When Australia’s Skilled Graduate visa scheme was first announced last June, international students Down Under rejoiced, especially the sizeable legion of Malaysian scholars there. Now here was a legitimate opportunity for foreign graduates to work in their adopted country for up to four years after completing studies at an Australian university.

The allure of more lucrative salaries, greater freedom and brighter prospects in a developed nation like Australia is certainly attractive to most, but local politicians like Lim Guan Eng were less than thrilled with the news. The DAP secretary-general claimed the new Australian policy would only add to Malaysia’s escalating brain drain woes. In April 2011, a report by the World Bank Malaysian Economic Monitor (WBMEM) estimated there were a million Malaysians overseas. About one third of them are tertiary-educated.

With an increasing number of Malaysian talents leaving in search of pastures new, the onus is on a strong foreign workforce to complement our dwindling talent pool. But what are the options available for foreigners who seek to work in Malaysia?

Maids and Multinationals

The immigration policy in Malaysia has traditionally taken an approach of two extremes in regards to foreign workers. There’s the self-explanatory Foreign Domestic Helper permit, where the Foreign Worker category only covers the manufacturing, plantation, agriculture, construction and service sectors. At the other end of the spectrum, top-level talents seeking their fortunes in established multinational corporations have also been welcomed – albeit according to certain guidelines.

Based on information from the Immigration Department of Malaysia website, a multinational company applying for an expatriate visa must have a minimum capital of RM250,000 if locally owned and RM1 million if under complete foreign ownership. On top of that, the employee must have a minimum monthly salary of RM5,000 and a two-year employment contract at the very least. Automatic approval will be given to expatriates who take home RM8,000 and above per month.

The skill level and income disparity between the two groups seems a tad ludicrous, considering there seems to be no middle ground option for foreign fresh graduates from local universities and other unproven foreign talents to consider. Unlike our Australian counterparts, Malaysia sadly does not have a Skilled Graduate scheme in place for its near 100,000-strong international student population. This is a fact that irks my Indonesian friend and Bandung native Jen.

Graduate Frustration

Jen studied Journalism at a reputable private college and has been trying to secure a full-time job for months since graduating. But the 22 year-old was forced to pack her bags after her student visa expired, a fate shared by all her friends and compatriots who made the collective decision to study and ultimately work here. Jen received several concrete job offers following successful interviews, but she always hit a brick wall whenever a HR representative brought up the topic of a working visa. “A lot of publication houses and less-established organisations in general adopt a no-foreigners rule,” remarks Jen, who adds several employers expected her to travel in and out of Malaysia regularly on her own expense in order to renew her tourist visa to stay in the country.

While frustrating for many international students, Indonesian graduates seem to have a particularly rough deal. Most foreigners enjoy a three-month tourist visa, but Indonesians only have a 30-day entry permit here. The less-than-clear Immigration Department website does not help the cause either. “I once emailed the department a series of questions about my status, but the automated reply that came three days later redirected me to the website,” explains an exasperated Jen, who even considered obtaining a RM16,000 bogus one-year student visa from a contact in Cheras to solve her woes.

For Lena, the founder of a one-year-old lifestyle website in KL, it’s just more straightforward and logical to employ a local, especially with the policies in place. “It just doesn’t make financial sense for us to hire a foreigner,” concedes Lena, who points to the fact that the processing fee for a single employment pass is RM50 while an additional fee of RM200 is charged per year for every expatriate employed. “We also can’t afford to pay a fresh graduate RM5,000.” She nonetheless sympathises with foreign fresh graduates like Jen. “It’s a shame for young foreign talents who are just starting their careers, especially when you take into account the number of illegal immigrants and unskilled workers plying their trade here.”

Chasing Paper Trails

With the excessive amounts of money spent on a tertiary education in Malaysia, Jen is among many students who are disappointed with being unable to enter the country’s workforce. Neither TalentCorp Malaysia and Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H), both government initiatives, are aimed at young, skilled foreign workers like her. TalentCorp was set up to curb the country’s brain drain by offering incentives for Malaysians abroad and global talents to work in this country. But it is only an option for expats who have worked in Malaysia for three years and have a gross income of RM144,000 per year. When contacted, TalentCorp simply referred Jen back to the Immigration Department.

Jen was again thwarted by the excessive amounts of money required to qualify for MM2H’s criteria. Based on reports, Malaysia has attracted nearly 20,000 foreigners to settle in the country since MM2H was piloted a decade ago, with affluent applicants from China, Japan, Bangladesh, Britain and Iran leading the way. But applicants like Jen who are below the age of 50 must show proof of liquid assets worth a minimum of RM500, 000 and offshore income of RM10,000 per month upon application. That’s not all either: once the application is approved, applicants are required to open a fixed deposit account of RM300,000, which is not exactly petty cash.

 

“Sometimes we even have to change the job title in order to appease the Immigration Department”

 

According to Kayla, an HR executive, even large multinational companies face ambiguity when applying for work visas. “The Immigration Department officers can get pretty particular and fussy at times,” says Kayla, who has worked for various multinationals for the past six years. “Sometimes we even have to change the job title in order to appease them, like switching from an event manager to an exhibition manager.” Kayla also reveals that the process is far from crystal clear: “The frustrating bit is when there are problems with the application and the officers don’t inform us, so we always have to follow up and go directly to the Immigration Department,” she says.

As with all things, cases depend on the individual and the company. The ambiguity of the process would suggest that in some cases, “exceptions” can be made. I spoke to Sam, another foreign graduate, who was miraculously able to secure a legitimate work visa despite not meeting the salary requirement of RM5000 per month. Sam works for a production company and his employers applied on his behalf after he had got the job – without a work visa. “After a month or so, I went to the Immigration Department with a recommendation letter from TalentCorp and that was that.” However, he was unwilling to go into details about his case.

Malaysia’s guidelines seem to be following the spirit of Singapore’s current employment protectionism. The recent financial crisis has put paid to the rampant wave of globalisation, with Singapore’s stricter guidelines on work permits for foreigners in the past year or so a prime example close to home. Despite the increasing cost of living and stagnant wages, Malaysia has done well to provide its citizens with jobs if the country’s low unemployment rate of 2.9 percent (compared to USA’s 9 percent in July 2012) is anything to go by. But there doesn’t seem to be room for young, foreign fresh graduates.

“KL is my home now,” reflects a resigned Jen. Even though she left behind her best friends in Malaysia last year to return to her family in Bandung, she still harbours hopes of one day returning to her adopted homeland to work and eventually settle down. However, unless new immigration laws are put in place, her Malaysian Dream will remain just that – a dream, rather than a reality.

Names of interviewees have been changed. Photo courtesy of Ken Wong.