta Post

How to turn a brain drain into a gain

  • Nur Aisyah Kotarumalos

    The Jakarta Post

Singapore   /   Sat, July 11, 2015   /  10:23 am

For the past few decades the mobility of highly skilled migrants has increased significantly as more countries compete to attract the best talent by offering competitive benefits.

The war for talent is a mechanism for Western countries to fill their skills shortage and enhance their human capital resources and thereby sustain their lead in new technology and innovation.

The United States, Australia and Canada are among the destinations of skilled immigrants. Labor mobility, particularly the movement of professionals and scientists, is inevitable including in developing countries.

Today, global migration is mainly dominated by the migration of the well-educated from developing countries to developed countries, which accounts for 80 percent of all migrants, as a 2011 World Bank report noted.

A brain drain is understood as a large-scale migration of educated and professional classes of people into high-wage countries driven by, but not limited to, monetary factors such as better pay or living conditions, a more conducive environment and the ambition to acquire new knowledge and skills.

In earlier studies of such migration, labor mobility with a high level of human capital was believed to be negative for the sending country. The sending country had invested profoundly, the logic went, yet other countries took the advantage of well-educated professionals.

In addition, the sending country may experience a lack of skilled people as knowledge and skills are distributed unevenly, mobilized in the countries that offer the most competitive packages. Therefore, where one country suffers a substantial loss from a brain drain, it profits another country. Some countries like the Caribbean and Pacific Islands see brain drains as having a negative effect on their countries as emigration is more than 50 percent of the populations.

Yet, current research has shown that the country of emigration may also gain from the movement of their citizens. In India, Brazil and China, with emigration rates of less than 20 percent and a low level of human capital, a brain drain is highly beneficial, according to a 2014 study by Graeme Hugo. Before its brain drain turned into a gain, India also suffered from a trend of a massive number of highly skilled Indians who left the country and worked overseas.

In Indonesia, a country where labor mobility is predominantly by low-skilled workers, the movement of highly skilled people has been echoed as a brain drain, though it is very hard to get the real figure of Indonesian professionals working overseas. Sadly, the discourse of going home is frequently portrayed as a symbol of patriotism, a metaphor of devotion to the motherland, yet without any formal steps taken by the government to attract and nurture Indonesians abroad to work in Indonesia.

A brain drain will remain a brain drain if the government rests on the voluntary return of its diaspora. Many developing countries have been intensively promoting a '€œreturn option'€, a series of preferential privileges for talented persons who have gone abroad to work in order to woo their talented citizens back in their country of birth.

The special treatments range from overcoming all kinds of barriers for them to settle down, to offering rewards once these imported talents have made an outstanding contribution to their place of origin.

For example, Malaysia has since 2001 actively sought to attract Malaysian professionals abroad to return home by the introduction of the Returning Expert Program (REP) and establishing TalentCorp under the prime minister. The program offers a 15 percent flat tax rate for five years, tax exemption for all personal effects brought into Malaysia, tax exempted car and permanent resident status for spouse and children. South Korea is even more competitive in attracting its overseas population by offering tax-free status for certain skilled workers to work in Korea.

Besides facilitating returning professionals with a return option, the brain drain may turn out to be brain gain through formulating a '€œdiaspora option'€, as cited by Uwem E. Ite in a study published in 2002. The '€œdiaspora option'€ provides a platform for the overseas population to give back to their homeland through philanthropic purposes without necessarily returning physically either on a permanent or temporary basis.

This perspective offers an alternative for talented migrants to keep contributing to the country'€™s economic transformation through voluntary help to families and relatives in the motherland. From the perspective of the nation, the '€œdiaspora option'€ is an organized and structured set of policies for the country of origin to access the diaspora'€™s skills and knowledge, to encourage the overseas population to visit, study, educate or invest regardless of whether they live abroad.

This may only be effective if the country of origin allows dual nationality or at least flexible citizenship laws and resident status, special property rights, tax and other incentives, as the International Organization of Migration noted in 2012.

A country like Indonesia should take into account the demand for friendly regulatory and legislative provisions, taking the form of a '€œreturn option'€ as well as a '€œdiaspora option'€. It is the way to gain benefits from the exodus of Indonesia'€™s highly skilled migrants and not just relying on the pure altruism of its overseas compatriots.


The writer is a lecturer at the school of sociology, University of North Sumatra, Medan, and is pursuing her PhD at the National University of Singapore under the Indonesian Endowment Fund for Educational (LPDP) scholarship.

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