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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Retaining And Wooing Talent To Our Campuses

[Personal note: University of Malaya’s precipitous decline in the latest ranking of the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) generated much public discussions. I am re-posting some of my earlier (ten years ago) essays on the state of our universities, making only minor editorial changes. I have highlighted and put in parentheses the parts edited out in the original publication.]

Retaining And Wooing Talent On Our Campuses

[This essay was first published in the Saturday Forum, The New Straits Times, November 25, 1995]

Our public universities are continually losing their best talent to the private sector. Merely changing the governance of these institutions through privatization, as proposed recently, will not improve the situation. Our universities can considerably reduce this “brain drain” by adopting some of the innovative programs successfully used by Western institutions.

First, reduce the disparity in pay between the academic and private sectors by allowing faculty members to do private consulting work, or by providing them with market allowances.

Second, augment the academic staff by appointing private sector experts as Adjunct or Clinical Professors.

Third, establish International Tract appointments with globally attractive salaries to entice world class academicians in disciplines badly needed in the country.

Before expanding on these ideas, it is helpful to remember that in dealing with highly talented individuals whose skills are in demand worldwide, our universities must be flexible and accommodating. Dismissing those who leave as greedy or unpatriotic does not solve the problem.

Let me illustrate this with a recent example. A Malaysian with a PhD in the “hot” field of microelectronics from a top American university returned home. He had numerous publications and patents to his credit. Instead of capitalizing on his abilities, his department head forced him to teach an introductory calculus class – a colossal waste of talent! With no support from his university, he soon left. For the nation, this was a lost opportunity!

[Compare that to an engineer friend of mine who was recently wooed by the National University of Singapore (NUS). Although NUS offered a superior salary and academic title, the individual was reluctant to relocate his family from America. NUS compromised by giving him a part-time appointment so he could retain his American job and academic ties. NUS would fly him first class to Singapore for two weeks every three months and provide him with local accommodation.

Malaysia would need similar innovative and flexible arrangements to lure top talent.]

Income Incentives

Malaysian universities could adopt the American-style market allowances to compensate those academics whose skills are in great demand by the private sector. An advisory committee of academic and private sector experts would decide the disciplines that would qualify, as well as the level of allowances. Review these incentives periodically. In this way, the university could decide later that due to excess supply and lower pay discrepancy, to remove certain disciplines, or conversely add new ones. The advantage of a market allowance over a general salary increase is that the university would not be burdened by a permanent increase in fixed costs (salaries). You could adjust allowances easily, but it would be difficult if not impossible to reduce salaries. Besides being cheaper and selective, these allowances could be readily adjusted to meet changing market circumstances.

Presently there is no need for market allowances for experts in History or Islamic Studies. This does not imply that the university does not value these experts, rather the allowance is designed to minimize the loss of academic talent to the private sector. If there were to be an increased market demand for experts in Islamic Jurisprudence, then it too would qualify for the incentives. Meanwhile, why spend money on a problem that does not exist.

Instead of or even in addition to the market allowance, our universities could also permit their faculty members to supplement their income through part-time consulting work. A Professor of English could work with local newspapers to improve the writing skills of their journalists, or be a consulting editor to the various publishing houses. Professors of Medicine could do private practice, and Management Professors could lend their expertise to various corporations. The lists and opportunities are endless. There would have to be guidelines to avoid conflict of interest and interference with academic duties.

The individual’s talent and industry would determine how much he or she would earn. We could modify the plan to benefit the university. One suggestion would be for the professor to share with his department 25 percent of the extra income (after costs), and 10 percent with the university.

The community would benefit immensely from this rapid diffusion of skills from the universities. The academics too would benefit from having their skills and ideas tested in the real world, thereby enhancing their professionalism and research credibility.

Adjunct And Clinical Professors

Our universities could supplement their academic staff by appointing private sector experts as Adjunct or Clinical (for medical specialists) Professors. We could usefully tap the expertise of many Malaysians with outstanding abilities, talent, and experience currently working at the Rubber Research Institute, Institute for Medical Research, private firms, and consulting companies. Many of these experts are former academics. The university could not hope to offer them comparable salaries to be full-time faculty members. It can however acquire their services by making them as clinical or adjunct professors. For a nominal pay (nominal as compared to their regular income) they could commit a portion of their time to the university by teaching, conducting seminars, or doing research.

To be successful, these part-timers must be treated equally in terms of their academic privileges lest they would feel unwelcome or as second-class faculty.

These outside experts would also provide much-needed practical perspectives to the academic program. I envision the Governor of Bank Negara lecturing on monetary policies, and experienced trial lawyers conducting moot courts. For those individuals whose qualifications and experiences do not merit a full professorship, substitute a lesser academic title. These part-timers would be wonderful resources for students seeking employment as well as be excellent role models. On many American campuses, over half of the faculty members in certain departments are adjunct or clinical appointments.

International Tract Appointments

The present pay scale at local universities attracts only Third World academics. To widen the pool, we need to raise it substantially. Under the present economic condition, buoyant though it may be, it is unlikely for the Government to agree to a substantial raise. Our universities could however have a few selective Distinguished Professorships that would pay globally attractive salaries to attract top talent in disciplines that are desperately needed. By globally attractive, I mean a salary range in excess of RM250K annually [1995 figures; today I would put it at least RM 400K], together with matching funding for research.

These professors would of course have to teach in their own language, usually English. With the proposed easing on the use of English in universities, this should pose no problem with respect to our national language policy.

To the argument that paying a top scholar RM250K is too expensive, consider this. That individual would spend half of it on housing and living expenses, a third on income tax, and a tenth on transportation and incidentals. He would be lucky to have RM30K left to remit home.

Contrast that with our present policy of sending students by the thousands abroad at an annual cost of about RM120K per student. That money is totally lost from the country, with no spillover to the local economy. Thus in terms of actual loss of foreign exchange, it is considerably more expensive to send a student abroad than to have a Distinguished Professor in Malaysia.

The spin-offs and the benefits to the country from the diffusion of skills and expertise from these world-class talents would be immense. These professors would in effect be our academic seeds and catalysts. Taiwan successfully lured a Nobel laureate from UC Berkeley to head its ambitious Chemistry Institute. The economic benefits of such high caliber research are immeasurable. Singapore’s Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology spawned many joint ventures with leading biotechnology companies.

The university could assign local junior faculty members to be understudies or as post doc fellows to these distinguished professors. These professors would be our contacts to the leading universities of the world. We could in turn send our best students to these institutions for graduate studies, or start collaborative academic and research programs.

These International Tract appointments would not be part of the regular establishment. They should be open to all, and if Malaysians qualify, so much the better. Nationality should not be a factor in the selection – only academic criterion.

The key to success with this program is in the careful selection of the appropriate candidate. The right scholar, far from inciting resentment and envy from his local colleagues, would instead inspire them to greater heights. Many years ago, a local university appointed an expatriate Professor of Surgery, an individual complete with his British knighthood. Unfortunately, this gentleman was past his professional prime and thus could not contribute much to his department.

The ideal candidate would be someone in his early 40s or 50s, already a full professor at a leading institution and has solid record of scholarly and research accomplishments. How can we entice such individuals? We appeal to their sense of adventure in meeting new challenges, and altruism in helping another nation. More importantly, we must assure them generous research funding. With their children already grown up and a salary scheme that would not result in a diminution of their living standard, an academic appointment in Malaysia would be an easy sell. Besides, Western universities have generous leave-of-absence policies; thus these individuals need not sever their academic ties to their former institutions.

In addition to these Distinguished Professorships, our universities could establish less remunerative positions to attract less known but still eminently qualified up-and-coming academics. In America there are thousands of excellent PhDs who are languishing from one post-doc position to another, unable to secure a permanent appointment. With the abolishment of mandatory retirement, academic vacancies in America are scarce. With the proper pay and incentives, we could easily entice these individuals to Malaysia.

In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, with their crumbling economies, there are many under-employed scientists and artists. To them, a Malaysian pay scale would be quite attractive. Many, especially the Poles and Russians, are proficient in English. Besides, for disciplines that are desperately needed in Malaysia (physical sciences, engineering, Information Technology, fine arts, music), the language barrier is easily surmountable.

We have greatly improved our standard of professional soccer by introducing experienced foreign players and coaches. Similarly, we have enhanced the management skills in our country by allowing expatriate senior executives to work in Malaysia. Malaysia Airlines would not have expanded and captured its present market share had it depended only on local pilots and mechanics. Our universities too should not be averse in having foreign academicians.

By adopting innovative incentives and by being flexible and accommodating, our universities would not only retain their present talent, but more importantly, attract new ones.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


such a fate that i only read this article 10 years after it was published (i was studying in UK back in 1995, very young and ... you know the rest)

just wondering, have you ever received any feedbacks from local academicians since then, what are their thoughts and opinions regarding this matter since i assume this will involve them, after all, some of them will become more of an administrator than researcher or teacher eventually

3:27 PM  

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