Categorised | Columns

Malaysia, my only home?

Image of a Malaysian flag in the shape of a house
(Malaysian flag by Matt Trommer / Dreamstime)

IN a July 2009 dialogue with Malaysian professionals and company representatives in Abu Dhabi, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak attributed Malaysia’s chronic brain drain to uncompetitive wages for professionals. If he is correct, then so are scores of exasperated blogs and hackneyed news articles.

Nevertheless, his statement is deeply appreciated; a prime minister’s words carry as much affirmation as they do executive clout. Najib’s remarks were also in full agreement with decades of scholarship that prescribe a shift from labour-intensive to capital-intensive industries to help productivity keep pace with the rising gross domestic product or GDP here. As he pointed out, a base of intellectual talent is a prerequisite for the knowledge-based economy that we aspire to.

And if all of the above is correct, we have cause for hope. But after his economically grounded reasoning, Najib’s follow-up comment — that we need to generate “buzz” about working in Malaysia — is perplexing.

Substance, not fluff

We don’t want buzz. If nothing else, our education has taught us to seek substance — not fluff.

Buzz will only last so long when a young doctor returns home with a hefty education loan and is forced into a medical internship that pays a fraction of what she or he could earn elsewhere. Extending the internship to two years is unlikely to build excitement about working in Malaysia, notwithstanding the “strong footing” that the posting purportedly provides.

Buzz will not shelter a freshly graduated architect who finds himself or herself disqualified from both low-cost housing and the inflated real estate market.

Underlying Najib’s suggestion is an understanding that the brain drain is not just about economics. This belief is absolutely true. The brain drain is also about how we are occasionally made to feel like pengkhianat (traitors), pendatang (immigrants) and penyebar budaya kuning (propagators of “western culture”).


Pawns (Pic by lusi / sxc.hu)
It is, however, definitely not about “buzz”, and reversing the flow will require both sound economic policy and a demonstrated desire to welcome us home. We have pursued our education to be part of a symbiosis, not to serve as pawns.

Gaining brains

Brain Gain Malaysia, an initiative launched by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation in 2006, is a sad archetype of the government’s efforts to draw foreign-trained Malaysians back. This programme, which offers an array of incentives for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) experts in certain fields who participate in collaborations with their local counterparts, is commendable but inadequate.

Publicising these so-called brain gain measures in the media is an encouraging step, but the ministry needs far more strategy if it is to outmanoeuvre the veterans, who are loath to lose those they have taught. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, for instance, has more than doubled the duration of the Optional Practical Training work permit for the same STEM graduates that Malaysia craves.

If we are serious about wooing such graduates, one place to begin would be the Brain Gain Malaysia website. With the appropriate presentation, this website could be a persuasive way of reaching savvy graduates in other time zones. But as of 10 Aug 2009, the “About” page had nothing of the detailed explanations that could sway critical minds to “be part of winning team!!” (sic).

It is difficult to envision scholars registering for the Malaysian Abroad Database when they see only patchy sound bites and are asked to fill in a vague electronic form from which “the info furnish by you will be treated discriminately” (sic).

In contrast, those who visit the Malaysia My Second Home Programme (MM2H) website are treated with distinct favour: solid documentation in fluent English and eight other languages, easy navigation, attractive graphics and lists of perks. Clearly this is a programme that the government values, and rightly so: MM2H participants enrich our country not just financially, but also with the wealth of their experiences and cultures. What is not so clear is why we do not see comparable efforts to reap the contributions of jetsetting Malaysians at their prime. Good grammar may be a gesture, but gestures precipitate relationships.


Brain drain (Illustration by Nick Choo)
At the Abu Dhabi dialogue, Najib exhorted those present to speak well of our country. Of course, it is natural to praise that which you love, but it would be nice to invite foreign friends home without having to caution them about petty corruption and dirty restrooms.

As much as one appreciates Najib’s frank humour when he added, “I leave it to you whether you want to say good things about the government, but whatever it is, do say good things about Malaysia”, it would be nice to tell one’s friends that the Malaysian government is a true steward of freedom — the freedom for both the nation and her people to flourish.

Sometimes loving Malaysia is like loving an incorrigible teenager. You look at the dynamic, temperamental, hard-headed, loud-mouthed bundle of gorgeous potential in front of you, and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, embrace or withdraw. You understand that precisely because of this nation’s relative youth, you can have a bigger stake in her development if you persevere. Yet even if you are thoroughly enamoured, you yearn to move out from the castle-in-the-air into your home.


Hwa Yue-Yi is currently studying in Williams College, Massachusetts. She would love to make a long-term commitment to her homeland and hopes that the Najib administration will not leave Malaysians such as herself waiting at the altar.

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15 Responses to “Malaysia, my only home?”

  1. Pratamad says:

    Speaking as a Malaysian living in Spore for the last 15 years, perhaps I can offer my ‘dua sen’ worth. It’s not the uncompetitive wages for professionals; it’s not the lack of “buzz”. It’s the fundamental principle adopted by the Umno-BN government in the last 52 years: race-based politics and policies, in all aspects of life in Malaysia.

    No surprise coming out of the mouth of a politician who once wanted to ‘bathe the keris with Chinese [Malaysian] blood’.

    It’s high time that all Malaysians on both sides of the divide wake up to the dire state of our nation: many years of degradation has put us way way behind on all fronts: education standards, economic competitiveness, governance and transparency.

    If the ship called ‘Malaysia’ sinks, hugging on to ketuanan Melayu is as good as nothing. Likewise, if the mentality of ‘cari makan’ (live another day) persists without the long-term vision for a strong nation, we owe it that much to our future generations!

  2. Sam says:

    My children, with my encouragement, are already well secured elsewhere.

    Why be grounded in a country without justice, where law is dispensed in half measures, where non-Malay [Malaysians] are told that they are second class citizens, where the police can throw out a duly elected Speaker, where a democratically-elected govt can be overthrown with the connivance of public institutions, where one can be hauled up into a police lock up and emerge dead the next morning, where selected Malay [Malaysians] claim they are masters of the nation and yet want privileges as a birthright, where education has gone to the dogs, where the civil service is reserved for Malay [Malaysians], where all senior positions in govt and universities are reserved for Malay [Malaysians], where non-Malay [Malaysians] can be mocked and ridiculed in the Malay [language] media.

    When we are told to leave the country if unhappy!

    Need I go on further?

  3. Malaysian says:

    No, he won’t leave you at the altar. He’d probably leave you out in the cold completely.

  4. Semua says:

    A very frightened Malaysian abroad writes …

    I HAVE been meaning to pen some thoughts for some time now, to let people actually read the views of the typical ‘overseas Malaysian’ who is kept away. [...]

    I shall start by telling a little about my background. Mine is a rather sad tale – of a young Malaysian full of hope and patriotic enthusiasm, which is slowly but surely trickling away.

    I am very different from many other non-bumiputeras, as I was given tremendous opportunities throughout my childhood. Born into a middle-class Chinese but English-speaking family, I grew up with all the privileges of imported books, computers, piano/violin lessons and tuition teachers.

    My parents insisted that I should be exposed to a multi-racial education in a national school. In my time, my urban national school (a missionary school) was a truly happy place – where the Malays, Chinese and Indian [Malaysian] students were roughly equal in proportion. We played and laughed with each other, and studied the history of the world together during Form 4, with one interesting chapter dedicated to Islamic history.

    Though 75% of my teachers were Malay [Malaysians], I never really noticed. My Malay teachers were the kindest to me – teaching me well and offering me every possible opportunity to develop. I led the district teams for English and Bahasa Malaysia debating competitions. I was the only non-Malay [Malaysian] finalist in the Bahasa Malaysia state-level elocution competition. My Malay teachers encouraged me to transfer to a government residential school (sekolah berasrama penuh) so as to enable me to maximise my academic potential. I refused because I was happy where I was, so they made me head prefect and nominated me as a ‘Tokoh Pelajar Kebangsaan’. Till this day, I am absolutely certain that it was the kindness of all my Malay teachers which made me a true Malaysian.

    I excelled at school and was offered a Singaporean government scholarship to study overseas. I turned them down because I wanted to ensure that I would remain a ‘true Malaysian’ in the eyes of Malaysia . So I accepted a Malaysian government scholarship to study at Oxford University .

    Throughout my three years as an undergraduate, the officers at the MSD looked after me very well, and was always there to offer support. I graduated with first class honours, and was offered a job with a leading investment bank. The JPA released me from my bond, so as to enable me to develop my potential. I shall always be grateful for that. I worked hard and rose in rank. My employer sent to me to Harvard University for postgraduate study and I climbed further up their meritocratic ladder.

    Now I am 31 years old and draw a comfortable monthly salary of US$22,000. Yet, I yearn to return home. I miss my home, my family, my friends, my Malaysian hawker food and the life in Malaysia . I have been asked many times by Singaporean government agencies to join them on very lucrative terms, but I have always refused due to my inherent patriotism.

    - Crushing down -

    I really want to return home. I have been told by government-linked corporations and private companies in Malaysia that at best, I would still have to take a 70% pay cut if I return to Malaysia to work. I am prepared and willing to accept that. My country has done a lot for me, so I should not complain about money.

    But of late, my idealistic vision of my country has really come crashing down, harder and faster than ever before.

    I read about the annual fiasco involving non-bumiputera top scorers who are denied entry to critical courses at local universities and are offered forestry and fisheries instead. (My cousin scored 10A1s for SPM and yet was denied a scholarship).

    I read about Umno Youth attacking the so-called meritocracy system because there are less than 60% of Malay students in law and pharmacy, whilst conveniently keeping silent about the fact that 90% of overseas scholarship recipients are Malays and that Malays form the vast majority in courses like medicine, accountancy and engineering at local universities.

    I read about the Higher Education Minister promising that non-bumiputera Malaysians will never ever step foot into UiTM.

    I read about a poor Chinese [Malaysian] teacher’s daughter with 11A1s being denied a scholarship, while I know some Malay friends who scored 7As and whose parents are millionaires being given scholarships.

    I read about the brilliant Prof KS Jomo, who was denied a promotion to Senior Professor (not even to Head of Department), although he was backed by references from three Nobel Prize winners. Of course, his talent is recognised by a prestigious appointment at the United Nations.

    I read about Umno Youth accusing Chinese schools of being detrimental to racial integration, while demanding that Mara Junior Science Colleges and other residential schools be kept only for Malays

    I read about the Malay [language] newspaper editors attacking the private sector for not appointing enough Malays to senior management level, whilst insisting that the government always ensure that Malays dominate anything government-related.

    I read that at our local universities, not a single vice-chancellor or deputy vice-chancellor is non-Malay.

    I read that in the government, not a single secretary-general of any ministry is non-Malay. The same goes for all government agencies like the police, armed forces, etc.

    I read about Umno screaming for the Malay Agenda, but accusing everyone else of racism for whispering about equality.

    I tremble with fear

    I read about a poor Indian [Malaysian] lady having to pay full price for a low-cost house after being dispossessed from a plantation, whilst Malay millionaires demand their 10% bumiputera discount when buying RM2 million bungalows in a gated community.

    I read about my beloved national schools becoming more and more Islamic by the day, enforced by overzealous principals.

    I read about my Form 4 World History (Sejarah Dunia) syllabus, which now contains only one chapter of world history, with Islamic history covering the rest of the book.

    As I read all this, I tremble with fear. I love my country and long to return. I am willing to take a 70% pay cut. I am willing to face a demotion. I honestly want to contribute my expertise in complex financial services and capital markets. But really, is there a future for me, for my children and for their children? I am truly frightened.

    I can deal with the lack of democracy, the lack of press freedom, the ISA, our inefficient and bureaucratic civil service, our awful manners and even a little corruption. But I cannot deal with racism in my homeland.

    I think this is the single biggest factor which is keeping people like myself away. And bear in mind – there are so many of us (researchers, scientists, bankers, economists, lawyers, academics, etc.).

    What people read about in Malaysia (like Dr Terence Gomez) is but the tiniest tip of the iceberg.

    You will be amazed to know about Malaysians denied JPA scholarships (which would have made them civil servants), took loans to attend Ivy League universities, but who are later asked to advise our government (on IT, economics, etc.) at fees running to millions of US dollars. Such information will never be published because it is politically incorrect.

    As a Christian, I pray for God’s blessing on this great country of ours. I pray that He blesses our leaders with the foresight and humanity to see that this will not work and cannot continue. I pray that they will have the strength to make our country a home for all Malaysians and that they will have mercy for the poor, including the non-Malays. I pray for true racial harmony and acceptance (not just tolerance) in Malaysia .

    Yours sincerely,
    A very frightened Malaysian abroad.

  5. Anak Kampung says:

    A few comments about the Brain Grain Programme.

    First of all, I don’t actually mind the grammatical errors (not only on the website but in any correspondence you might receive from the officers involved). By right, since we are Malaysians corresponding with a government entity, we should be using BM. I’m rather ashamed of the way my BM has deteriorated and I’m sure I make worse mistakes in BM than they do in English. So I try to write in BM as much as possible (which is to say if I have time to check the dictionary afterwards) in official correspondence and otherwise I’m happy to meet them halfway with their broken English.

    (Already most Malaysians speak and write English much, much better than people in let us say certain European countries so I’m not too bothered. I just read a recent Nobel lecture in atrocious English which was quite clearly transliterated from the laureate’s mother tongue. The scientific literature is littered with bad English and that’s just what made it through perhaps because the editors got tired of correcting grammar and spelling; articles that come up for review can be much worse. If the Nobel committee and the global scientific community can put up with that sort of thing I can too. We tend to get too hung up on perfect English in Malaysia. The main thing is to communicate. The perfect is the enemy of the good.)

    The bigger ‘problem’ if you will is that I don’t think there is any real political will to bring people home. If you look carefully at the proposed Brain Gain programmes, which I did, you will find that almost all of them involve bringing people home for short visits/collaborations/what-have-you and not permanently.

    My story is that I filled out the form and nothing happened. I think I’ve actually done this several times because every so often somebody else tells me ‘Hey, you’re trying to come back, right? Why don’t you try the BG thing?’ and I do it again. So then I tried sending them an e-mail directly and found out that in fact, no, there is no actual programme for placing people in suitable jobs at home or even helping them to find something (which a lot of people who have been abroad for a long time would need I imagine). What they do for people coming home for good is to offer ‘incentives’ like being able to bring in cars duty-free and so on, which frankly I am not interested in. I’d much rather get some pointers for possible jobs (with the civil service for example) but of course they don’t do that.

    So there you go. My two cents on why this is fails to bring people home; it’s simply not the goal.

  6. Shawn Tan says:

    Attracting people back is one thing, keeping them around is quite another. I can see a lot of effort being put into bringing home Malaysians but little is being done to actually create an environment where they would want to actually stay and contribute positively.

  7. Azizi Khan says:

    This September will be my 10th year in Sydney. I worked in Malaysia for five years after finishing my studies. What did I see ? Everything was based on connections, race and religion. Nothing was based on ability or intelligence.

    In Australia, at least I am respected for being smart. Not who I know.

    I have got so many comments (especially when I come home) saying that being in Australia is all rosy. No, it’s not. It’s hard work here. But it’s a battle of wits. No one here cares whether I am a bumiputra or not. No one will ever give me a leg up.

    You know what? I don’t need it. I don’t need Umno telling me that I am only worth something when I am worshipping them, [if not] I’m a traitor.

    I choose to fight on equal grounds and win based on my capability. All those Malay Malaysians will never know how it feels. They are so drugged by their “ketuanan Melayu”. You know what — I don’t need “ketuanan Melayu”, I am my own tuan, thank you very much!

    I was once asked by a VIP, what would it take for me to come back to Malaysia. I told him he couldn’t afford to buy me.

    And that my friends, is the fundamental problem in Malaysia, everything is just a means to an end — especially for Umno.

  8. megabigBLUR says:

    “Buzz” is not generated by marketing. It’s genuine end-user feedback generated by something that really WORKS.

    Malaysian politicians tend to grasp on to certain words with no real conception of the meaning behind them, e.g. “ICT”, “multimedia”, “creativity”, “K-economy”, and my personal pet peeve, “biotechnology”. The failure of Malaysia to produce true indigenous successes in high-tech fields — or even to make user-friendly government websites — is due to their refusal to understand that members of the rakyat are indeed not their pawns. As with good racehorses, you have to give them their heads and let them run.

    The creativity required for the invention of novel and profitable technologies is incompatible with the government’s single-minded focus on squeezing revenue out of people. Paradoxically, to make a lot of money you have to be willing to look into things that may not make money. Justin Webb of the BBC commented that the great thing about America is that it’s a country where people are free to fail.

    Aside from the lack of freedom, I’ve heard that the lack of material support (both cash funding and availability of supplies) is another big problem. As some of the other commenters have mentioned, many of us are not that materialistic personally, but research in science-related fields does tend to need a lot of money and fancy equipment.

  9. Joon says:

    Why contribute to a country when the government running the country does not appreciate you and treat you as second-class citizen? How can I be patriotic to a country when I am not entitled to the same rights as other citizens?

    With globalisation, I can work elsewhere anytime and be appreciated. And I can be sure my child born in the other country will be given the same rights as all other citizens. Why should I allow my child to be a second class citizen?

    This is my concern. However, I have heard of many Malay Malaysians not returning to work, too. I wonder why?

  10. Alvin Lim says:

    To “very frightened Malaysian abroad”:

    I am a Chinese [Malaysian]. Like you, I had my own grievances about the way our blessed country is run. But my epiphany came one day after reading Ye Lin-Sheng’s “The Chinese Dilemma”.

    We Chinese are mercenaries. When we arrived in Nanyang, our aim was to seek better economic conditions for ourselves. Some of us never saw Malaya as our home and were more than ready to settle back to life in China. We prospered under colonial patronage, and in many cases acted as comprador [intermediaries]. While Malays were agitating against the British and devising a nationalism which would restore power back to its rightful owners, we were more concerned with events unfolding in China, especially in the clashes between the KMT and the CCP.

    As overseas Chinese, we were some of the most ardent supporters of the nationalist, anti-imperialist cause in China, contributing huge amounts of money, money that was made off the produce of Malayan soil. And then suddenly, when Malaysia was to receive self-government and independence, we started, almost opportunistically, to clamour for equal rights along with the Malays. But what did we ever do to earn that right? I can’t imagine what would have happened if the MCP had gained power; we would probably become like Singapore — an abrasive, arrogant Chinese city-state, an ostracised Israel in the middle of the Malay archipelago.

    So for the ‘frightened Malaysia’, all I can say to you is, please don’t come back. [...]

    As a Chinese Malaysian, I have long accepted Article 153 and believe that everyone should be able to speak the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. If I want true equality, I have to show myself equal to Malay [Malaysians], by adopting and appreciating aspects of their culture, by demonstrating my uncompromised loyalty [...], and by being mindful that Malaysia is probably one of the rare countries in Southeast Asia where the Chinese have been allowed to retain their cultural identity without overt state demands to assimilate. Truly, on this latter front, the Malay [Malaysians] have been both accommodating and benevolent.

  11. all says:

    @Semua.

    I share your sentiments. I, too, cannot deal with racism in my beloved country and I pray and wish for all Malaysians to love and respect each other.

  12. Ida Bakar says:

    For a Malay Malaysian like me, the “special privileges” I get “back home” is being overwhelmed by the micro-management of my life.

    Religious and political leaders want to have a say in what I wear, who I fall in love with and whether I can enjoy a drink with my friends. This attrition to our independent souls will ensure that we are in anxiety status about our very being.

    Oh yes, being harped on as the bumiputra whose special privileges need to be protected lest the pendatangs get the better of us: I don’t want to bring my children up with such psychological complexes. And the racial politics…

    Brain Gain Malaysia? I need to keep my head while all in the country are losing theirs and blaming it on each other. (Apologies to Kipling)

  13. Andrew I says:

    Perhaps Semua should cc his comments to TDM and crew. A likely response might then be: You can’t believe everything you read, can you?

  14. banana says:

    Actually our PM is correct. It is about the money to many (no idea how many though). I am of the opinion that many Chinese Malaysians will happily continue to stay in Malaysia regardless of the racism IF they believe they and their children can continue to enjoy a good standard of living. The people migrating are mainly middle-class folks who may think that if they can make a better living with the same or less effort elsewhere, why not?

    On the other hand, the millionaires (and I have yet to speak to one who is not a BN supporter) will enjoy a way of life superior to the majority of the population anywhere. For them, what is the difference between living in Kuala Lumpur or Sydney or London? They will still live in big homes away from the squalour of the real world, eat at the best restaurants, get the best service etc. For them, would they care when the government reverts to BM for the teaching of Maths and Science? They can afford to send their children to international schools and later to a foreign country for their tertiary education.

    The only problem for them is if they start to feel insecure about their safety. This can either be in the form of crime or health. If they feel scared that they can get murdered or die from diseases that can affect them too, then they will start thinking of migrating. As long as our government can keep this aspect under control, there is little danger of these groups of people migrating.

    In conclusion, the PM is absolutely correct in saying that the problem is one of economics. If Malaysia can offer an environment whereby the people can earn more money here than in another country, that will buy them their desired lifestyle, these people will flock home, regardless of racism or what have you. The big question is: can the government deliver?

  15. Anak Kampung says:

    @Banana

    That’s the root cause of most of the injustices in the world, isn’t it? People with voices, power, money etc. are too complacent to speak up for the voiceless, powerless, poor etc. Let’s hope that all Malaysians are not like that.


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