Living in an Integrated Regional Economy: Tackling Regional Brain Waste and Brain Drain

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2022, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to innovation and investment, digital economy, and regional mobility.

The circulation of workforce has indeed brought positive impact towards ASEAN Member States (AMS), such as through remittances, among others, which has generated positive outcomes in economic growth. Take remittances of the Philippines’ migrant workers, for instance, which generates 9.3% of the country’s overall gross domestic product (GDP), and the two variables positively impact each other. However, one shall not overlook the downsides, which includes the phenomena of regional brain waste and brain drain as most chose to migrate extra-regionally. By examining the proportion of high-skilled individuals within AMS migrating extra-regionally and the alignment between their education and job in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries, this article will try to showcase the urgency of addressing brain drain and brain waste in ASEAN and how to approach the aforementioned nationally and collectively as a region.

Despite the fact that intra-ASEAN migration has increased significantly over the past 20 years, the majority of it is concentrated in a small number of corridors, indicating a problematic imbalance of flows. In 2013, only three nations—Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore—saw nearly all of the 6.5 million intra-ASEAN migrants. Meanwhile, the trend spurs upwards on skilled-migrants out-migration, seeing approximately 70% of ASEAN’s skilled migrants settled extra-regionally, especially in OECD countries as the rate grew 66% between 2000 and 2010. According to a study, there may be up to 25.9 million skilled job openings in 2025 in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Lao PDR, the Philippines, Thailand, and Viet Nam. For the majority of ASEAN nations, this means that more than half of the positions that call for skilled people will go unfilled. One shall recall that in order to promote regional economic cooperation, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is guided by the 2025 Blueprint which –among many points– stresses intra-regional skill mobility as one of the keys to economic growth. By encouraging the agglomeration of people and skills—where a critical mass of professionals forms communities and networks and exchanges information, ideas, and talents—mobility aids in the process of production specialization for AMS. Seeing that the appeal to migrate outside the region is higher and the importance of regional talent towards AMS’ economic development, ASEAN has to come up with solutions to increase intra-regional brain circulation.

On brain waste, 36% of all ASEAN skilled migrants in OECD are underqualified for the occupations they hold; this percentage is higher for immigrants from Thailand (52%), the Philippines (47%), and the Lao PDR (45%). In contrast, even when compared to OECD native-born college graduates (28%), immigrants from Malaysia and Singapore were the least likely to be overqualified (22% and 21%, respectively). Thus, it is noticeable how the effect fires up two-ways: AMS to lose talents, and receiving countries and regional talents does not always benefit from the mobility.

By far, in facilitating intra-regional mobility, AMS were bounded by multiple Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs), agreements between countries to reciprocally acknowledge each other’s domestic assessment (e.g. certification) towards migrating workers. This system enables workers’ credentials to be recognized by all ASEAN nations, allowing them to operate outside of their home country. Previously, the 2007 Blueprint also enacted the facilitation of working visas and the ASEAN Qualification Reference Framework (AQRF), which offers voluntary reference and guidelines for comparing qualifications across member states, was approved by the ASEAN Economic Ministers in 2014 as a complement to the MRAs.

Alas, the implementation of MRA hasn’t brought much change due to several reasons. First lies on how such were not inclusive of all occupations since it only acknowledged eight sectors

–ranging from engineering to medical industry– which only covered up 5% of the ASEAN workforce. In addition, it is noteworthy that most skilled-workers are intra-corporate transferees, which does not benefit from the above-mentioned mechanism. AMS also lacks schemes in workers protection, since the Cebu Declaration has a non-binding nature. Another challenge involves how many ASEAN governments have minimum institutional capability to put MRAs into practice. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) found that numerous national regulatory bodies have not yet been established, while others that are already in existence lack the financial and technical means to carry out their expanding and more intricate responsibilities. Due to their lack of financial resources, developing nations in the region experience actual expenditure and allocation restrictions. Lastly, even when MRAs are fully implemented, professionals may or may not choose to migrate intra-regionally. Generally, professional mobility has been impeded by wage discrepancies and unfavorable working conditions in certain AMS, which impacted workers’ interest more.

That being said, reformations are needed to ensure better intra-regional brain circulations. Efforts could firstly aim to facilitate broader categorisation of skilled-labors in the existing MRAs, possibly adding more categorization than the eight existing and/or giving benefits for professionals falling outside of those. Domestically, there also has to be enforcement in national bodies to enhance the implementation of more efficient mobility procedures, including issuance of working visas, professional allocation, and provision of rights of migrating skilled-workers. In addition, since the root causes of declining regional-brain circulation is an unideal working condition in the regional host countries –be it due to e.g. political instability and economic downturn– AMS has to firstly create an appealing domestic climate for the development of certain expertise and be open towards regional foreign workers.

This article was written by Adzraa Andira, edited by the Diplomacy Team, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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