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The impact of migration

Image of birds in migration
(Pic by mirofoto /

WITH the recent attack on churches, a Catholic school and a Sikh gurdwara, migration is likely to be on the minds of some Malaysians. Despite government assurances that “everything is under control“, diminishing respect for rights as demonstrated by the “Allah” issue has naturally caused consternation among educated Malaysians.

At the same time, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak says Malaysia must become a “high-income” economy so that it can stave off decreasing prosperity and standards of living. Indeed, a government-commissioned 2007 World Bank report on Malaysia’s education system and economy says Malaysia has “no choice” but to change its economic model.

Malaysia, the report said, can no longer compete with the lower wages in developing countries like China and Vietnam.

But with mass migration and the loss of skilled Malaysians, is it realistic to expect Malaysia to compete with developed economies? Will enough skilled Malaysians stay on so that Malaysia can escape the middle-income trap?

Skilled workers crucial

Malaysian Institute of Economic Research executive director Datuk Dr Mohamed Ariff Abdul Kareem says skilled workers are crucial to move the economy up the value chain.

“When foreigners come looking to invest, they look for people with skills … If skilled people are leaving to go elsewhere, this will be a spoke in the wheel for us,” says Ariff in a phone interview.

Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Shamsuddin Bardan adds that while the number of unskilled foreign workers has increased, the number of skilled expatriates has dwindled.

Melissa Norman (Courtesy of Kelly Services)

“In 2000, we had about 80,000 expatriates [in Malaysia]. By 2008, there were only about 38,000. Coupled with that, our professionals are also moving overseas,” he says. Shamsuddin tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview that there are currently about 785,000 Malaysians working overseas.

Recruitment agency Kelly Services’ vice-president and country general manager Melissa Norman confirms that the oil and gas, Islamic banking, and high technology sectors have faced challenges in finding suitable skilled labour.

“Countries such as China, Vietnam, India, Singapore, Australia and certain Middle Eastern countries have benefited from our brain drain,” says Norman.

Wider economic ramifications

Other than the skills shortage, mass migration of skilled Malaysians also has wider economic ramifications.

Rating Agency Malaysia’s group chief economist Dr Yeah Kim Leng says those emigrating tend to be in the high-income bracket with higher spending capabilities. “[Their] absence will have a negative impact on consumption and consequently on the country’s overall domestic demand,” he says.

“Emigration also causes a withdrawal of capital,” Yeah adds. “When [skilled Malaysians] relocate, they bring with them whatever wealth and savings they have. It would contribute to the outflow of capital from the country.”

Low pay, discrimination, corruption

One of the factors affecting Malaysia’s unattractiveness to skilled workers is the relatively low wages compared with developed countries.

Shamsuddin says: “In the US, Malaysian professionals could earn about US$100,000 a year, which is about RM340,000 a year. They would need to earn about RM28,300 a month here [to match that].”

New York (top) and Tokyo. Can Malaysia compete with developed countries?
(Pics by Gayle Lindgren and maykim99 /

In addition to the wage packages, Yeah says emigration can be worsened if there are discriminatory policies and loss of confidence. “Loss of confidence can be triggered by various factors such as rising crime rates, corruption, deteriorating quality of life and general concerns over the longer term prospects of the economy,” he says.

“The underlying reasons for migration must be examined. Although most countries face this problem, country-specific reasons need to be looked at in greater depth.”

“It’s not just monetary,” says Ariff. “It goes beyond dollars and cents. [Emigration] is not confined to any particular group. It’s everyone; even Malay [Malaysians] are leaving.”

Long-term solution

The 2007 World Bank report also cited the lack of scientists and engineers, and lack of capacity for innovation as some of Malaysia’s greatest weaknesses in moving to a knowledge-based economy.

“If we can’t bring those abroad back home, we have to somehow increase our own supply. It will require a massive shift in the education system to supply these skills in the long term. The system needs to be completely overhauled,” Ariff says.

However, he notes that there seems to be a lack of political will in this direction.

Ariff says the lack of skilled workers in Malaysia will be especially felt once economic conditions improve. “Once the economy grows, we will feel the impact because we need [skilled talent] for the economy to expand,” he says. “Either we have to bring people home or attract skilled foreigners.”


He notes, however, that employing foreigners is only a stopgap measure.

… and the good news?

With the economic crisis hitting developed nations hard, Yeah posits that emigration to developed countries may have reduced for now. “In fact,” he says, “if developing economies can step up growth and lure back their own as well as foreign talents, a [brain drain] reversal may be in the works.”

Norman agrees that skilled Malaysians would be returning to Malaysia as a result of the global economic crisis. “The question is, are there sufficient numbers to stem the brain drain?” she asks.

Additionally, Yeah notes that the policies in attracting skilled professionals back to Malaysia have yet to show results. “We have to give it a couple of years, but implementation needs to be more effective.”

Shamsuddin encourages Malaysians to return. He argues that since it is still a young nation, many opportunities remain available. However, he says if Malaysians choose not to return, they can still contribute their ideas and expertise from abroad.

Running faster

Silhouette of running man

(Pic by hisks /

The 2007 World Bank reports that many of Malaysia’s fiercest competitors are working diligently to improve their higher education and national innovation systems. The report states that Malaysia will have to run even faster than its neighbours if it does not want to lose ground, what more to gain ground.

Although the outlook appears daunting, the World Bank report concludes it is by no means impossible. All we need to do, it says, is upgrade our university systems, develop innovative production modes, and address skills shortages that hamper efforts to produce more sophisticated goods and services.

With a UBS Securities Asia Limited report stating that there has been massive capital outflow from Malaysia in the last 12 months, these steps are more crucial than ever to ensure Malaysia’s economic survival. But with a government that is constantly mired in issues arising from bad policies favouring majority over minority rights, will we still have the resources to think about global competitiveness, and move to the next level?

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38 Responses to “The impact of migration”

  1. Sean says:

    Is employing foreigners really a stop-gap measure? What about those foreigners (such as Malaysians in their new pastures) who decide to make the new country their home and become citizens? In what way is that ‘stop-gap’?

  2. Freedom says:

    The loss of skilled Malaysian labour overseas is immeasurable, to say the least. To add salt to the wound, the young, smart and capable children of the migrated families, […], are contributing to the real nation-building of other countries and building their wealth.

    […] Malay Malaysians will stand to gain more sustainable wealth and confidence if Malaysia stems the tide of skilled migration (which has been happening for decades now), by paying fair, world-competitive wages to all skilled & unskilled workers for higher productivity, financed from minimum corruption and higher productivity. Utilisation of human resources must also be maximised irrespective of race. An alternative government may offer hope for Malaysia to stem the rot, as the present government appears incapable or unwilling to deliver the changes the rakyat want now.

  3. sam says:

    Norman agrees that skilled Malaysians would be returning to Malaysia as a result of the global economic crisis.

    Fat hopes. My children and many of my friends children are refusing to return home and some want to return home but their parents are telling them not to.
    Why? It’s not money, […]. It’s the racist policies of the government.

    Let the skilled workers go, Umno can have exclusive use of the word “Allah” and become a bankrupt country and wait for the Malays to turn against it.

  4. Hailan says:

    With the current Allah issue, Malaysia is moving toward extremism and the country is even more divided between Muslims and non-Muslims. As a non-Muslim, I feel that my basic rights are slowly rotting away. I am losing confidence in my own country. How are all these negative events going to make me give up my high-paying job here in the US? Even if Malaysia offer me a higher pay, I will not come back because my basic rights are not guaranteed. Up till last year, when my superior asked me if I want to go back to Malaysia, I had said ‘yes’. After this “Allah” incident, I won’t hesitate to say NO!

  5. money says:

    Migration has 95% to do with money than attacks on churches, a Catholic school and a Sikh gurdwara. Cheap propaganda from TNG.

  6. Jeffrey Lim says:

    It is indeed sad that our economic decline is being accelerated by the migration problem. Other countries are welcoming “Pendatangs” and considering them an asset. Penang CM had to decline a huge investment proposal with the reason that the authorities are not able to guarantee the availabilty of numbers and skills required by the investor. How oh?

  7. Dinesh says:

    As the article rightly pointed out, the causes of migration go beyond money. In the working environment, research have shown that the number one reason why people leave companies and organisations is because of their boss (or bosses).

    It is also likely that Malaysians are leaving the country because our “boss” (the government?) does not treat us well enough. While money is important, ultimately people want to feel love and be appreciated for their existence and contributions. As some people might say, “I love my country, but my country doesn’t love me back.”

    If the brain drain deteriorates further, soon we won’t have much of a country to talk about. Attracting foreign investment and development opportunities is also dependent upon how young and well-educated our workforce is, in addition to functional social institutions and a just legal system.

    More and more young people I am talking to (I am young myself) are seriously considering ditching the country first chance they get. I understand their considerations; however, this does not solve the great challenge of nation-building. I feel that this is the time for young people to come together, join hands and take up this great task.

    As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” Let us work together with people and institutions (such as The Nut Graph) in creating the kind of Malaysia that we really want.

  8. hmm hmm says:

    The old racist regime has to fall before Malaysia can rise again. Or else everything will be in vain.

  9. StraightTalking says:

    All this talk about what we should do, or what we should not do, has been going around the blogs longer than I can remember. Look, nothing’s gonna change. The government is not afraid of any potential negative outcome as a result of perceived bad policies or perceived bad governance. We can continue to write another one trillion articles or invite another one trillion consultants to warn of the danger of economic collapse, but it won’t mean nothing to the government. The only time they will act is when they can’t pay the civil servants their salary. Before that happens, no major shift will ever happen.

    Remember what I said today. If the government can continue paying their civil servants, NOTHING will change.

    Of course there’s a way out – vote in a new government.

  10. L L Chan says:

    When I interviewed a candidate for an engineering post, he commented that he is promised to be promoted to head the R&D Department in his company in Kluang. His present company is trying to reduce cost by hoping to close their Singapore Lab by shifting the lab to Malaysia. When I asked him when he foresaw that to happen, he said he didn’t know as they couldn’t recruit people with the right qualifications to run the lab.

    My company is also finding it very difficult to get engineers to come in for interviews. The ones who applied are fresh graduates and lacking in credentials.

    What is becoming to our beloved Malaysia?????

  11. beegees says:

    [There’s] another factor. A professional wanted to work with […] them, not a bunch of […] who [are] just employed for the sake of [fulfilling] a quota.

  12. Singaporean says:

    Najib, How to offer high income to your fellow Malaysians when they get confused when [about] the word Allah????

  13. D Lim says:

    The best way to build the mass for a high-tech and developed society lies most importantly in our education system. How do you build the mass of teachers with mathematical and scientific knowledge to impart to the children, who then go on to become teachers, professionals and workers in science and technology? Does Malaysia currently have a pool of maths and science teachers and university educators to create the pool? If we can first tackle this problem, Malaysia can think about being a scientifically advanced country. Don’t worry about migration: if we have a big pool, we can afford to lose some! Get back to the basics.

  14. Singaporean: Good one. LOL.

  15. two cents says:

    Does everyone think that our government is unaware of the migration/brain drain issue? Must this problem be addressed with streams of articles like this in order for people to wise up? Smart people are leaving because it is what they want. Smart people will not vote for the government. Plain and simple.

    Those who vote for Umno/MCA/MIC are simpletons and are easy to persuade. Keep the population numb while they rape the country behind the curtain. The BN may be cruel, but they aren’t stupid. We, the rakyat, are stupid, and they plan to keep it that way.

  16. pilocarpine says:

    @singaporean: good question.

  17. telur dua says:

    “At the same time, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak says Malaysia must become a ‘high-income’ economy so that it can stave off decreasing prosperity and standards of living.”

    Yes, Najib, just ask and it shall be done. Dreams can come true, but you are fantasising. The reality is that such high aspiration in this dysfunctional country has nothing to stand on to build upon.

  18. Peter says:

    It is especially bad when the minority is moving their massive wealth elsewhere. These guys do not learn. Today it is a globalised world. No one is foolish enough to work under the discriminatory [Malaysian] environment on low pay. It is just [lunacy]. The political situation, and those [in] power will ensure our downfall.

    No, the minority is not going to do anything about it […] They have better things to do then face [the brain drain issue]. After all, if a little word can cause havoc and senseless anger, [what more] the bigger issues?

    When your local consumers are impoverished by lack of jobs, where, then, would you find customers, expertise, and even entire markets? Move to emerging markets elsewhere, where you would be welcomed with open arms.

  19. will says:

    I graduated from a university in the UK and been working in the UK for three years now as a structural engineer. I have met fellow Malaysians who also stayed to work in the UK after graduation. I believe that in these three years, we have built enough buildings and engineering facilities, and done enough engineering research to benefit the UK economy rather than Malaysia’s.

  20. khoo ah loi says:

    Tell me how Malaysia can really realize the new economic model when our political leaders are not supporting pioneering business ideas or lack political will other than hijacking talent and duplicating it as theirs but [it still] flops. Now the talented just shy away, like myself.

  21. Muslim says:

    The [“Allah”] issue has appeared here to have escalated to a point where it is claimed to be affecting a nation’s economy. What kind of a country is this? With an economy so unrealistically fragile. Or is it that the issue itself has been overplayed by those who are dying to see this country go under? Like money said, cheap propaganda.

    People like Sam should have burned the bridge when they left. They should no longer refer to Malaysia as ‘home’. They are deserters. In fact, the country would probably do better without Sam and like-minded [others].

    And, Singaporean, what are you talking about? I am confused with your comment. What do you want to say?

  22. Genetics says:

    “Norman agrees that skilled Malaysians would be returning to Malaysia as a result of the global economic crisis. ‘The question is, are there sufficient numbers to stem the brain drain?’ she asks.”

    This is rubbish. I am a skilled geneticist, trained in the UK. At the height of the economic recession I came back to Malaysia thinking I could get a job here. But once back in Malaysia, I didn’t manage to land a single job offer as scientist. I ended up working as a production editor to tie me over while I continued looking for jobs at home and abroad. Now with the world economy getting a little bit better, I am again employed as a geneticist, working in the US.

    So Norman, you are mistaken. There are no jobs for scientists in Malaysia, even if there are scientists in the country. No takers for jobless world-class professionals. Thus the brain drain continues, a strong pull from abroad and a cold disinterest at home.

  23. Freedom says:

    @sam: “Children are refusing to return home and some want to return home but their parents are telling them not to. Why? It’s not money […] It’s the racist policies of the government.”

    I agree with your assessment, it’s a widely held opinion by many Malaysians. Sadly, your statement would have [made an impact] if it had been written 30 years ago; but the sentiment will continue to be ignored by a stale government with heads stuck foot-long in the sand.

    In a developed world, every man, woman or child of any (or no) religion has the same opportunity as any other person or race in receiving education, healthcare, work choice, fair wages, and all other social amenities. Race seldom enters into the equation. The people build the nation in true unity. Maximum return is extracted from the masses.

    Malaysia should be enjoying all this by now. The promises from many towering Kuala Lumpur building facades and the Twin Towers are just that: promises, which are fulfilled only to a small fraction of its maximum potential.

    In today’s internet world, empty promises and inequality are amplified loudly and in seconds. Fear tactics using religion and instability issues are no longer effective. As clearly seen from the other comments here, most people are yearning to build Malaysia. A stale government should not be in power as it will only cause the country to continue to stagnate. Voice out for Malaysia and the rules you want to live by.

  24. Henry says:

    Loss of global competitiveness and bad policies favouring majority over minority rights; weak governance and corruption — these are all the factors that cause mass migration and the loss of skilled Malaysians! I really can’t imagine how we can achieve a high-income developed nation before 2020 if the system doesn’t change.

  25. semuanya OK kot says:

    Banks like UBS are the prime channels for large-scale theft of the wealth of nations, which in turn is behind the all-round deterioration.

  26. Tan says:

    The present government is unlikely to do away with the current system of administration which has been inherited since Independence, although some cosmetic changes may be made to entice the public into believing that things will be changed for the better in due course. The concept of 1Malaysia is a good example. The political costs to revamp the system is too high for any PM to ever think of, unless the BN loses the federal administration for at least a term.

    No educated people irrespective of race can tolerate the discriminatory policy applied in an open economy, and unless and until a full meritocracy system is in place, emigration will continue. Imagine: a billionaire/millionaire that buys a house is entitled to a certain percentage of discount because of his or her race, while poor citizens are not entitled because they are from another race.

    In addition, no one can tolerate the current level of corruption which is so widespread and uncontrollable as the scandals of late are getting from bad to worse.

  27. M.K. says:

    I am too old to consider migration, but I am encouraging my children to do it only to safeguard their future and that of their own families. After 52 years and looking back at what has happened in this country, I dare to say that migration is a safe and reasonable option. Things are going to be very tough with the current regime still in power.

  28. Ramesh Laxman says:

    If we are not careful Malaysia will go back to 1850. At that time the northern states were under the Kingdom of Thailand, the southern states under the Rio sultanate. Then you had the Malacca Sultanate coupled with Federated Malay States. Penang and PW were autonomous regions and changed hands frequently.

    I pray that God will give the wisdom to Malaysian leaders to do at the beginning what the so-called international community will force them to do in the end. I do not want my country to be the next Yugoslavia, where even the Secretary General of the UN will telling us how to run our country.

  29. jim says:

    We have the Never Ending Policy (NEP) what, how can fail. The government will support the race come what may, unless of course it loses in the 13GE. Then matilah!

  30. snake says:

    Emigration of Malaysians of all races to foreign countries will definitely increase. But that is part of the master plan of [Najib] and his [government], no? They want to replace Malaysians with sub-standard illegal migrants who will kowtow to his every whim and fancy. Malaysians are difficult to control so illegal immigrants are much more preferred…

  31. Ho CL says:

    I am one of those who left after 13 May. Sad to say I have spend all my working life innovating for an American company although I would rather do it for Malaysia, my home country. But in retrospect, after observing Malaysia from afar since 13 May, I do not see any improvement, and in fact have observed a gradual slide into racial and religious politics.

    The BN government should spend their energy explaining to the majority Malay/Muslim [Malaysians] that it is economically impossible for the minority to keep supporting an unproductive majority instead of spending all their energy on trivial power grabbing unproductive and dangerous politics. Either they have to learn to compete, or the whole nation will go broke sooner or later.

    Malaysia needs a Malay [Malaysian] states[person] and not some power crazy [politician] who wants power to the extent of destroying the nation.

  32. joe says:

    While previously I had thought of jumping upon the bandwagon to move to another country, the idea doesn’t [appeal] anymore. My family and I have decided to stay put in Malaysia, and we want to continue to make this country a better place for the young generation. We do not demand very much; we have capped our commitments. We are able to survive comfortably. There are good private universities here for our kids to graduate in. And there is still a whole lot of our race still around. We can make Malaysia a better place for the future.

  33. Hem&Haw says:

    I moved out of Malaysia 20 years ago to the little red dot south of the Peninsula and have not regretted it. Would I go back to Malaysia to work? No, not in this lifetime. Why would I want to contribute to a government that has policies meant to marginalise me, and when all my hard work will be credited to someone who is not worth his salt but probably sitting in a position based on race?

    I would urge all the marginalised races in Malaysia to look out of the country to better yourselves. There is much on offer outside than the corrupted government and the race-based opportunities that you have back home.

    My children are born Singaporeans, and I did not even bother to register them with the Malaysian Embassy when they were born as I felt that it was not worth my time. It is only a matter of time when I decide to trade my Malaysian passport in for a Singaporean passport, seeing how our passport is now close to being worthless.

    Malaysia will still be a holiday destination, and that is about it for me with this country. No way am I considering going back to contribute to the development of a racist nation.

    And when the East Malaysians are smarter enough to differentiate between their gods, it just goes to point out how stupid those in the Semenanjung can be.

  34. Hanna says:

    I’m 19 years old, but I’ve been hearing about all this wanting to leave Malaysia and go somewhere “better” since secondary school. Years on, and we’re still on the same old piece of mat. I’m not surprised. People still have the same belief that Malaysia is still the same awful place. With my friends, people my age, I can understand why. We’re young, and we always think the world’s our oyster. There’s always this dream that there’s “something out there waiting for us.” So we keep demanding. I’m like that. I will always feel restless until I get what I want. I don’t want things to be static. Maybe it’s the same with everyone else.

    I’m in the United States right now, studying in college, and hoping my family will have enough money to support two more years of my life at university. Outwardly, this place looks like comfortable, and the weather’s nice (if unpredictable). But Malaysia is still my home. I came home some days ago, and the food’s still great. I still love home. I don’t want to leave. Things are a bit different, though; the TV channels are getting even more boring (but Astro’s got some interesting news channels), there a more ugly tall buildings being built, and many Malaysians still don’t signal when they change lanes, but there are more malls, more development, something happening. I think that’s great. It’s something. Even my “friends” from Facebook are showing awareness.

    Things are moving, even if they may not be what we want, or as fast as we want them. And they must keep moving. They have to. But I can still understand why people want to move. It’s not easy, but they do it anyway. That takes a lot. Sitting still and waiting for things to get better is pure agony! I just watched Amreeka, this absolutely lovely film about a mother and a son immigrating to the United States. It wasn’t easy in Palestine, but moving away to even United States doesn’t necessarily make your troubles go away. But you know what, you can’t let anyone question who you are, whether you’re a Malaysian or someone who’s moved away, wherever you are.

    Oh. And, in the movie? They weren’t Muslim Arabs, but they still say “Ya Allah.” There you go.

  35. Lion says:

    Your panel of experts are no experts after all.

    In their eyes there are only two targets: the “developed countries” and Malaysia.

    As if the talents have only two choices: either migrate to “developed countries” or come home to Malaysia.

    There is a big world out there, and there are many places to go. Such as China or Singapore or New Zealand or Chennai, India. They are not necessarily the “developed world”, but they are sure much better than Malaysia, and aren’t as hard hit economically as Europe or America.

    Sorry, I just do not trust your “experts” who can’t see beyond two choices.

  36. Nutty professor says:

    LL Chan, try paying something other than the minimum wage! I am sure you will get a whole bunch of engineers. I am an employer myself and in talks with fellow employers, I am always saddened by the level of wages they are willing to pay.

    I hold the philosophy that an engineer of five years’ experience should be paid enough to start a family in a comfortable environment (and not his or her parents’ s house); have own transport; ad be able to put a couple of kids through kindegarden!

    Think about the wage you are offering, is that enough? If you think what I am asking you to pay is too much, then compare it to your own expenses for your family […]

  37. Chem says:

    Hmm, even now, as an engineering undergraduate who will be finishing my studies next year, I am considering migrating. Who would want to come back?

  38. Marie says:

    Look, plain and simple: If you have a great job and fabulous life, stay. If you didn’t get the job because they had already thought to give it to someone else, or worse, you’re ‘over-qualified’, go already! Life’s too short to whine about this should-I-stay-should-I-go business. And whatever it is, at the end of the day, no one, repeat – NO ONE, should tell you where is home or not! Just as only you know who you are, your identity, your roots. And if you don’t – then that’s where the problem lies, doesn’t it?

    For as long as you’re still a citizen, Malaysia’s constitutionally your home, even if you’re paying taxes to the American govt! And as long as you know where you’re from, and where you’re going, you’re gonna be just fine!

    To those with kids, especially, grow them to believe that anything is possible, if they can only dream, and that’s what’s most important.

    To those thinking it is greener on the other side, go, venture, just to know what it’s all about. Sometimes we talk about migration, but you have to do it, live it, to know what this animal is really all about.

    Last but not least, when someone leaves, someone else comes to take your place – people are migrating to Malaysia in hoards today. Just take a look at places like Sabah. So, technically, no one is emptying Malaysia out just yet.


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