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Sunday, 15 January 2012

War for Talent! How to win it for Malaysia?


Winning the war for talent


Are hefty paychecks and good career prospects the only aspects talents look for in a base country? The answers may be the key to a country's success in bringing its best brains home.

THERE is a global war being waged as companies and countries struggle to keep their best within their borders while they try to woo the world's brightest.

And if salary perks and benefits offered by countries like Qatar, China, Singapore and Malaysia for returning experts and expatriates are anything to go by, the “War for Talent”, a term coined by research giant McKinsey & Company in 1997, is still going strong despite the global economic slowdown.

But 13 years after the term was coined, the landscape of the war has greatly changed. Most notably, the “weapons” used to attract talents have changed.

While salary packages and fringe benefits used to be one of the most powerful magnets for talent, it may not be enough in the current human resource climate.

Dr Tan: ‘When you have the brains or energy, you want to go to the best place to learn from the best’ >>
David Lee, author of the Insights: The Journal of the Northeast HR Association article titled “Becoming a Talent Magnet: How to Attract and Retain Great Employees”, says that competitive pay and a good benefits package although important are not enough to attract and retain “the best of the best”.

Quoting a study by another US consulting firm Kepner-Tregoe of Princeton, Lee, an executive coach and founder of US consulting and training firm HumanNature@Work, points out that 40% of the employees surveyed felt that increased salaries and financial rewards were ineffective in reducing turnover.

Hence, the vital question for most human resource managers and national talent development organisations is “What are the world's best looking for?”

Lee says the proverbial carrot lies in the intangible, such as pride in where they work and what they do, appreciation from their managers, opportunities to learn and grow as well as respect.

Interviews with Malaysian diasporas and experts who have returned seem to support the trend.

Although many of them acknowledge that salary packages and career prospects matter, it is often not a deal breaker when it comes to their decision to remain abroad or return home.

Wong: ‘If Malaysia wants to attract talents, it must be able to provide a conducive environment’ >>
One of the main attractions for talents is the environment for them to develop and excel in their fields of interest.

When Kuala Lumpur-born consultant psychiatrist and analytic psychotherapist Dr Tan Eng-Kong left for a sabbatical in Australia in 1976, he knew he would get to work with some of the best psychiatrists in the world.

“At that time, Australia invited the best of American and British psychiatrists to its country, and I was lucky to be able to take a sabbatical from lecturing in Sydney,” says Dr Tan, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently.

As he found greater opportunities to practise his field of interest psychotherapy in Australia, he chose to stay there and build his career.

“In those days, the field of psychotherapy was not developed yet in Malaysia. So, I had to stay back in Australia just to practise,” says Dr Tan, who has now spent over 30 years building a successful career in Sydney.

While psychotherapy is currently gaining popularity among local mental health professionals, Dr Tan still feels it is more popular and better received in the West.

“When you have the brains or energy, you want to go to the best place to learn from the best,” says Dr Tan, who still visits Malaysia regularly to share his expertise with local mental health professionals.

Dr Lam Wei-Haur, who has just come back under the returning experts programme (REP) after spending six years in Britain and two years in China doing research in ocean renewable energy, shares a similar experience.

“Funding for research at a post-graduate level was limited when I finished my undergraduate studies in 2001. I was lucky to obtain a scholarship to further my studies in the UK,” says Lam, who is now an associate professor in Universiti Malaya's department of civil engineering.

Although the tax cuts and benefits made the transition back to Malaysia easier, I came back because I felt I could contribute more to my field of research back home. - DR LAM WEI-HAUR >>

“However, after six years of research in the UK, I wanted to learn about the system of research and development in China,” he adds.

Lam, who is in his 30s, says he came back because he felt he would be able to contribute more to the field of ocean energy in Malaysia.

“Although the tax cuts and benefits such as a permanent residentship offer for my spouse made the transition back to Malaysia easier, the reason I came back is because I felt that I could contribute more to my field of research here, back home,” he explains.

There may be more established research institutions and teams overseas but having the opportunity to work with researchers in a developing nation such as Malaysia is like “sketching on a white piece of paper” for him.

On worries that Malaysia may not have sufficient funding and infrastructure for research, Dr Lam says researchers have to look for opportunities themselves.

“Our Government is now very supportive of scientific research and there are a number of sources researchers can go to for grants. We must understand that opportunities do not come to us if we do not make an effort to ask or look for it,” he stresses.

While Dr Hood Azlan Mohd Thabit, 35, is determined to return to Malaysia to continue his research in endocrinology (specifically in diabetes) after his post-graduate research in Cambridge, he agrees that the base country of a scientist or researcher is of marginally less importance compared to the research network and collaborations he could forge with other researchers around the world.

“It is very difficult for an individual or group to do research on its own, not just because the world is more globalised now, but because it is so easy to collaborate through the Internet, they have no excuse not to,” he says.

While certain countries have established infrastructure for research, others have the human resource and expertise, he adds.

“Personally, it is really for the satisfaction of doing what you do. And coming home, for most people, is about whether they can continue their work in a meaningful way,” says Dr Hood.

For corporate social responsibility (CSR) consultant Wong Lai Yong, who hails from Penang, the location of her base country does not matter as long as she is able to contribute to society from where she is.

Since she first volunteered to read to the blind in primary school, community service has been in her blood. Today, she continues to serve the people around her by spreading her knowledge on childcare development and social entrepreneurship based on her experiences in Japan.

“I've always realised that education is the best way to bring people out of poverty, so I think about the ways I can help bring education to people who have no access to primary education. That is why I have never confined my contributions to Malaysia alone,” says the cheerful 39-year-old.

She does not plan to return to Malaysia in the near future but even so, she visits regularly to share her knowledge.

“If Malaysia wants to attract talents, it must be able to provide a supportive and conducive environment for these talents to perform and contribute,” she says.

“We might not be able to compete with many developed nations in terms of salary and benefits, but we can offer Malaysian diasporas the comfort of home and the company of their family members.”

Malaysian transplant

Carol Lamb calls herself a transplanted Malaysian, having settled down in the United States in the 1980s. Lamb, who now runs communication firm Fantastic International Inc in Atlanta, says she is often asked in social circles where she is from.

“How do I convey that I am from a country surrounded by glistening islands with white sandy beaches, tropical rainforests with unique animal and plant life, cool mountain ranges with quaint villages, tall skyscrapers with world-class shopping, a fusion of Asia and British rule? I decided to build my own website and affiliate with one of the biggest online travel booking engines on the Internet,,” she tells.

With the help of Tourism Malaysia and its New York office, she travelled back to Malaysia and wrote about exciting tourist attractions and sites. The concept of medical tourism caught her attention and she is now helping to promote Malaysia as a health tourism destination among Americans.

“The number of Americans going to Malaysia is small. This is the reason why I created the Global Marketing Network'. I promote medical facilities that are in Malaysia at exhibitions around the US.

“Malaysian medical facilities need to be seen. Malaysia also needs to be on the lips and minds of people thinking about having surgery abroad. What better way to do this than participating in exhibitions?

“Additionally, most Americans do not know that Malaysia used to be a British colony. They are also unaware that English is widely spoken, the country has great infrastructure, fantastic beaches, awesome hotels, scrumptious food and is multi-racial and multi-cultural.

“Who better to explain all this face-to-face than a Malaysian who knows the country well?”

 Weaving a win-win web

BUILDING a global Malaysian diaspora network might seem like a colossal task but after the encouraging response entrepreneur Winston Choe received for the first diaspora meetup he planned in Silicon Valley, he is convinced that it may not be as difficult as it seems.

He had put out the word on the meetup he planned to link Malaysian technology companies with professionals and investors in the US in December, and was pleasantly surprised when he found over 80 Malaysians in the San Fransisco Bay Area, many of whom he had not met during the years he lived there.

“What I did was send the word out over the Internet through Facebook pages, LinkedIn groups and e-mail lists about the meetup. Within two weeks, we had to increase our initial cap of 30 people to 50,” said Choe, a Petaling-Jaya born CEO of his own business networking software company in Silicon Valley.

In fact, the meetup sponsored by Talent Corporation Malaysia (TalentCorp) that features the topic “Malaysian Tech Sector Opportunities” has attracted 80 interested participants, but Choe had to limit his audience to ensure quality interaction.

“I am greatly encouraged by the initial feedback and am confident that the next one will easily attract at least 100 people,” he said via Skype.

The idea of a meetup in Silicon Valley came up when Choe was in Malaysia in October for a workshop organised by TalentCorp.

“This meetup is a follow-up to the workshop we did in Kuala Lumpur in October,” said Choe, who is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs build their businesses.

“My goal is to allow professionals (in Silicon Valley) to explore cross border opportunities between the United States and Asia,” he added.

Before the meetup, held at the Intel Santa Clara campus, Choe had selected four MSC companies and coached them to make a 15-minute business presentation to Silicon Valley professionals and investors. At the meetup, he also presented a win-win model for Malaysian diasporas to contribute to various sectors in Malaysia.

“After the workshop in Kuala Lumpur, we realised that what Malaysian start-ups need most are funding, market access and global partners,” said Choe.

The win-win model he suggested is focused on enhancing these three aspects for Malaysian companies as well as professionals and investors abroad.

In terms of funding, Malaysian diaspora with successful business ventures can introduce Malaysian companies to investors in the West, and Malaysian companies can reciprocate by introducing them to investors in Asia.

“While Malaysian diaspora can help Malaysian companies access the US market, Malaysian companies can serve as a gateway for them to access the Asian market.

“What we are trying to do now is to build a global (Malaysian) diaspora network with physical meetups, workshops and also online social tools, and our objective is to accelerate various sectors in Malaysia, starting with infotech,” he said.

As a result of the meetup, Choe made eight qualified introductions between professionals at the workshop and three MSC companies that presented that day.

A LinkedIn group has also been set up to connect participants of the workshop.

“A few participants have expressed interest in helping me organise more of such meetups,” said Choe.

With their help, Choe's goal in 2012 is to organise similar meetups across the world in cities such as New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, Melbourne and even Singapore.

“This represents about 80% of the Malaysian diaspora population, and we hope that they can take this platform and replicate it,” said Choe.

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