Brunei’s brain drain

Abdul Malik Omar

The debate on Brunei’s brain drain has again hit a feverish pitch since Hardware Zone published a post entitled “Very severe brain drain as Brunei falls into decline, talented Bruneians leaving the country“. Citizens like myself are only too indifferent to the negativity surrounding the subject but it kind of begs the question: Why do many of the talented and skilled Bruneians leave the country?

So I made a social experiment on Facebook, asking the local audience if they would choose to renounce their Bruneian citizenship for an American one with $10,000 ‘start-up’ living capital or if they would maintain their citizenship status as it is under the Shariah objectives that the country’s heading toward. What I’ve got was a fairly decent and balanced reply. Most would maintain their citizenship on the basis of familial ties, comfort and security. One argued that there’s beauty in Shariah law, a perfect law given to humanity by providence.

And… some others equated my monetary statement to being heartless, as one can’t replace his family with that $10,000, or along the lines of “you are a traitor for even thinking that!”. Anyhow, this is expected.

The point of the question is to gauge and challenge the basic beliefs of locals that renouncing one’s citizenship is not bad at all. Instead of looking at that process under a negative light, or to call it the pathway for ‘traitors’, we should treat it as a key to our survival and growth. Because we are living in a modernized world, everyone is going ‘international’ and we should not ignore the fact that those who work abroad will attain the right position and skill sets to bring about real change.

The fundamental idea of going international was cemented by Australia billionaire Lindsay Fox after he advised Bruneians, in a UBD talk, to leave the country for five years to learn the ‘ropes of the new trade’ before coming back and building it up for the better. Though five years might be extended into decades, will the locals come back to help once oil and gas is gone? You bet most of them would.

The second point is to respect others’ decision in achieving a better living standard elsewhere. If the local institutions cannot accommodate their needs then it is up to them to renounce their citizenship – this is a globalised world after all. No one is ever morally indebted to anyone, let alone the government. Do realize that how much money has been ‘lost’ over those doctors, it is up to their choice to lead their lives for the better (as long as they pay their monetary debts). Preaching for nationalism and philosophy is over for these citizens. As Abraham Maslow put it: Humans main motivation is in self-actualization. Without the framework for personal growth, other countries will snatch citizens and utilize their skills in reward for greater pay, promotion and lifestyle. This decision should be respected.

Thirdly, there’s little study made over the motivation to renounce citizenship. Without adequate knowledge and understanding, the calls for them to come back is only hot air to them. It is thus quite right to speculate that Brunei does not offer better opportunity for self-growth, the right political framework to give representation for the middle class, the right markets to scale their business or provide the right educational facilities for their children. To compare Brunei’s general economy to that of the US or Indonesia… Well, you can’t. The latter countries win, and it is this mindset that will be taken not only by Bruneian entrepreneurs but by the institutional investors and businesses out there alike.

Why is the writer writing this article? Well, to share an oft-forgotten insight that ex-citizens are not traitors, back-stabbers or ingrates. To have this mindset is to let rule decision makers to confine the people within their comfort zones and not let them meet the challenges posed by global competition.

This inevitably leads to my next point: Future scholarship students should not bear the brunt for those seniors who did not return back home. I don’t accept the MMI interview process. I don’t accept the point of how it will qualify those who will be “loyal” or “best fit to serve” the country. What this does is to reduce the number of Bruneian scholars. And I find it repulsive to see, given the need for development. On the contrary, we should do best in sending more and more each year. Yes, there may be problems once in a while, but it does not help reducing and squeezing the potential simply because of citizenship renunciation.

If the writer was given authority, he’d devise a policy whereby scholarship students who opted to stay and work outside the country to be given a 10 year payback period on the scholarship-turned-loan. It will not be that hard for them to pay it back, considering the bigger opportunity they will gain through working abroad, i.e. greater salary, benefits etc.

Why should decision makers tolerate brain drain now? Thus the whole article is dedicated on answering this question(as written above).

To conclude, I believe that the negative mindset towards Bruneians leaving the country and renouncing their citizenship for the better should change, that they are rational-thinking adults who are not impressed by tradition, nationalism or existing philosophy but look to meet their needs for self-actualization.

Locals and especially decision makers should learn to understand the motive. If they realize the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’, they might do the same too – as I hope you would too. Furthermore, I find it repulsive to see the damaging trend that is being done to the upcoming scholars. This should change. I believe that internationalizing Bruneians is the best step towards achieving long-term progress and survival. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we can build Brunei effectively.

Being Bruneian, after all, is more than just paperwork.

One response to “Brunei’s brain drain”

  1. anonymous says :

    A very well-thought out essay. And I agree with all your points. Now, the sooner officials in Brunei realise that inciting nationalism/patriotism doesn’t work, the better. But I doubt they will ever “get it”.

    Its not just about salaries. Its living in a country where there is no free press, accountable government, laws that allow detention without trial, no freedom of expression. The enacted Sharia law states that you must obey the Sultan. And within the constitution, the Sultan is above the law. In Brunei, he is effectively God. And you wonder why some of us are concerned?

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