Brain drain whittles away at developing countries while policies fumble

High-income countries like the US, Canada and China are competing for labour by launching immigration schemes, providing high salaries and quality of life, to attract skilled workers from around the world.

Tammy Tameryn Somhar

Tammy Tameryn Somhar

The Nation


Representational illustration provided by The Nation.

June 7, 2024

BANGKOK -High-income countries like the US, Canada and China are competing for labour by launching immigration schemes, providing high salaries and quality of life, to attract skilled workers from around the world.

TechBehemoths, a German platform matching IT companies with its clients, revealed that Switzerland and the US pay the most for IT positions, with an average range of $100,000 to $120,000 per year. Canada also offers high IT salaries with average ranges of $70,000 to $90,000. Singapore, Australia, and Japan tempt with annual average salaries of $50,000 to $65,000, while Germany, the UK and France offer between $45,000 to $55,000. Some countries, such as Canada, provide work permits and sponsored visas for those willing to fill their personnel shortages.

In Asia, Tokyo has the largest number of highly skilled overseas professionals, with 200,160 in 2023, an increase of over 160% from 75,144 in 2014, according to Japan’s Economy Minister. Japanese firms pay foreign workers the same salary as their nationals and apply the same standard of personnel evaluation. It also encourages married foreign couples to work together.

Asean countries and the brain drain crisis

Brain drain has a negative influence not just on the individuals who leave, but also on the economic development of the countries from which they emigrated.

According to Talent Square Asia (2023), Southeast Asia countries are facing brain drain issues as highly skilled workers migrate to Singapore.

Malaysia is one of the most affected countries in the region. Its brain drain rate stands at 5.5% of its population, significantly higher than the global average of 3.3% in 2023.

When Malaysians sought better career opportunities abroad, Singapore emerged as their top destination, followed by Australia and the US.

According to data from Indonesia’s Directorate General of Immigration, nearly 4,000 Indonesians became Singaporean citizens between 2019 to 2022.

Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment said that Indonesia aims to bring highly skilled Indonesians back to Indonesia.

In April 2024, Indonesia announced that it might offer dual citizenship to attract overseas workers. However, its immigration agency did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on possibly granting dual citizenship.

The rising star of Southeast Asia, Vietnam, has also been affected by the brain drain situation.

Of the 350,000 international students in the region, 132,000 are Vietnamese. Indonesia and Malaysia both have 56,000, while Thailand has 32,000, according to Nikkei Asia (2024).

The brain drain crisis weakened Vietnam’s economy as the government has been sponsoring students to study overseas. They were drawn to foreign countries’ superior infrastructure and greater earnings which resulted in the low rate of people going back to their country.

To tackle this issue, the country invested in training local workers by providing a fund that would include reimbursement of up to 50 per cent for upskilling workers.

Associate Professor Tran Tuan Anh, Vice President of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, said one of the current challenges is the decreasing high-quality human resources. The brain drain is a huge challenge in many key science and technology branches of the academy due to competition from the private sector, companies, and large corporations in science and technology, according to Thanh Nien Newspaper.

Nguyen Hoang Minh, Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Science and Technology has tasked Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City national universities with developing a robust science, technology and innovation curriculum.

In the Philippines, migrants have been significant contributors to the nation’s economy for several years. Migrant Filipinos consistently send remittances, both in cash and in kind, to support their families and relatives back home. In 2023, the Philippines was the world’s fourth-largest recipient of remittances, accounting for nine per cent of the country’s GDP.

The demand for Filipino healthcare workers soared during the pandemic, with around 3,300 nursing experts deployed in 2020 in Saudi Arabia, the UK and Germany. This number is predicted to grow further owing to the huge wage gap between local and foreign employers.

Recently, the salary of entry-level nurses in the Philippines was just $520, compared with the average of about $1,700 to $3,000 in the UK.

According to the University of the Philippines in Manila, this Southeast Asia country ranks first in nursing exports and second in sending doctors overseas.

As a result, the ratio of the Filipino population to a public health nurse has declined since 2019, which caused a shortage of medical personnel domestically during the pandemic. To battle the nursing staff scarcity, the government set a 7,000-person yearly cap on newly hired healthcare personnel deployed abroad in 2020.

Brain drain in and out

Apart from the high volume of medical personnel abroad, the Philippines is also known for sending English teachers to supply the global demand.

Zen Dizon Milstead is a Filipina English teacher who migrated to work in Thailand in 2005. Six years later, she relocated to Alabama and is now working at Eastern Shore Toyota in Daphne, as a warranty administrator and cashier supervisor.

“I worked in Thailand as an English teacher at Ban Nong Prao Ngai School and Nawamintharachinuthit Horwang Nonthaburi School in Nonthaburi province,” said Milstead.

“I loved teaching in Thailand, especially the relationships I had with students, parents, and even my co-teachers, who are from various countries and backgrounds like Chinese, Australian, and Canadian. Thai people treated us equally. They are much better than what I am experiencing in the US since Thai people show more respect and are nicer, whereas kids in the States have their own minds and are more disrespectful to people with dark hair like me,” said Milstead.

The single mother of two, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Science and a Master’s in academic teaching from Central Mindanao University in the Philippines, said that working in Thai schools provided her with financial opportunities to send home money and kind to her family in the Philippines.

Brain drain in Thailand

Thailand has recently seen many young professionals and skilled workers seeking international opportunities.

Thai adolescents considering leaving the country are often educated or well-trained to compete worldwide and pursue long-term careers that can lead to opportunities to live permanently or obtain citizenship overseas.

According to the Agenda Team, in 2021, 121,922 Thai people were working abroad, an increase of 28,997 people in a single year.

This trend challenges the Thai government with a new critical security concern: an impending brain drain, which is likely to hurt its development ambitions.

Many polls and the youth movement in Thailand such as “Let’s move abroad”, Facebook group with nearly 1.1 million members, show that there are many Thai talents considering leaving the country.

The “Let’s move abroad” movement grew significantly in 2020-2021 when Thai youth protested against the government of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha. That, together with economic downturns in the aftermath of the pandemic, served as a trigger factor that sparked the idea of leaving this country.

Young Thai adults who see no future in Thailand due to its hectic politics have joined the movement, which has evolved into a massive community.

Chanakarn, 24, a new graduate from Kasetsart University with a bachelor’s degree in humanities, and a major in hospitality, decided to pursue working opportunities in Australia. She worked in Thailand for a year as a real estate agent but had no savings.

“Living in Bangkok requires much more money than I earn, which is 20,000 baht a month, to live comfortably and cover all expenditures.”

After a year of working and living in Bangkok, she decided to apply for a work and holiday programme in 2023 which would allow her to work legally in Australia.

“Australia’s work and holiday allowances receive great feedback from younger Thais. Every year, limited quotas result in massive online traffic and website crashes. That says a lot; the first jobbers in Thailand got no backing from the government: we are desperate and we are trying to escape from this situation.” said Chanakarn.

She said that after three months of working abroad, she can repay debts for her family which would be impossible if she still lived in Thailand.

Arm, Praew and Ton, a group of Thai dancers who are working at Hong Kong Disneyland told The Nation about their journey.

“There were not that many great opportunities for dancers in Thailand, I started to find job possibilities abroad and when I found out that there would be an audition for dancers for Hong Kong Disneyland in Thailand, I didn’t hesitate to join” said Ton.

“I am not the only Thai here, there are 19 Thai dancers. I feel like I have a big family here. When I see each of them at the park, I feel at home.” said Arm.

Praew said that they created a Facebook page called “ThaiDancersInHKdisneyland” to keep people updated with their lives working at the park and to be a platform for those interested in becoming a dancer at Hong Kong Disneyland and be notified whenever there is an audition in Thailand.

The changing shape of the world economy due to the trend of both an ageing society and technology has made the war for talent a hot issue that policymakers around the world are watching.

Many countries have different goals for development and as the world embraces the 4.0 economy, they are all seeking talented people to increase their competitiveness. Yet the Thai government appears to be doing too little to compete in the talent war.

“Young people can only be stopped from shifting overseas if the economy in their country is strong,” said former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2021.

Experts argue that many young Thais are doubtful of their opportunities to succeed in the country. They are losing hope in Thailand’s political future.

“The Thai government must come up with policies to compete with other destination countries for labour,” said Secretary to the Prime Minister, Phongsaran Asavachaisophon in October 2018.

According to Phongsaran, even though Thailand has a lower brain drain rate than other countries in the region, businesses in the country still face the problem of a shortage of highly skilled and specialised workers, especially in the IT field.

A 2024 survey by Manpower Group revealed a 76% talent shortage in the IT and technology sector globally. This has created pressure for labour competition, prompting many countries around the world to relax regulations on importing skilled foreign workers and use proactive measures such as tax incentives and grants to attract the best and the brightest talents to their countries.

Thailand’s key exporting industries such as food and rubber production rely heavily on migrant workers for as much as half of their workforce. Thailand has about three million legal migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar and Asean countries, while there is demand for about 390,000 more.

On the other hand, tactics for selecting and attracting skilled individuals to satisfy the needs of the 4.0 economy remain unclear as the government still focuses on four main areas: agricultural and food technology, medical technology, robotic technology, educational technology and tourism technology.

This is different from neighbouring countries like Singapore and Malaysia, which have short- and long-term labour policies that differentiate between attracting high-skilled workers and reducing reliance on basic-skilled workers to meet the needs of the economy.

Thailand is transforming into a super-aged culture. As Thailand’s population structure evolves, labour-intensive enterprises may face worker shortages. Thailand is expected to become the first developing country in Asia to transition from an elderly society to a super-aged society by 2029. It is believed that labour shortages will intensify and have an impact on labour-intensive industries, particularly in agriculture and service sectors like as hotels and restaurants, as well as construction enterprises, according to Kasikorn Research (2024). And Thailand will also have to find more than 5 million skilled workers to meet its S-curve industry ambitions.

According to research conducted by ManpowerGroup in 2021, Thailand produces 570,000 graduates from computer-related programmes each year, but only 15% of them work in the IT area. Furthermore, it appears that Thailand can only create 5,000 IT graduates who are qualified to work in the business sector.

The impact has been so severe that many large companies moved businesses related to data management and research operations to countries with more liberal labour policies like Singapore because there are not enough workers with data management skills in Thailand.

And while global employers are fiercely competing for top talents. Thailand appears to be merely observing the situation without implementing a clear strategy

“Exposure to foreigners at the beginning is an option that will help drive the goal of Thailand 4.0 to be achieved. The idea that foreigners are a threat to Thai people’s jobs is a major obstacle that blocks opportunities for the country’s development because what is more frightening than having jobs stolen by foreigners is losing the country’s ability to compete with others and that would result in Thai people losing their jobs,” said Patcharaporn Leepipatpaiboon, a senior economist at Bank of Thailand.

scroll to top