On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Facing up to the competition


CHINESE New Year will be very different this year. The traditional reunion dinner will see our only child missing from the table – she is away studying overseas.

My elderly parents have decided to remain in Penang, our hometown, this time instead of joining us.

My brothers have their own family plans and at least one is travelling. It will certainly be a little quieter this time around.

But modern technology is keeping us all informed, connected and closer with distance becoming merely a matter of the mind.

Over the last few hours as I was writing this column, my daughter has kept me informed via SMS and e-mail about her whereabouts and her meals with other Malaysians in London.

Through MSN Messenger we are able to converse, via my computer and my Blackberry, in any place and at any time. With the little built-in camera on my electronic tools, we are able to see each other on real-time video.

The world, in the words of writer Thomas Friedman, has certainly become flatter, where travelling has become easier and faster, and the explosion of technologies is demonstrating how knowledge and resources are connecting all over as never before.

For the first time, as he pointed out, individuals could become publishers through the Internet, making their work accessible worldwide with just a click.

Those of us in our late 40s and above would recall how we had to use the public telephone in campus to call home to wish our parents during CNY if we were abroad, and a visit home would mean the end of our university studies.

For Malaysians at the embassies or campus hostels, it meant reading Malaysian newspapers that were two weeks old.

There was no such thing as mobile phones, Skype, or budget airlines like Air Asia, which literally made airline travelling cheap. For many Malaysian students, returning home to get a job and to reunite with family members was essential.

But the world has changed. The operative word, according to Friedman in his latest book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, is “new” and that any preoccupation with things past has become irrelevant.

Unfortunately, many of us in Malaysia seem to fall into this meaningless category where we still spend time debating ourselves silly over dust-covered historical documents. Unfortunately, the reality is that the world waits for no one.

New approaches vital

International financial expert Mohamad El-Erian in his book, When Markets Collide, warned governments that as we move towards a new destination, existing infrastructures and systems would be pressured, including governments who must now address difficult policy changes. Outmoded approaches, in short, must go.

Indian nationals are operating from call centres in Indian towns, answering queries from American customers relating to their bills and products; while in Dalian, China, Japanese-speaking staff are doing the same work.

From Malaysia, futures traders work from their homes, from midnight onwards, on the American market.

For many young Malaysians, this is a place where they are born and would return regularly. It would be their permanent address but they will work in China, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Vietnam, London, New York and Dubai.

They regard themselves as Malaysians, carry their Malaysian passports and are proud of their homeland; but in the eyes of the young people, the world has become a global village. It has become small and flat, not in the physical but in the digital sense.

Who would have thought that Iceland could be hit by the global economic crisis, with thousands of British citizens having their money stuck in Icelandic banks, which was deposited via Internet.

The point is this – getting our best Malaysian minds home from overseas would be tougher. Forget about the brain drain.

Let’s face it – we can’t compete with major countries in terms of career opportunities and salaries. If we still cannot get our political act together, we can only slide further and discourage our talents from coming home.

No one should be allowed to miss a career promotion because of his race. It is not right and we can argue over its merits but time waits for no one. Either our best remain overseas or we create and allow the conditions to let them come back so that Malaysia will remain a competitive country that is taken seriously.

Malaysia should never be a place for cheap, unskilled labour from Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Vietnam and Pakistan.

The proposal that Malaysia allows dual citizenship should not be dismissed as many countries have that option. It is not a question of loyalty but a matter of opportunities.

In times of crisis, as the Chinese say, there can also be opportunities. For that to be fruitful, it means we must always keep an open mind.