What happens when great minds leave?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on August 27, 2010

According to a recent Gallup survey, about a quarter of all Filipino adults would live elsewhere permanently if they had the chance. Many of those who can already are. It’s been estimated that about 10% of the population is living in some 200 different countries. Filipinos have long dominated emigration to Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and the Middle East. But the largest recipient of the Philippine brain drain is the United States.

About 1.7 million Filipinos live in the United States, making Filipinos the second-largest immigrant group after immigrants from Mexico. Another 1.4 million native-born Americans claim Filipino ancestry. The answer to the question, “What happens when great minds leave?” is harsh: country competitiveness and economic opportunity declines. A recent Newsweek study ranking countries by attributes such as “education,” “economic dynamism,” “quality of life,” and “education” illustrates this effect.

Out of 100 countries, the Philippines ranked 63, just barely breaking into the top two-thirds of nations surveyed. In Asia, only Indonesia (73) and Vietnam (81) fared worse. China (59), Thailand (58), Malaysia (37), Singapore (20), South Korea (15), and Japan (9) were all ranked higher than the Philippines, and each of these countries placed in the top 10 in some categories. Among populous countries with high economic dynamism, for example, Japan ranked 3, China ranked 4, and Thailand ranked 9.

Thailand also ranked 4 in economic dynamism among low-income countries, despite sustained political turmoil in the first half of the year that left close to 100 people dead. Japan’s economy appears to be slipping back into recession -it grew just 0.4% in the quarter ending June 20-and is hobbled by national debt that has grown to twice its gross domestic product. Export growth has also slowed significantly. Developing China has slipped past Japan as the world’s second-largest economy.

These rankings can be viewed in two ways. First, they can be used to undermine the study. How can Japan, a country approaching a third lost economic decade, be considered economically dynamic? Thailand has seen investment and tourism suffer as a result of three months of political turmoil following the appointment of a civilian government that owes its position to a military that overthrew a popularly elected government-twice this century.

Or, they can be used to gauge the enormity of the Philippine challenge. The fact that the Philippines-with the oldest and smallest stock exchange in Asia, its status as the center of commerce and its capital a true global city long gone, and respected and rightly earned position as the heart of Asian education now dissipated-has fallen. If countries with the problems of Japan and Thailand can still rank in the top 10 in economic dynamism, what does that say about the level of the Philippines’ problems?

Despite its problems, Japan ranked number one in health, and Singapore placed 7th. Singapore and Japan also ranked high in education at 4 and 5, respectively. South Korea-another nation known for student and labor unrest-placed second in Education. Malaysia-although its educational infrastructure suffered from years not of neglect but of race-based seniority laws-placed 8th in Education among upper-middle income countries, having addressed a decades-old problem. And authoritarian-and tiny-Singapore ranked number one in the world in terms of economic dynamism.

These rankings provide another view of the survey results. It seems to me that although all of these countries have significant issues, they have managed to surmount them to varying degrees. Among the Asian countries that did better than the Philippines, all have managed to provide greater economic opportunity for their citizens compared to the Philippines. Even Thailand-with a GDP roughly equal to the Philippines in the 1980s-has left the Philippines behind.

In a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines last week, U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr., suggested that the Philippines has a choice. That choice is to address the issues that hold the Philippines back-such as inconsistency of rules, lack of transparency, “and an investment regime that limits foreign investment and serves as a barrier to job growth.” Or to stay as it is, unable to generate opportunity for the vast majority of its people with the result that the most talented who can, go.

There is a choice, a choice that is not new. Hopefully, how that choice is responded to will be new under the current administration.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand . Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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