Boosting talent for growth

Contrary to common belief, TalentCorp is not all about head-hunting overseas.

Interview with Johan Mahmood

I love talking about women,” jokes Talent Corporation Malaysia Berhad (TalentCorp) CEO Johan Mahmood Merican.

But he quickly adds, “It’s because we are not going to become a higher-income nation unless we are able to leverage on the better half of the talent pool.”

Women are high on the agenda of TalentCorp, the agency set up by the Government to enhance talent availability in the country for its Economic Transformation Programme (ETP).

TalentCorp’s Diversity in the Workplace survey showed that companies are reluctant to provide family-friendly facilities or flexible work arrangements to draw women back to work.

On their part, TalentCorp has come up with various Flexible Work Arrangements (FWA) initiatives to boost women’s participation in the workforce, including the FlexWorkLife portal, a network connecting employers and talents, which was launched last year.

Another key group of talent that the agency is working hard to harness is the youth, specifically fresh graduates, with their Graduate Employability and Upskilling initiatives and the Structured Internship programmes. Unfortunately, when it comes to TalentCorp, many are only aware of its Returning Expert Programme (REP), initiated to address Malaysia’s brain drain problem.

While the programme has managed to lure some 2,500 Malaysians abroad to return to Malaysia, it is a paltry number compared to a 2011 World Bank estimate that almost a million Malaysians are working outside the country.

It is no wonder that TalentCorp has become some opposition politicians’ favourite whipping boy for the Government’s transformation progammes. Sunday Star grabs a moment with the 40-year-old accountant turned “talent master.”

> How do you deal with this misconception of TalentCorp’s role?

I think it depends on how you look at it – cup half full or half empty. It is a difficult and complex issue – there are many factors influencing talents to return home or not.

On the flipside, since I started this work, I have been encouraged by the number of organisations and even individuals who have come forward to partner with us. There are too many of us in Malaysia who look at a problem and say, “Alamak! There is nothing we can do.”

But there are some people and organisations who look at the problem and say, “Ok, it is a huge and complex problem but let’s see what we can do about it.”

We can’t solve world hunger but we can do something to make a difference.

> From the numbers, would you say that TalentCorp is meeting its targets?

In our annual report for Pemandu, you can see how we are achieving our key programmes such as the REP, Structured Internship Programme, Graduate Employability and Upskilling. We have met all our targets bar one last year but we continuously work hard towards them.

> What about the criticism that Talentcorp has only brought home 2,500 Malaysians despite being allocated a budget of RM30mil?

There seems to be a fixation on the REP that is not an appreciation of Talentcorp’s full role. Talentcorp was established in January 2011 with the aim of working with Malaysia’s employers to help enhance talent availability, particularly in support of the government’s Economic Transformation Programmes (ETP).

We play the role as a bridge for companies and the country’s leading employers with government agencies. For example, we collaborate with the Immigration Department and Foreign Ministry to facilitate the return of Malaysian talents from abroad or bring in foreign talents.

A big chunk of our work is to ensure the employability of our graduates so we collaborate a lot with the Education Ministry. We provide bridging programmes for graduates to brush up on their soft skills and help them get employment. Last year, we conducted programmes for 6,000 graduates and around 90% of them got full employment.

We now have a new initiative called talent diversity to draw more women back into the workforce. So, yes, REP is a leading force of what we do but it is in the context of the other things we do. At the core of what we do is to work with employers to help them enhance talent availability.

> What is your main thrust this year?

All, we are doing all of them at the same time. But I suppose you can also say that we are focusing on the key sectors that have a need for talent, particularly in the context of ETP. Within the core sectors, we focus on different initiatives, for example, in oil and gas, it’s quite international, so they work closely with us in facilitating the return of Malaysian talents from abroad and recruiting foreign talent. In contrast, for electronics they work more on graduate employability. Which core area each industry is working on is based on their demand.

> Getting Malaysian talents home is one thing but retaining them is another; what is being done to keep them in Malaysia after they return?

Sure, when people decide on where to live and work, they obviously base it on lots of different factors. When we engage Malaysians abroad, we see that it tends to come down to three broad factors: their pay and standard of living; their own professional development and the liveability of the country, such as standards of education for their children, crime rate and others.

Some of these factors are not part of TalentCorp’s key focus but they are the Government’s main focus areas under the Government Transformation Programme (GTP).

One area that we have seen progress in is professional development, one of the main deciding factors for top talents in deciding whether to remain overseas or come back to Malaysia.

The opportunities in professional development, combined with the progress in ETP and New Economic Model (NEM), have been a top draw. These are “incentives” that are exciting people beyond money.

That’s why when TalentCorp engages employers; we focus on that – to create professional develop­ment opportunities.

Critics are not looking at what the Government is doing as a whole and perhaps not appreciating what we are doing as a proposition for talents today which is to focus on increasing the professional opportunities for them.

> What support is given to Malaysian talents who return to resettle in Malaysia? For instance, TalentCorp does not even help them get a job, right?

We believe talents are very able to find jobs. But we do help them to connect with companies in Malaysia. Ultimately, as Malaysians, they are coming home and will not have trouble resettling.

> How involved is TalentCorp in improving “liveability” of Malaysia?

Obviously, we are engaged in the discussion and provide feedback for the 10-year economic plan and Budget in terms of drawing top talent.

But if you look at what TalentCorp is mandated to do, people need to see Talentcorp in the context of the rest of the Government initiatives and efforts to push Malaysia to a high-income nation status. We are only one gear in the machinery of Government, and we are focused on creating professional opportunities.

> The world is borderless now and many Malaysians, especially the young, want to work overseas. Is that wrong?

There is an idealism and exuberance among the youth that they want to change the world and make the country better. At the same time, young people have always wanted to look for new experiences and where it may take them.

I want to clarify that while we are an agency that is trying to get Malaysian talents home, we are not an agency that is stopping Malaysians from leaving and gaining experience abroad.

There is value in young talent going abroad and getting foreign experience. They are the people who can then contribute to Malaysia later.

> Can you share some of Talentcorp’s strategies and programmes in cultivating young talent in Malaysia?

We collaborated with the World Bank in 2004 on a study looking at this conundrum we have – on one hand we have the government driving transformation programmes which are creating jobs and causing a talent shortage in the labour market with many companies saying they are talent hungry but on the other hand we have a relatively high unemployment rate among the youths and young graduates – 10% of young people can’t find jobs.

The overall economy has only a three per cent unemployment rate, which is considered a full employment rate. So, in this context, the report said, there does appear to be a greater need for collaboration between industry and academia to produce more industry-ready graduates.

So we looked at public universities’ career services, how they are preparing students better for the new job market as the employment scene changes. And we looked at how certain sectors like engineering can contribute back to academia by embedding the latest technology in the related courses at university.

We also worked with the Finance Ministry to come up with an incentive for companies to provide structured internships. If they provide at least a 10-week long internship – with a project to complete or learning outcome for students, pay the students a minimum of RM500, many employers don’t pay the students anything – then they will get some tax incentives. To date we have facilitated more than 10,000 undergraduates to go through this internship programme.

> Do we need an overhaul in the education system, especially in schools and preschools, to produce the right talent for our labour market?

There is recognition that there is room to improve. That is why the government came up with the Education Blueprint. But what I don’t agree with is that there are some people who make this excuse that you cannot blame the universities for the weaknesses because they only inherited the students who have gone through 12-13 years of schooling, and it is not their fault if the foundation is weak.

I don’t think it’s a valid excuse. We have many students from national schools who go on to top global universities and do well. And, this is true for many people – it definitely is true for me – the university period is very formative. The universities have a key role to play in the development of talent –- to open up their minds, to transition from where you are taught what to learn to having to learn independently, and to read more broadly.

> Ideas CEO Wan Saiful Wan Jan recently wrote in his column in The Star that the REP benefits are not fair to those who had chosen to stay and work in Malaysia. What do you say to that?

I would like to politely disagree. Many countries are trying to develop their economy, and to be successful, you need to identify which sectors you can be good at. And in order to drive those sectors, you need to identify what sort of talents you need.

Take Taiwan, they identified electronics as the industry that they wanted to drive and they attracted their talent from overseas, specifically those based in the US, with attractive incentives. These incentives have resulted in the Taiwan we have today – a global leader in electronics.

I think any country which wants to develop its economy needs to target the specific type of talent it needs to grow the economy. And if we succeed in getting the right talent in, everyone benefits. It’s about building that momentum of growth which creates more jobs and elevates the economy for all Malaysians.

> There are talents who had stayed in Malaysia to help develop it instead of moving to where the better opportunities or money were. So when you get these returnees who are hailed for staying away and rewarded when they finally come home, it does seem a bit unfair.

You get the same situations at the company level, right? You have people who stay and new people who come in. But at the end of the day, it happens when the country or company bring in people when they realise that they cannot grow as fast as they would like to based on what they have. And if you then are able to bring in the right people, you will be able to grow and be more successful faster. The rewards accrue to everyone including those who stay and the returnees who contribute to the success.

> One reason for the brain drain is the educational and employment opportunities that many think are discriminatory and unfair – how is TalentCorp addressing this?

Every government has to contend with what is social justice and what is “fair”.

Economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has this analogy – there is a flute and three children. Who do you give the flute to? The first one says: give it to me, I made the flute. The second one says: I’m the only one who knows how to play it. The third one says: I want the flute, I’m the poorest.

Who deserves the flute? What is fair? There is no right answer because everyone has a case for the flute.

That is the challenge for every government, to find the right balance.

In the Malaysian context, our focus has been very much on growth with equity. We are trying to balance between those who need additional assistance, for example bumiputera who are under-represented in the country’s economy, with others. Take scholarships, for example, there is a portion that are given out purely based on merit and then another given out based on needs, in proportion of the composition of the core population of the country.

Is that unfair?

What I’m trying to say is that we are never going to get an answer that will get unanimous agreement on this point.

TalentCorp now is luring Malaysians back because there are opportunities for everyone. We did a survey of Malaysian public-listed companies last year to look at the diversity of the Malaysian workforce.

We found that in terms of top management, 54% are Chinese, 34% are bumiputera, six per cent are Indian and six per cent are others.

To say that there are no senior management opportunities for non-bumiputeras in the country, I think, is not so accurate.

To say not to come back to Malaysia because you will be discriminated against is wrong. Malaysia’s corporate sector is merit-based; it is trying to compete internationally, so it wants the best people.

> How difficult was it for you to make the decision to return to Malaysia?

I was in England for around 10 years. I stayed back to work in London after graduation (from Cambridge University) to qualify as a chartered accountant. So in a way, I had already met my target when I considered coming home to Malaysia.

I also have a close-knit family, I’m the youngest of four and all of us live in KL, in close proximity of our parents. That’s reflective of our closeness.

But it’s also about timing.

The time was right then and it was an interesting time. It was just after the financial crisis and there was a lot of restructuring work at the GLCs and other corporations in Malaysia.

Similarly, the time is right and exciting now for Malaysia – Asia is booming and Malaysia is at the heart of it.

> Did you ever imagine that you would be doing something like “talent development”?

To be honest, I never thought I’d end up in government. But as in many things, we can be outside the system and say there are a lot of things wrong with it and you don’t want to be a part of it.

I started in corporate finance, working on restructuring a GLC. It made me realise that one way of making a difference is to be a part of the system. It’s an imperfect system but it gives you an opportunity to make a difference. If you stay outside the system, you can’t do anything.

> In your job you must hit many brick walls. How do you pick yourself up when you are stressed?

Lately, my two kids have started getting into board games. And the funny thing about board games is that it is a lot like life and work. You need skills and you need to be tactical to block off your opponents, even if they are kids, and sometimes you need to strategise and cooperate with those you are not keen to work with. And you need to accept that sometimes, there is an element of luck in it - sometimes it depends on the roll of a dice.

Sometimes you work hard and you still lose, or you don’t do much and you win. The point is, you still have to try your very best and learn to accept the outcome.

Maybe that is one way of coming to terms with things that don’t go so well at work.

Looking to come back to Malaysia? Browse for companies that are offering opportunities for Malaysian returnees at For more info on flexible working positions, visit