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‘Happy to do the bare minimum’: Fears rising that Johor’s brain drain has worsened its work culture

JOHOR BAHRU: Legal clerk Salina Hassim, 42, has lived and worked her whole life in her hometown of Johor Bahru. 

The mother of three has had family members and friends trying “many times” to persuade her to follow them in seeking job opportunities in Singapore, where salaries are two to three times what they are in Johor. 

However, Madam Salina, who declined to reveal her income details, has rebuffed them because she believes she knows what her priorities in life are. 

“If I work in Singapore, how am I going to take care of my kids? What time will I come home every day to see my kids?,” she told CNA. 

The 39-year-old Malaysian commuted daily via bus from her home in Johor Bahru for work between 2011 and 2019. For two years prior to that, she worked in retail in Johor Bahru. 

However, just before the COVID-19 pandemic,  she quit her job as she felt stressed by the workload and daily travel. She now lives in Bangi, Selangor and is working freelancing gigs. 

She told CNA that even though she resigned from her Singapore job due to stress, she does not wish to work in Johor Bahru. 

“I’ve heard from friends, the working culture is bad. There’s a high attrition rate because workers leave when they get offers from Singapore, so the rest are overworked,” said Ms Emilia Dewi. 

When asked if she could have stayed longer in her work in Singapore, Ms Emilia Dewi said she doesn’t regret moving back. 

“I’m closer to my family now. It was worth it to try it out but I’m happier with this slower pace of life,” she added. 

A nurse, who wanted to be quoted only as Ms Rani, is a Johorean who is currently working and living in Singapore. 

She previously worked in a public hospital in Johor, and she claimed that nurses then were treated like “slave labour”. 

“We would work back-to-back shifts because of the manpower shortage and there would be no rest during the shift. We are also not asked to go for courses to upgrade ourselves like in Singapore,” said Ms Rani.


IN FOCUS: With more pursuing careers abroad, can Malaysia stem the talent brain drain?

Legal clerk Madam Salina acknowledged that Johor may be suffering from a talent brain drain – where its most skilled workers have been lured to Singapore for better wages, leaving a manpower vacuum in the southern state.

She added that some Johoreans also hold themselves back in upskilling because the easy option would be to cross the border and work gig jobs. 

“Most times many of these Johoreans who cross the border did not finish their studies or university because they are able to get a good salary working odd jobs like being waiters and janitors in Singapore,” added Mdm Salina. 

“I think when they come back to be with family, they realise they have wasted the opportunity to upgrade themselves and have a fulfilling career,” she said, citing how a friend of hers had turned down the opportunity to study law to work as a driver across the Causeway.


Mr Thomas Mathew, chief executive of the Talent Corporation Malaysia (TalentCorp), a government agency under the Ministry of Human Resources tasked to reduce the extent of brain drain nationally, told CNA that Malaysia has a disproportionately large portion of its population working overseas. 

Citing world migration data released by the United Nations, Mr Mathew said that 5.6 per cent of Malaysia’s population, or around 1.6 million, were based overseas, compared to the global average of 3.6 per cent. 

“So say your company set up a regional hub in Singapore. The managers now want to see their factory line, not too far away, maybe within two hours’ journey,” said Mr Liew.

He added that Johor’s proximity to Singapore, and cheap land as well as good infrastructure would make it a suitable option for these businesses. 

Both Mr Liew and Mr Mathew are confident that Johor may also benefit in the human talent sphere from Singapore’s rising costs of living, especially in the housing sector. 

“At some point in time, it’s going to be so expensive to stay in Singapore. Malaysians will say it is just not worth it for me to stay in Singapore for work,” said Mr Mathew. 

Mr Liew said the improved connectivity between both countries from the Rapid Transit System project, which is scheduled to be operating from end 2026 linking Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru city to Woodlands in Singapore, could also help in retaining Johor’s talents. 

But he also urged both countries to do more to boost accessibility, like operating three more ferry lines from Pasir Gudang to Changi or from Puteri Harbour to Tuas or from Forest City to Tuas or Jurong.

In August, Mr Anwar announced that Forest City would be redesignated as a special financial zone, offering tax incentives and fast entry of workers from Singapore.

Mr Liew said that Johor working together with Singapore would be a win-win for both sides. 

“So we are in a new era where there is a lot of investment coming into the region and if both Singapore and Malaysia can raise our game … I envisage that in the years to come the Malaysian economy will be able to pay its workers a lot better,” he said. 

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