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Should Malaysia offer dual citizenship to plug brain drain?

Experts say it could benefit a significant diaspora of Malaysians living overseas, notwithstanding concern over the question of loyalty to king and country.

3 minute read

Experts have urged the Malaysian government to consider dual citizenship as a solution to its long-standing brain drain, following a proposal by Indonesia to solve a similar problem in the country.

Concern over brain drain – the emigration of skilled workers from a particular country – has long been voiced in Malaysia.

A 2022 study by the statistics department under the economy ministry found that most Malaysian workers in Singapore and Brunei are either skilled or semi-skilled.

Statistics also showed 66.7% of respondents in Singapore received salaries ranging from S$1,500 (RM5,300) to S$3,599 (RM12,800), and 18.5% received salaries of between S$3,600 (RM12,800) and S$9,999 (RM35,600).

Meanwhile, for those working in Brunei, 41.3% of respondents receive monthly gross salaries between BND1,000 (RM3,500) and BND3,000 (RM10,700), and 43.5% receive between BND3,001 (RM10,700) and BND10,000 (RM35,600).

Last year, the government put Malaysia's brain drain rate at 5.5% of the total population or about 1.86 million Malaysians – higher than the 3.3% global average. Of the 1.86 million, 1.13 million were working in Singapore.

The government has launched several initiatives to address the problem. 

In 2011, it set up TalentCorp Group, an agency under the human resources ministry to deal with efforts to bring back Malaysians living and working abroad. According to its CEO Thomas Matthew, over 6,000 professionals have returned to Malaysia since the agency was established.

The government also introduced the Malaysia My Second Home programme, which aims to attract foreigners to reside in Malaysia on a long-term basis.

Adrian Pereira said that offering dual citizenship would not only encourage Malaysians to stay, but also attract a new pool of foreign talent.

"But this needs to be accompanied by a transformation into global citizens, respecting world views and the values of equality, diversity, inclusion, and non-discrimination.

"Otherwise, we will repel talents due to archaic world views," said Pereira, of the North-South Initiative, a Malaysian-based organisation that aims to promote sustainable development in developing countries.

Within Asean, Malaysia is among six countries out of 11 that do not allow dual citizenship.

According to Article 24(1) of the Federal Constitution, the government can deprive a person of his citizenship if the person has acquired the citizenship of any other country by registration, naturalisation, or other voluntary and formal acts.

The five other Asean countries that follow this practice are Myanmar, Laos, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei.

However, Indonesia last week proposed dual citizenship for former Indonesian nationals living overseas, according to a senior Cabinet minister, citing the need for their skills and talents.

Bina Ramanand, co-founder of Family Frontiers, said a significant diaspora of Malaysians living overseas could benefit from dual citizenship.

She said concern about dual citizenship was one of the challenges that her organisation had observed in terms of granting citizenship to the overseas-born children of Malaysian mothers.

"We've observed instances where applications for citizenship for overseas-born children have been denied, particularly when their mothers hold permanent resident (PR) status.

"These circumstances prompt important questions, particularly regarding the treatment of Malaysian women with PR status. It's crucial to emphasise that holding PR in another country should not be equated with a lack of allegiance or loyalty to Malaysia," she said.

Bina was referring to the laws that allow citizenship only for the overseas-born children of Malaysian fathers, which were amended to include automatic citizenship for the overseas-born children of Malaysian mothers.

Critics of dual citizenship however point to the question of loyalty to king and country if individuals are allowed to hold citizenships other than that of Malaysia.

But Bina said that Malaysians overseas hold PR status because they refuse to give up their Malaysian citizenship.

For Pereira, meanwhile, a globalised world with families across borders for many people means the question of loyalty does not arise.

"We will lose out on a lot of talent which is desperately needed for economic and social development. I am sure there will be some reasonable rules and regulations to accompany this, so policymakers should be open to this," he said.

For activist Siti Rahayu Baharin, who fights for the rights of stateless children, though, dual citizenship is not a priority at the moment.

"Dual citizenship is not something that Malaysia should look at. For now, we need to think of how to improve citizenship matters so that no one is stateless in Malaysia," she said.