Able Malaysians shine abroad

AS stories of them rising through the ranks in male-dominated fields are still rare, even in 2022, it was truly amazing to read about the successes of two Malaysian-born women last week.

Before her story went viral on social media, who knew that the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) deputy chief technologist was Florence Tan, originally from Muar?

The now US citizen, who is married with two college-going children, also heads the Small Spacecraft Coordination Group (SSCG), which builds innovative equipment for Nasa’s spacecraft and rovers used in exploration missions.

Tan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from University of Maryland, and a Master of Science in electrical engineering and Master of Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University.

“I watched him put pieces of cardboard to cover the holes in the soles. Years later, when I earned my first paycheck, I bought him a pair of Christian Dior shoes,” she was quoted as saying.

But she is not the first Malaysian to work for Nasa. Eight years ago, Penang-born Dr Wan Wardatul Amani Wan Salim was involved in launching a Nasa nanosatellite to space as part of the agency’s mission to Mars.

She was then principal investigator in a team of scientists working on a specific space device. Prof Dr Amani, who returned to Malaysia after the project, is now with the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) where she teaches and conducts research.

The other remarkable woman who was in the news last week was Ipoh-born Rupa Shanmugam, president and CEO of the US’ leading technology firm, SoPark Corp.

According to technology enthusiast Richard Ker, a vice-president at drone-based solution provider Aerodyne Group, Rupa’s training in engineering began early.

“Her father called her his right hand (wo)man because she had been helping him in DIY projects since she was six,” he tweeted under his Twitter handle @richardker. Incidentally, it was also Ker who highlighted Florence Tan’s story.

Rupa’s father, a Physics teacher, urged her to take a diploma course in electrical engineering. After graduation, she worked for semiconductor firm Carsem Malaysia and in Singapore-based multinational companies, Thomson and Western Digital.

She furthered her studies in Indiana, US, earning a Master’s in Electrical Engineering from Trine University, where she also met her soulmate and partner. They moved to New York in 2017 where she joined SoPark and rose up the ranks.

Such stories are indeed inspiring, especially in the context of Malaysia’s ongoing brain drain. It has been estimated that more than two million Malaysians have emigrated.

According to a September 2021 report, “Analysing Malaysia’s Brain Drain Pandemic”, by independent think tank Emir Research, figures based on data from 2007 to 2020 suggest that outflows rose during those 15 years. The trend slowed and reversed between 2013 and 2014 but resumed after the expose of the 1MDB scandal in 2015.

There was another turnabout in 2019, probably pinned on big hopes on Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto. But it spiked again after the Covid-19 outbreak, intense politicking, power grab and side-lining of ordinary people.

Why do so many highly-qualified people leave the country? The main causes are higher incomes and personal growth prospects, better education for children, dissatisfaction with the administrative system and the perceived entrenched discrimination towards certain ethnicities.

But unlike in the past, it is not just the non-Malays who feel bitter and angry enough to uproot.

As noted by Universiti Malaysia Perlis associate professor Murray Hunter in Eurasia Review recently, Malaysia is now losing some of its best Malay doctors, engineers, scientists, professors, and other professionals.

Those whom he had spoken to complained about the situation, which some described as “hopeless” with the continued fighting among politicians who just want power and don’t really care about improving society.

“They reject elitism, saying things like ‘there are more Datuks at the market in the morning than there are apples for sale.’ They turn to the society they are living in now and say, ‘here nobody cares about position and titles like back home’,” he wrote.

On the opposite end, there are also highly skilled Malaysians who want to return and serve their country but are not given the chance. Rajasegaran Kuppuswamy’s case is a classic example.

The engineer, who grew up in the Castlefield rubber estate in Puchong, was headhunted to oversee the construction of KLIA while he was working at the Denver airport in 1994. During his 12 years with KLIA Berhad and later at KLIA Consultancy Services, he was also project manager for the turnkey KL Monorail project.

After the handover in 2006, he left Malaysia to join the United Nations’ International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) humanitarian mission. Among the places he served were tsunami-stricken Aceh and earthquake-hit Jogjakarta in Indonesia and war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rajasegaran managed the reconstruction of hospitals, schools and community facilities, emergency shelter projects and camps for refugees in Kabul, Mosul and Erbil until his early optional retirement.

He returned to Malaysia in 2020, hoping to contribute his expertise to the country. He registered under TalentCorp’s Returning Expert Programme (REP), citing his know-how in emergency response management (humanitarian disaster relief, response and mitigation for floods, environmental damage, humanitarian displacement and resettlement).

“For two years, there was no response, even after reminders,” said Rajasegaran who has since gone back to the border of Iraq and Syria. In April, he was recruited as senior technical adviser and chief of mission for the Canadian Aid Organisation, managing reconstruction work in the war-torn area.