RESULTS from the 2016 Global Talent Competitiveness index (GTCi), which measures the ability of countries to attract talent, highlight, among other things, a vast disparity across the recently established ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

Of the 109 countries in this year’s GTCi report, six nations are from Southeast Asia. Holding on to the top spot in ASEAN, and across Asia, is Singapore, which came second globally. The only other Asian nation to make the top 20 is Japan (19). The second highest ranking nation from the AEC is Malaysia (30th), followed by Philippines (56th), Thailand (69), Vietnam (82), and finally Indonesia (90).

With the correlation between talent and economic prosperity well recognised, the GTCi provides an important indicator of a country’s potential and future prosperity. Furthermore, rankings and indicators such as the GTCi influence key decisions made by businesses, multinational corporations and non-profit organisations looking to increase their presence in these dynamic markets. As the opening of the AEC grants professionals in the region increased mobility, the findings from this report take on greater significance than in previous years.

ASEAN countries struggling to move out of the middle income trap and increase their competitiveness could learn from countries such as Singapore and Japan, which have demonstrated an openness in their economies to attracting talent.

Speaking on the success of Singapore, Wong Su-Yen, CEO of Human Capital Leadership Institute, commented on how the establishment of the AEC would impact talent competition in the city state.

“Singapore’s attractiveness as a talent hub has in recent years faced strong competition from its neighbouring countries, and that is likely to intensify when talent is completely mobile in this region,” he said.

“There are approximately 4 million foreign workers in Malaysia, with an uptrend of skilled workers from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.”

The ASEAN nation best situated to challenge Singapore’s dominance in the region is neighboring Malaysia, which has firmly secured its position as the second most attractive country for talent in the AEC.

Paul Evans, academic director and co-editor of the Global Talent Competitiveness Index, noted, “there are approximately 4 million foreign workers in Malaysia, with an uptrend of skilled workers from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This can be attributed to the rapid urbanisation of Malaysia which led to an increased quality of life and job opportunities.”

However, Evans also warned of the detrimental impact of sectarian politics, which have been growing in Malaysia and other ASEAN countries over recent years.

“Pro-Bumiputra policies are sending a large number of highly skilled and educated non-Bumiputra to seek greener pastures elsewhere, leading to an accelerating brain drain from Malaysia despite the country being ranked as the second most attractive ASEAN place for talent,” he said.

“Moreover, its long-term attractiveness as a talent hub is also currently put to the test as the country weathers through its biggest political crisis since independence.”

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Political instability, military rule and the loss of civil liberties are also factors that can severely inhibit a nation’s ability to attract highly skilled professionals. As demand for talent increases, individuals with sought-after skills are empowered with increased options and mobility which enables them to live and work in the environments of their choice.

The GTCi report also focused on the challenge of filling the skills gaps. The inability to provide adequate vocational training in national education systems and the difficulty of attracting foreign talent could be a substantial obstacle to growth and development for many Asian countries.

Bruno Lanvin, executive director of Global Indices at INSEAD, gave the example of China.

“China is expected to face a labour shortfall of approximately 24.5 million,” he said. “The country’s state-owned enterprise sector has experienced difficulties in appealing to Chinese educated abroad. It could fare better in luring back former emigrants by increasing the professionalism of business culture and management practices.”

As the long-term implications of the newly established AEC continue to be realized by regional leaders, the Global Talent Competitiveness index provides a useful insight to which nations are ready to capitalize on the economic integration of the AEC. Increased mobility across the region will offer huge benefits to nations which are able to attract talent with competitive salaries, professional working environments and high standards of living, while at the same time weaken those countries which are unable to keep hold of their skilled professionals.