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Stopping the Brain-Drain

Brain-drain is a phenomenon commonly faced by developing countries around the world when their skilled citizens leave in search of greener pastures. 

These countries often find themselves in a predicament, having spent their resources to groom the talents of their citizens and nurturing them into the future engines of prosperity and growth.

Yet to their dismay, these citizens often leave the country in pursuit of better opportunities overseas, taking with them the promise of their talent. For countries with budding, open or vulnerable economies and few resources, like those in Southeast Asia, brain-drain is a phenomenon few are equipped to handle.

While the migrant’s native country may still get to enjoy the economic benefits derived from remittance, there are costs as well. For instance, these native countries or so-called ‘sending countries’, could become over-reliant on these migrants as a funding source and neglect the development of socio-economic infrastructure at home.

Migration can also have far-reaching consequences on social and psychological levels especially when the migrants are living far away from home. This may make them more susceptible to depression and other mental health issues.

This is a major cause for concern for their home countries as their poorly developed healthcare infrastructures at home may not be equipped to manage.

And this is not an issue that plagues only countries in the ASEAN region. Other members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) such as Spain, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Ireland, also face brain-drain.

So, what are the underlying contributing factors of brain-drain, and what can be done to slow or even reverse its growth in these countries? We look to case studies of East Asia, namely, Taiwan and Hong Kong, for some ideas.

How to attract and retain talent 

Contrary to its negative connotations, there are governmental policies which can be enacted to help overcome the immediate effects of brain-drain.

Policies which encourage the inflow of highly-skilled workers from overseas to help counteract the loss of a skilled workforce can be put in place, while policies that promise better opportunities for citizens who choose to return can also be established. This can allow the home country to harness the overseas experiences gained by their citizens, which would be a boon to the country’s economic development.

But these policies may only mitigate the effects of brain-drain in the short-term. More will need to be done to win over foreign talents and stop locals from migrating overseas. To this end, there are a few things that can be done, such as:

  • Provide vibrant economic opportunities


On studying the brain-drain phenomenon, it becomes clear that many choose to leave their home country because of the lack of economic opportunities.

89% of respondents in a Taiwan survey cited low salaries as a key push factor for them to seek employment abroad. Many educated Taiwanese are also choosing to relocate up north, attracted by better career opportunities in China.

Similarly, Hong Kong youths are choosing to relocate to escape their overcrowded and land-scarce city. With skyrocketing housing prices, many simply feel unable to make a decent living and helpless as to how best to enhance their living arrangements.

To counter brain-drain, countries need to assess: is the economy vibrant?; are there sufficient jobs and opportunities for citizens from every walk of life? are the conditions enough for them to thrive and flourish?

  • Foster a stable and welcoming socio-political environment



In a 2016 Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) survey, 10.35% of locals cited Hong Kong’s political and social cleavages as a push factor. They are drawn to Taiwan’s vibrant democratic culture, with 16.3% citing it as their most preferred destination.

Against this backdrop of political instability in Hong Kong and around the world, a stable, safe and welcoming socio-political environment holds enhanced appeal. In order to retain local talent and attract foreign talent, countries would do well to maintain a predictable and functioning political environment.

Political stability undergirds economic growth and gives local and foreign talent the assurance that the country is on a clear path for sustainable development. Governments must continue to invest in efforts to secure socio-political stability and give local and foreign talents alike confidence in the country’s future.

  • Build a strong sense of national identity


Finally, governments would be short-sighted to ignore the consequences of persistent talent flight over the longer term, particularly its impact on nation-building.

Beijing demonstrated a clear understanding of the implications of brain-drain when it made it easier for Taiwanese firms and individuals to work in China while facilitating the flow of mainlanders into Hong Kong. The hope is that eventually, Taiwan and Hong Kong will forge a stronger national identity as a part of the Chinese community.

To encourage talent to return, Singapore and other countries concerned about brain-drain must ensure that their citizens feel a strong sense of national identity and rootedness. To this end, it is critical for governments to build a strong culture and understanding among the populace about the value of citizenship.

There is no single antidote, but national identity is key

These lessons from Hong Kong and Taiwan teach us that there is a myriad of push and pull factors driving brain-drain.

And there is no silver bullet that will turn the tide in this growing phenomenon. In Singapore, where the outflow and inflow of migrants have become the norm, the government has increasingly recognised the importance of building a strong national identity.

That said, nation-building is an ongoing process. For young nations facing the threat of brain-drain, the continuing consolidation of a national identity which fosters a strong sense of rootedness may hold the key to drawing local talent back home someday.

This article has been adapted from an earlier commentary: "Behind the brain drain in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, stymied aspiratons and growing rootlessnes" by Dr Yew Chiew Ping, Head of Contemporary China Studies Minor, School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).


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