After graduating from medical school in Canada in the 1970s, Eng Hin Lee was eager to return home. The young Malaysian doctor wanted to be closer to his family, and he was tired of the harsh Canadian winters that never seemed to end. He also missed the simple pleasures of home, such as eating Chinese dim sum, which means "to touch the heart."
Dr. Lee knew that Malaysia, a young country hobbled by poverty, could not match the opportunities and salaries paid abroad. But he felt strongly that there was a place for him there. So the young doctor packed his bags and moved home.
"I wanted to go back to help," says Dr. Lee. Yet when he returned it became obvious it would be difficult to pursue his research goals. Biomedical science in Malaysia was in its nascent stage. Labs were pitifully equipped. There was no significant scientific environment in which to grow or contribute.
After two frustrating years, he packed his bags again. But it wasn't because of the money. It wasn't because of the labs. Dr. Lee, who is ethnically Chinese, did not feel welcome in his own country. Racial policies that had been put in place while he was away made it clear to him that he would never advance.
Notice that the article highlighted the fact that it was racial policies rather than the lack of funding that was the determining factor in pushing Dr. Lee out of Malaysia and into the welcoming arms of NUS. I thought that this article is extremely relevant given our recent discussion on the state of higher education in Malaysia.
I recently sent out a straw poll to this same mailing list asking if people who are currently pursuing their PhDs would consider going back to join the academia in a local university setting. To my surprise, the few people that did respond said that they would consider going back home and working in a local university. I would have thought that the prospect of low pay would dissuade many Malaysians who are pursuing their PhDs here in the US from returning home. (There was one response from an economist friend of mine who's earning big bucks in a private bank who cited low pay as one of the main reasons why he wouldn't go back home but even then, he also cited possible discrimination as another reason)
My sense is that people like Dr. Lee in the 1970s and those in the Malaysian Forum mailing list are not the exceptions. There are many qualified Malaysians, non-Malays included, who would seriously consider returning to 'serve' in the academia in one of our local universities. But I also think that the experience that Dr. Lee faced in the 1970s is likely to be repeated in contemporary times. The system would be equally unwelcoming (if not more so) to non-Malays.
It pains me to see a Malaysian feeling unwelcomed in his or her own country while the government goes out of its way to recruit non-Malaysians to teach in our local varsities. I've tried to stayed away from the issue of race in my postings because I sincerely feel that it's a structural problem that we face in higher education, not necessarily a racial one. For example, if we have the same incentive and disincentive structures (you don't have to publish or do research to get promoted, you are not sacked if you don't) without racial discrimination, I think our local universities would still be in deep trouble. But when structural problems are compounded by racial policies, this needs to be pointed out.
Racial policies which promote academics based on race and not on performance is a key reason why people like Dr. Lee pack their bags and leave our local universities despite their best intentions on wanting to 'serve' our country. Another quote from Dr. Lee:
"It was obvious you wouldn't get very far if you weren't the right race," says Dr. Lee.
Today he works at the National University of Singapore, where he is in charge of a huge lab that is conducting cutting-edge research in stem-cell biology. Dr. Lee, an orthopedic surgeon, leads a team of top scientists culled from all over the world.
"Having come here I think I made the right choice," says Dr. Lee, referring to Singapore's premier teaching hospital. In Malaysia, "I probably would not have become a head of department and dean of the Faculty of Medicine."
I think many Malaysians with foreign PhDs who come back to Malaysia to work in our local varsities can live with the relatively low pay (by international and regional standards). What I think they (and I'm referring to the non-Malays here) cannot take is to see colleagues being promoted to professors and heads of departments based on racial considerations rather than on merit.
There is a strong emphasis within the US academia to recruit minorities (though this policy differs from school to school). There is a perception that the minorities (ethnic and gender) that are hired may not have fulfilled the same kind of rigorous academic standards that a non-minority would have had to go through. I think most US universities would be appalled by the situation in Malaysia where the better qualified minorities are forced out of the system to benefit the less qualified majority.
I'm not saying that all non-Malays are better qualified than the Malays in our local varsities. But what I am saying is that if we had a system that promoted based stricted on merit, cases such as Dr. Lee's would be a rarity. And we would definitely have more heads of departments who are non-Malay. There's also another relatively easy way to test this. We can look at non-Malay scholars who have left the local varsities and chart their achievements in the places they've gone to. It is hard to imagine that someone like Prof Wang Gangwu would have been given the same kind of recognition and opportunities as he did in Hong Kong and Singapore had he stayed within the local varsities.
Our dear friend, the UM VC, can put up all the posters that he wants. But one article like this in a widely read magazine like the Chronicle of Higher Education is enough to convince most US academics that our local universities are of poor quality. And our loss is our neighbor's gain. At the same time as our local universities are shown in a poor light, NUS wins praise (as well as our best brains).
If one were to do a study of the extent of the brain drain from Malaysia to Singapore (forget about the US, UK and Australia for now), it wouldn't be surprising to find that flow has been enormous, however one chooses to quantify it. I personally know two Malaysian PhD students currently in Duke who graduated from NUS and will probably end up going back to NUS after they finish their PhDs. They are not the first nor will they be the last.
Dr. Shafie, you don't have to look far to recruit more lecturers with PhDs. Just take a drive over the Causeway. Finding them is easy. Whether you can be succesful in recruiting these highly qualified Malaysians to come back home to teach is another question.