Yesterday, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced that returning Malaysian professionals would be eligible for a flat rate of 15% income tax for five years. Now there are many problems with this idea.
Firstly, by implementing this 15% income tax flat rate, the government will be alienating those who had returned before this. Those who returned earlier will not be eligible for this benefit, and will definitely feel discriminated against. On top of that, the real patriots who are eager to serve the country, those who have returned to Malaysia right after their studies/ training, those who are in fact most deserving of a reward, will be ignored. All this creates a sense of injustice, and a flaw in logic is apparent- those who are not rewarded are perhaps more deserving? It is the traffic summons case all over again, where dutiful citizens are sidelined while irresponsible offenders are rewarded for paying up late. Where is the logic, the justice in this?
At the same time, the income tax flat rate is not an effective incentive, because of 3Ps- Prospects, Politics and Patriotism.
The first P is Prospects. When people settle in a country, they do not look at one, two, or for that matter, five years. They look at their long term prospects, their chances at enhancing their skills, getting promoted, gaining recognition etc. The 15% income tax incentive is a stopgap measure, an artificial and superficial plug that does not stop brain drain at its roots ( or holes since its a leak?). There have been many cases where patriotic citizens return to serve their country, only to find that despite their qualifications and skills, they are sidelined for those less capable. An acquaintance of mine has been a doctor for over 20 years, and has applied to become a specialist for more than ten years. And yet, his requests are constantly ignored, and when he pressed for an explanation, the senior official simply replied that he stood out too much and its not good to be too hardworking, makes the rest of the service look bad. His is not an isolated case. With little hope of career advancement, with much advanced R&D facilities abroad, and local opportunities to sharpen one's skills being denied, one can only wonder why some choose to continue working abroad.
The second P is Politics. In a country where racism and corruption is so ingrained into national policies, many capable men and women are disgusted at the injustices the country suffers from. From the incessant leaks at Parliament, to the insensitive and barbaric remarks made inside and outside the House; from the infringement and violation of Orang Asli rights, to the dirty, filthy money politics that continues- many professionals are frustrated and saddened, to the point that they have all but given up on Malaysia. 'Leave Malaysia!' they say ' before we all become maids in Indonesia!' Personally, I am of the opinion that their frustration should be channeled into helping Malaysia become a better place, but for the purpose of this essay I shall refrain from divulging into that. In any case, their disappointment in what Malaysia has become is another strong deterrent from their return.
The third P is Patriotism. Not Patriotism per se, but rather a sense of gratitude. Many of our young brilliant minds feel that they do not owe gratitude to Malaysia, and I cannot find it in myself to blame them. Consider the case of one of my friends. At the age of 15, he was the top scholar in my school. An outstanding fellow, he excelled in sports, academics, and leadership roles- he was the love of every teacher and the envy of every other guy who wanted to become half as good as him ( yours sincerely included). He then proceeded to apply to several scholarships, but of course he was rejected by all but one .... none other than our good neighbours Singapore. He is now an ASEAN scholar, and in the O Levels, he was one of the top students in the entire nation of Singapore. Singapore has given him and many of his outstanding Malaysian peers, education, recognition and opportunities, and is continuing to do so. The other day, I met a young woman from who just got her degree in Yale, and is now pursuing her Masters under the financial aid of ... none other than... Singapore! She has also been offered a PR. Who do you think is responsible for the production of such talents? ( and no, I don't mean reproduction.) Who do you think these young minds feel indebted to? Malaysia, or Singapore? And by no means, does being called traitors and unpatriotic make them feel any more affection for the country that failed to appreciate their ability.
And so, the tax incentive is not only an ineffective measure, it also self-defeating in its purpose to instill a sense of belonging and patriotism in those working abroad. It also fails to address the key issues that are at the roots of the Malaysian brain drain. Attractive it may seem, it is definitely a rose with many thorns . In fact, it's one of those roses which looks like a rose, smells like a rose, but in actual fact, is NOT a rose. ( Ah, so it's a Lingam rose? Korek korek korek!)