ASEAN: Economic Growth vs. Brain Drain

As the ASEAN community get’s more and more interlinked, with opening its borders and restrictions the risk of serious brain drain arises. Furthermore the role of remittance must not be underestimated. If there is a big risk of brain drain inside ASEAN, are their solutions to prevent this and how are the various members of ASEAN noticing this? What lessons can be learnt from other successful unions arround the world?

Before going into depth on the situation inside the ASEAN concerning the real risks of the so called “Brain Drain”, we must first understand what the definition exactly entails. According to the Oxford dictionary it is the process of emigration of highly trained or qualified people from a particular country to another country. 1 Merriam-Webster states that brain drain is a situation in which educated or professional people leave a particular place or profession and move to another one that gives them better pay or living conditions. 2 Both sources state that it is a shift of educated persons from one place to another. And it can be seen as a positive effect but if negative it can have disastrous effects on nations.



Today there are various positive evolutions going on inside the ASEAN. By 2015 the ASEAN wants to fulfill all requirements for the so called ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). The AEC has as goal of regional integration with help 4 key characteristics. The 4 characteristics can be seen below 3 Looking at the ASEAN as a whole it creates many chances for the nations inside it. It has impact on almost all the levels of the societies of each nations in cooperated in the ASEAN association. By working together closely it generates more development and thus jobs inside ASEAN. Next to that, unlike the European Union, where every citizen in-cooperated in the EU can work inside it freely, ASEAN has a different policy concerning migrant workers. Even though striving to be one union, they allow every nation inside ASEAN make up their own rules concerning migrant workers wanting to work inside their nation.


AEC Objectives 

But these changes also have their downsides for some ASEAN members. As nations focus somenly on the integrating process to one union called ASEAN, the negative effects of this process are often forgotten. Furthermore, as mentioned every nation inside the ASEAN is able to make their own rules and regulations for migrant workers. But this creates the situation that nations will accept some migrant workers if they need them and the nation where they come from will still loose some often well need workforce. In the end of the day, nations strive for their own good first, before looking at others. In my opinion the chance of server brain drain in other countries is significantly underestimated. There are several reasons for this.


Drain Issue

Firstly, according to Joseph Stiglitz, a profound economics professor at Columbia University in New York, there is an imminent risk that if the free flow of goods is broadened by the free flow of work, skilled workers may move to more ‘richer’ members of the ASEAN. 4 A method that show’s this gap between ASEAN member states, and thus a reason for brain drain occuring, is by looking at the purchasing power parity also known as GDP of nations. Comparing Singapore with Laos for example one can conclude that there is a huge gap between these two nations, eventhough both are ASEAN members. Singapore has a GDP of $ 339 billion 5 compared too Laos with a GDP of ‘only’ $ 20.78 billion. 6 This show’s that brain drain is immenant, even before 2015. But even Singapore is already facing brain drain issues inside its own nation today. The ‘Global Professionals on the Move 2013 report’ produced by the global specialists recruiter Hydrogen states that 81 % of the native Singaporeans either plan to, or are interested in for a job overseas. 7 The reason for this is that in the last three decades, Singaporeans in general have been introduced to a bigger social mobility and become more globalized in general. The reasons for this in Singapore specifically are broad. Some to decrease the educational pressure on their children, others because they feel the economic market in Singapore is too small and shallow. 8 Thus opening the labor market must come gradually. The movie presented below gives a clear insight on what issues Singapore has to face with the issue concerning brain drain. Thailand, another member of the ASEAN, has faced a significant decrease of their medical educated doctors. Most of them where nurses that migrated to nations such as the United States according to Pailin Chuchottaworn, president of PTT. He furthermore states that this what happened to Thailand can happen again even if there where not ASEAN single market. 9


Singapore’s Brain Drain


ASEAN Dilemma 

As Singapore is one of the leading ASEAN nations, one may only guess what will happen to the other ASEAN members such as mentioned above. Next to Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar risk high levels of educated migrants leaving their countries. These nations are all known for their low GDP. 10 This is a push factor for well educated persons to leave and look for a better future.

In the end of the day, nations strive for their own good first, before looking at others.

Knowing this, the step towards a free flow of the workforce inside the ASEAN does not sound so promising any more. To find solution for this negative phenomenon facing the ASEAN one must firstly tackle the reasons why individuals leave the country. Knowing this the problem can be solved. A solution for this issue could be the creation of a more stable ‘platform’ for educated inhabitants to stand on. Tax reductions, higher educational possibilities, better infrastructure could be realistic solutions. 11 As already mentioned Thailand faced an decrease of their medical personnel in the past, they used counter measures to decrease this. The Thai government has changed the rules regarding medical education. Until today this policy has worked for the nation.


Brain Drain Dilemma 

Concluding, we need to look at the effects the 2015 AEC has on its ASEAN members. In the long run free flow of workforce will be able inside the ASEAN. When this happens, the chances are that well educated persons will start emigrating from their less educated countries to more educated and modern nations. But not only can the poorer regions face ‘brain drain’ prospering nations such as Singapore is noticing this already today. The ASEAN community must take this real risk into account and create measures to stop this. If the governments fail to do so, prosperous nations inside the ASEAN will grow even more and the already big gap between the richest and poorest nations inside ASEAN will grow. This will make a union inside ASEAN even harder.


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