Thursday, October 12, 2006

Optimising Scholars

Besides the obvious cases of brain drain as well as marginalisation of top academics who present views inconsistent with the Government's position which clearly indicates Malaysia's absolute lack of ability to retain its talent, there is also the issue of its ability in optimising the use of talent, particularly of scholars.

A reader has recently posted the following comment in an earlier post:
I like to bring forward another topic that you could highlight in your future posts. I had the opportunity to befriend a TM scholar recently. After getting straight A1s for his SPM, he managed to secure a TM scholarship to further his studies in US. Based on his SAT exams, he was offered to study computer engineering at Brown University (an Ivy league uni, unlike some of his colleagues at preparation programme who could only manage to enter second tier unis). At Brown, he double majored in computer engineering and economics and graduated with a 3.7 CGPA. After 4 years, he was ready to come back to Malaysia and serve his 10-year bond with TM.

To his dismay, he was placed in a department not of his choice. In addition to this, he was placed on the same level as a diploma graduate. The slow management and bureaucracy at TM only adds to his frustration. He tried to escape from TM only to discover that if he wishes to do so, he has to pay back the full amount of scholarship (not surprising). His colleagues however (MARA scholars and JPA scholars, the second tier uni grads) were free to go.

The above example Tony is just an example of another form of 'brain drain'. Yes, my friend came back to Malaysia, however the knowledge and skills learnt when he was in US were unrecognized and more importantly unutilized. And his case was not an isolated one; several of his other friends who went to Brown and other top tier unis in the US i.e. Carnegie Mellon, UMichigan at Ann Arbor were facing the same dilemma as him. Upon hearing his story, I personally feel that this situation can also be considered part of the nation's 'brain drain' problem. We have talented and skillfull ppl here in Malaysia (although limited) but due to mismanagement, bad policies and other external problems, we failed to recognize the potential that these handful of ppl could do to the country.
Unlike our neighbours in Singapore where there is clearly proper planning in maximising the returns on investment in its scholars, there appears to be clearly none in Malaysia. Having studied in Singapore and having plenty of Malaysians and Singaporean friends receiving scholarships from the Government as well as the Government-Linked Companies (GLCs), they clearly do not provide scholarship for students just because they felt charitable.

The progress of government scholars in particular, are tracked closely whilst in universities. Upon graduation, they are "enrolled" into special fast track programs whereby they are given a rotation of responsibilities into various Ministries for government scholars, and departments for GLC scholars. Upon completion of the job rotation, they are often immediately given specific important tasks and functions which positions such as Deputy Directors of departments within the Government agencies. Their progress and career path continues to be tracked extremely closely to ensure that their responsibilities commensurate with their talents and performance. With strong performance, these candidates are promoted quickly to lead the various organisations.

My primary school best friend from Batu Pahat, who entered Raffles Junior College a year my junior as an A-Levels ASEAN scholar succeeded in securing a scholarship from Neptune Orient Lines (NOL), Singapore's largest shipping firm to pursue the same degree as I did, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) in Oxford University. He rose to prominence very quickly and became the Country Manager for Vietnam by the time he was 32. (I'm envious as he is living life in luxury as a pampered expatriate in Ho Chi Minh.) And in between he completed his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) in Stanford University sponsored fully by his paymasters.

Another fellow ASEAN scholar who originated from Petaling Jaya received the Singapore Airlines (SIA) scholarship to pursue Accounting & Finance at London School of Economics and he has completed assignments as Station Managers in Europe and North Asia before the age of 30! He has since then served extended stints as special assistant to the Chairman of SIA.

My coursemate in PPE who was a Singapore Public Services Commission (PSC) Scholar was a Deputy Director at Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and has since left and recently promoted as the Senior Editor of Money Desk of The Straits Times. Even a Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) scholar 2 years our junior (also in PPE) is now a Deputy Editor. This are just some examples who I can recall off-hand. I'm absolutely certain that there are many more. In probably a few years' time, my peers would have risen to powerful positions in the government as well as GLCs in Singapore, and they will all be well under the age of 40!

And how do the Malaysian government and GLCs treat their top scholars? Unfortunately, they pretty much leave the task of allocating their returning scholars to the incompetent human resource departments. The examples cited by the reader above aren't the only ones.

The daughter of one of my angel investors graduated with a law degree from Oxford under Phileo-Allied Bank scholarship before it was acquired by Maybank. Upon returning to Malaysia, Maybank placed her in the human resource department to handling employee-related legal issues after not knowing what to do with her for a fair few months.

Another returning TM scholar from Oxford who graduated with Masters in Engineering was placed in a network division which was clearly under-utilising his talents and intelligence. After a bit more than a year of serving his bond, and multiple attempts to seek a more appropriate position, he negotiated for a discounted repayment of his scholarship. I was fortunate that he joined my company as an Analyst. Apparently the scope and responsibility which we provided him was that "good" that within 3 years, Proctor and Gamble, known for its strict recruitment criteria snapped him up as a manager based on his experience with us (sigh...). :)

Unlike 15 years ago where it was practically unheard of for the private sector companies to be offering scholarships for undergraduate studies, it is fairly common today with TM, Tenaga Nasional, Petronas, Gamuda, Astro and many other large corporations offering overseas scholarships. However, it is clear that many of our local corporations have placed much importance in harnessing the talents and skills of the returning scholars. Needless to say, for most of these organisations, a fast track career path for performing scholars is non-existent. It is interesting the these corporations are using shareholder funds to perform public relations driven national service and not to maximise the prospects of growth for the respective corporations.

It is also interesting to note that despite not having a programme to tap the organisations own talent pool, many of these scholars are slapped with a ridiculous 10-year bond which will mean most of these returning scholars will be 32 or 33 by the time their are "released". Comparatively, Singapore today bonds its overseas scholars for 6 years.

There is hence clearly a need for the top management of large local corporations offering scholarships to start taking an interest in harnessing the talent of its scholars instead of letting them rot in the storeroom. And if you are unable to fully tap the potential of these returning top scholars, then it will only make sense that you release them from their obligations to ensure that they can then contribute more positive to the overall well-being and economy of the country.


Anonymous said...

I agree that most, if not all, sponsoring agencies in Malaysia is underutilizing their scholar resource. The answer, however, does not lie in the "Singapore model", where certain scholars are placed on fast-track/special programs in government-linked agencies.

A very simple (yet politically difficult to implement since so many Malaysians are irrationally nationalistic) -- Open up the economy and allow competition. This way, companies that don't optimize their talents will be extinct!

The main problem in Malaysia is that too many companies are protected (based on racial or nationalist lines).

Nik Nazmi said...

Interesting entry Tony. I share your sentiment.

I wrote on the same topic in the Edge recently:

My own entry on the topic also attracted a lot of different perspectives!

Anonymous said...

I fully agree with Tony on this aspect. The scholars who went abroad to study at top universities should be utilized much more efficiently, compared to what is happening right now. I won't be saying that all scholars returned were not fully utilized, as there are a few Petronas scholars who were given very high responsibility, and reported to very senior officers in Petronas.

This issue was discussed recently at at the following link

Anonymous said...

ellie writes..

Optimising Scholars..whiz kids, mentoring and what addition to talking about corporates..what about the academic industry? .. we wonder what are the strategies that our local public & private universities have in place to train their current & future PhD graduates to be better & more effective teachers & academic leaders for the new generation to be "better educated"..maybe KM can tell us more on the PFF program that Duke operates..which we heard not only educates their doctoral students to have better teaching skills but also prepare them to be competent in the whole range of academic responsibilities and leadership skills plus of course research skills enhancement..this should be useful for the MOHE MyBrain15 project to produce the targetted 100,000 PhD graduates..

jerng said...

tony ah... you've got the business savvy, and I know lots of people who would be willing to volunteer a bit of time and energy: what do you think of about setting up a website/forum which links local secondary school students with those individuals who have obtained undergraduate scholarships from foreign institutions? This would fill a long vacant niche in the malaysian information market: letting every SPM scholar know where the funds for tertiary education are, besides the local sources.

Anonymous said...

chenchow said...

jerng, actually there are a number of sites that were set up by fellow Malaysians to provide information for secondary school students in Malaysia.

2 of the sites, which are actually in the Education Links at , does serve this purpose. They are , The Worldwide Malaysian Students Network and . focuses more on forum discussion, where Malaysians would be able to pose questions that they have on any issue, especially scholarships and university admission issues to other fellow Malaysians who have made it. This site was initiated in April 2003, and till today, more than 7.8 Million web hits have been recorded. The site is very popular, especially during the period of JPA and other scholarships interview. Hundreds of ReCom members are holders of various scholarships to study at various top institutions in the world.

The other site serves more as an information sharing by Malaysians who have gone through the process of scholarship/conference/opportunities etc.