Categorised | Columns

Stay or go?


(Pic by dljt / sxc.hu)
THERE seems little to look forward to, having just come out of 2009, which ended with religious tension that’s spilling over into the New Year. All over what to call God.

The dispute over “Allah” dates back to the 1980s. But last year, it was just one event in a string of others on the erosion of freedom of religion, constitutional law and mutual respect. Such events seem to have been hallmarks of 2009.

On the eve of the New Year, and for the first time, my husband and I broached the question: What would be the breaking point for us to decide to leave the country? Prior to this, we had asked ourselves: Would we ever leave Malaysia? And the answer had always been “no”.

Initially, I had thought of throwing out this question to readers for their response: “What would be the breaking point to leave the country?” I had the idea that if enough people put their breaking points down in writing, then hopefully the prime minister or the good people in government would read them and be concerned enough to prevent such situations from happening.

On the other hand, to entertain such a question would be like conceding defeat. It would be like giving in to my fears, which is exactly what the bigots want me to feel.

Fighting fear

It takes restraint and level-headedness to fight off fears caused by growing intolerance and close-mindedness. Not just by gallery-playing politicians or overzealous pressure groups, but by those we think are “average and moderate Malaysians”.

Just trawl the internet for blog postings and comments on the High Court‘s judgement allowing “Allah” to be used by non-Muslims. Or look at the discussion on the over-93,000-member (as of 6 Jan 2010) Facebook group formed to protest the ruling. It is absolutely their right to protest, but it’s an eye-opener to see some Muslim friends I thought more open-minded and internationally educated among the group’s members.

But it is the New Year now, and I must attempt to be positive. I am sure there will be plenty more occasions for the rest of this year to respond to the bigoted columnists of a certain newspaper, insular politicians, and types like hecklers who disrupt town hall meetings.


(Pic by mzacha / sxc.hu)
Things can get better, but only if those who are afraid face their fears. And this is all of us, whichever side of the “Allah” debate we are on. Can we face the fear of having cherished ideals and beliefs debated? Can we face the fear of being a minority? Can the majority face the fear of being equal with the minority? Can we together agree to disagree? Can we do all this with mutual respect?

Why stay?

So, instead of asking what is your breaking point that would make you leave, I reverse the question: What keeps you in Malaysia? And don’t say it’s because this is your home. Tell me something different. Maybe if enough people put these positive reasons down in writing, then hopefully the good people in government, or even those gallery-playing politicians, will read them and see what is worth doing.

Naïve? Never mind. There’s been too much negativity already. Change starts with us, anyway. We are the gallery politicians play to.

So, what keeps me in Malaysia?

First, the potential and flexibility of the people. The potential to accept differences with maturity and mutual respect. We once had it in previous generations, my elders tell me. It just needs to be rediscovered and nurtured.

Secondly, the growing voice of civil society. More people are less afraid of speaking up now, and despite continuing restrictions, they have found alternative channels of expression. The more people speak up, the more their leaders will have to listen to them. The greater challenge, however, is for more Malaysians to learn to debate using facts and not emotion.


(Pic by Lavinia Marin / sxc.hu)
Thirdly, the racial and religious diversity among my friends. I want to preserve these friendships, which are enriching and unique. Even if these friends are on the opposite side of a race or religion debate.

Malaysia clearly hasn’t reached its destination, nor does it seem clear on where it’s headed socially. The possibility of what we could be is really all that is keeping me hopeful. Am I chasing the wind? But if not for hope, what other way is there to start a new year? There’s no choice, really. It’s either hope or despair.

So I will choose to be hopeful. Happy New Year, and here’s to keeping that hope alive throughout 2010.


Deborah Loh looked into the eyes of her two beloved pet dogs the other day and said, “I hope this country doesn’t go to you.”

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37 Responses to “Stay or go?”

  1. Phua Kai Lit says:

    Just speaking for myself, I lived, studied and worked overseas for almost 20 years (mainly in the USA). I have been back in Malaysia since the mid-1990s and I believe that I have made the right decision. This is a wonderful, multiethnic country that has been almost ruined by authoritarian misrule, shameless corruption and divisive propaganda.

    But the social movement for political change is gathering strength and worthy of support by all Malaysians of goodwill (the vast majority of the population). I urge the one million-plus overseas Malaysians and ex-Malaysians to actively support this social movement for change. You can even return HOME in the future after things get better here!

  2. What keeps me here: the potential.

    This place has everything it takes to be great (not good, great). The vibrancy, the diversity, the language, and that little bit of hope.

    It also helps that KL feels like Gotham City. You can get whacked any second. Danger like that keeps me on my toes, makes me feel alive.

  3. Essentially, what keeps me in Malaysia is that there are a lot of good things going on outside of the sphere of politics.

  4. keith says:

    I think we realise that everyone has his/her own tipping point on staying or leaving. In my opinion, it is incorrect to label all those that have left (or plan to leave) as conceding defeat to the bigots/zealots. If one decides to stay and “fight”, this does not necessarily mean that Malaysia will be better off. Likewise, if one leaves, this does not imply that Malaysia will be worse off. Bottom line is, everyone make their own choices, and we live and die by our swords — a Malaysian who no longer calls Malaysia home.

  5. J.Hassan says:

    As a Muslim I welcome non-Muslims to mention the holy name, Allah, as much and as often as they like. If they believe in Allah as one true God, that’s even better.

    But why does the Herald Catholic Weekly insists on using “Allah” to refer to the Christian version of God in its BM articles when it could have use “Tuhan”? In fact Malay Muslims generally refer to their God as “Tuhan”. What’s the Herald‘s intention? Politically driven? Simply stubborn? Or do the people at Herald really believe in Allah — the one and only God for all creations, including [email protected]? Please see the Qur’an: Surah Maryam (30-31), Surah Al-Imran (50-51), Surah Al-ikhlas (1-4). Allah knows best! Peace be upon you!

  6. Harisa says:

    What makes me stay is the hope that all of the potential this country can be realised. I really, truly, do believe that this country can be an example in multiculturism. We have lost our way, I think, no thanks to a persistent effort by the ruling establishment to keep us in an infantile and childish state of mind.

    I am proud of its people, and if the brain-drain crisis is of any indication, we have amongst us truly brilliant people. And I don’t want to leave and cede this country to the reactionaries and the petty-minded. I want to make this country that we can be proud of; I’m reluctant to leave for long or for good.

  7. Yusuf says:

    As an expat who made a conscious decision to settle in Malaysia, I still believe that I made the right choice, even with ridiculous arguments about pre-Arabic pre-Islamic words referring to God.

    I lived for over 50 years in the West, and saw a constant whittling away of basic freedoms and increasing racism. I saw taxes crippling the populace and violence forever on the increase. I witnessed petrol levies so high that the poor barely had a chance to own a car.

    Malaysia is a haven compared to many places. Yes, it has its faults, but then so do other countries. Corruption and semi-criminal governance are not the sole province of Malaysia, but are rife throughout the world.

    Malaysia still has many [good points] to be recommended to people such as myself. I would be a fool to leave [...]

  8. Jas Kler says:

    Interesting read. Especially because I am feeling so clueless right now after what the PM said today (7 Jan 2010) on backing protests. I posted this update on Facebook: “Just asked my brother the procedure to migrate. My country and its leaders have failed me” — two hours before reading this. Now that I’ve calmed down, I feel I shouldn’t give up. This is my country, too.

  9. Chong Eu Choong says:

    Why should I leave? This is my home. Yes, there are bigots and prejudice in this country, but tell me where [there aren't any]. More importantly, I believe that change is possible, especially after the last general election. I am staying, and will try to contribute to change that will bring a more equitable and just society to Malaysia.

    Also, where in the world can I get my teh tarik, nasi lemak, char koay teow, etc if I leave? I will be totally lost without Malaysian cuisine. When I look at Malaysia, I do not look at our politicians, but rather our mamak stalls, where you find people of all races coming and having their favorite [food and beverages] without all the shouting and ranting.

  10. Alison says:

    Why am I still in Malaysia? It’s because I don’t have the credentials to migrate! Now especially with the PM and his cohorts backing the senseless protest and more undesirable things, the country sadly seems to be going the way of Deborah’s two pets.

    The government has failed me and my family in ways that are too sensitive to be mentioned here. Now, even if I had the chance, I might not leave this country because all my hard-earned savings will be worth only a fraction of what it’s worth here! The value of the ringgit against major currencies is so pathetic. Hence it would be too expensive to start anew.

    Lastly, why I’m still in this country? It’s because I made the mistake of not trying my luck at migrating when I was 20. The rules/procedures were much more relaxed then. Unfortunately, it’s almost 20 years too late for me now.

  11. EK says:

    Each individual should assess what’s best for themselves/families. Priorities can be quite diverse. If opportunities are good and it makes sense, go, otherwise stay. However, if you do decide to stay, please register and vote. I know many who have not even registered.

  12. azmo says:

    Why stay? Hmmm, for me its simple … if i get a job away from Malaysia, I will make sure to stay away and come back only for emergencies and vacations …

  13. J Hassan,

    PKR itself is saying not an offence to mention “Allah”. Why are you getting upset? Even the Arabs don’t even mind if Christians use “Allah”.

  14. Ajay says:

    For me, there is no question about leaving the country. I face problems and try to find ways to solve [them]. Nothing in this world is perfect, and it is not an excuse just to leave the country when the country has problems.

    Deal and bear with it. That is what patriotism means, and if you consider yourselves real Malaysians, face reality because you won’t find anywhere else in the world like Malaysia. It is a multiracial and multicultural place. Don’t let or make the issue on “Allah” so big that you [feel the] need to leave the country. Sigh.

  15. Ling Ling says:

    Malaysia seems to be progressing backward and becoming more childish in its propaganda and constant lack of common sense and logic by our leaders — sad, but that’s [how it is] on the political front. Beyond that, there’s family, rich culture, friends, heritage, good food and such that makes it worth staying for. Just don’t let the political bickering get to you too much.

  16. KL from ipoh says:

    Schooled overseas (without government assistance) and having lived and worked in North America for 15 years, we returned to Malaysia to settle down with the realisation that no country is perfect. You make a choice, you bear with the consequences, you make the best out of it. Seeing the “Malaysian glass” as half full or half empty is a reflection of one’s attitude in life. If such so-called “impossibilities” like the demise of the Berlin wall and the abolition of apartheid can happen, it can also happen here. Let struggle make you a better, not bitter, person.

  17. Lainie says:

    Amongst other things, I will leave if I don’t believe things will get better — to a level I find acceptable — in my lifetime.

  18. faith04 says:

    J Hassan:

    You really want to know why Herald uses the word ” Allah” in its BM section? Please check up http://www.heraldmalaysia.com, and why Allah can’t be substituted with “Tuhan” in Bible translation — by Dr Ng Kam Weng at http://themalaysianinsider.com/index.php/opinion/breaking-views/48629-allah-cant-be-substituted-with-tuhan-in-bible-translation–dr-ng-kam-weng

  19. gping says:

    I have been living in Beijing for a year where a lot of the times, a narrow-minded sense of nationalism prevails. I will not go into detail on how I feel about the issues plaguing Chinese citizens of different ethnicities and religious affinities.

    What I want to say is this: whenever my Chinese colleagues ask me about the languages we speak, the holidays we celebrate and the types of food we eat, I swell with pride sharing experiences from a unique Malaysian culture. They are often wide-eyed and envious of my tales about being invited to my friends’ homes for Deepavali, speaking English as a common language among my Malay, Indian and Chinese [Malaysian] friends, breaking fast together with my Muslim friends during Hari Raya Puasa, and of course, citing Mamak restaurants as my favorite hangout place. To certain cultures outside Malaysia, these are inconceivable ideas.

    I do not currently live in Malaysia and apart from one-week vacations, I do not know when I will return as a permanent resident again. What I do know is, I’m proud to be Malaysian and will always be, regardless of nonsensical politics and prejudices by a petty group of ignorant and hateful citizens.

  20. Aquarian says:

    Malaysia – Politicians = Paradise

  21. Watchdog says:

    I have already left — but to establish a new base for my children. There is little for them back home. My daughter is still in Malaysia but should leave in 2011.

    Once their new base is secure, I will return home. I am not prepared to leave my home just because people like Mahathir unilaterally declared Malaysia as a Islamic country. Today’s upheavals are a direct consequence of his political gamesmanship.

    But I don’t want my children to pay the price of my battle, so I will return to show my two fingers to all who have wrecked the country.

  22. Sean says:

    I see mention of not having the choice of striking out for pastures new. That’s easy to overlook (particularly for me!) – are there more than two options? When I read about the government of the Maldives shopping around for a new country, I wondered if any Malaysians would consider a straight swap.

    The reason we stay is exactly because this is our home (even I consider it my home). DIY is very popular in the UK, and there’s a common quip when people realise just how much work their house needs: “perhaps it’s time to move”. I think if you always respond to maintenance problems by moving, you’ll always have a house, but you’ll never have a home.

  23. Auzar says:

    Bersabarla…

  24. sarah says:

    Interesting question and one I cannot easily answer since I spend so much time complaining about the our state of public education; our misuse of the environment; our lackadaisical attitude about basic hygiene, littering and garbage; the below-par graduates that are being mass produced; the racism; the authorities.

    Yet, Malaysia is the country I was born in, where I studied, grew up and in which I discovered myself. I know no other place in this world I can call home. It’s a great country with great potential, unfortunately we have fallen so deep in the rut, with too much racism, corruption and deception soaked into every level of the system that I don’t see how things will ever change.

    While my relatives and friends abroad worry about things like how leaving the air conditioner on in the hotel room when they go out effects global warming, hear we are having cat fights about something as basic as the right to call upon God in one’s heart language. We are so behind intellectually… or it would seem.

    So… even though my husband and I are not looking to move abroad, we will if the right opportunity presents itself. It’s our children’s education and their future that we are concerned about.

  25. Marie says:

    Deb, I truly empathise. Last year, I interviewed for a job that I did not get, after my husband lambasted me for being “too stuck up” to work for the government. My interview experience was such that my foreign degrees and international work did nothing for me. Interviewers stared down at their papers throughout the entire time, and I basically felt like a fool answering questions like, “So, what do you think you can offer your country?”, when knowing full well they only want people who are somewhat vacuous, so they could pay you your salary in order for you need to keep your brain on a leash and just follow what they want you to do.

    Needless to say, my husband turned a corner… well, he actually went into shock. So confident was he that I would not be turned away that he finally realised that if Malaysia didn’t want me, we might as well go somewhere else. Not so much to be appreciated and all, but goodness, to be able to feed our family!

    Anyway, we are where we want to be right now. Yes, we are at a distance watching things go down/up in Malaysia. And really, I have no grievances towards the country I was born in. But I do realise that it is more important in life to not feel guilty about whether you should be in Malaysia and all that. The fact is, even when you’ve moved away, your so-called new life doesn’t begin just because you’ve disconnected your old one. It’s just one and the same big old life.

    Our job now is to inoculate and immunise our child with all the positive ways of being in this world, so that when he does go back to Malaysia, as a child or as an adult, church-burning and cow-head throwing doesn’t automatically wrench his gut; sear his brain with unholy images, and make him hate being back in the country.

    We hope that the biggest thing he learns from our venturing far is to have hope and to be the best that he can be, in or out of Malaysia.

    So, follow your heart, migrate if you want to, come back if you want to, just don’t feel you have to do anything. All the best to you!

  26. Tan says:

    Before 308, I did occasionally think of migrating to a foreign land, but since then I have thought twice. The support for PR in GE 12, especially in big towns and cities is overwhelming. This is where the most number of educated people with access to new media, and who enjoy the best infrastructure, live. Since little or no space is provided for them to voice their unhappiness in the management of country’s wealth, such as corruption and abuse of power by their leaders, the new media has filled the void and has been advancing in lightning speed. So, I suggest those who are thinking of migrating, either for economic reasons or out of frustration, do think twice. Voice [your feelings] through various blogs as someone in both [sides] [is] listening. Perhaps, after GE 13 and if a two-party system really materialises, then you may not think of [migrating]. After all Malaysia is still our home.

  27. Rachel says:

    It is ironic that sometimes we seem to get very concerned about the future of our children being raised in Malaysia when we ourselves are born and educated in Malaysia (or at least partly) and I dare say Malaysians generally do very well abroad.

    I would like to share a little exchange that I had with my ex-boss, who is a very kind English gentleman. While we were having lunch, I told him that I recently went to Egypt and told him that it’s such an amazing country with so much history. He agreed that Egypt is one country that he would really love to go. On asking why he doesn’t, he said that his wife thought it’s unsafe. For the benefit of those unaware, there was a tourist bus bombing incident back in the ’90s which killed many western tourists. So I assured him that the security seems pretty tight there and it should be okay. He then asked me if Malaysia is an Islamic country, I said yes. Then he joked that at least I could pledge alliance with the Muslims if anything happens since Malaysia is an Islamic state. For him, he would have no such chance. It then dawned on me that he does have a point and I never really have to worry about being a target of terrorist attacks. Well, not that this should be a reason for continuing to be a Malaysian. But I think we do sometimes take for granted the diverse culture we have in Malaysia and instead of trying to make others think the way we think, we should embrace differences.

    I don’t know what would make me return to Malaysia, especially after the church attacks. It’s all over the news abroad. But I had a great childhood growing up in Malaysia. I like the people who are generally simple and honest. I remember playing with my neighbours on the streets when I was young and going to my neighbours whenever I wanted to. There is no such community in Western societies, they are growing more and more secluded. In fact, it’s becoming a social problem now. So, the grass is not always greener on the other side. I want my children to have the same childhood like I do, when things were not so complicated and they can simply enjoy being children.

  28. returnee says:

    My answer: because if I leave, they’ll have won. It’s my country too. That said, I’m based in Malaysia, but not there most of the time now, as I’m working with an NGO in a country that’s very much less developed. I suppose the point at which I would start thinking about leaving is if the country descended into chaos and violence, e.g. if war broke out, or if I didn’t have any friends or family left there.

  29. swt says:

    I like to think that this is the process we have to go through. Break up the problem and rebuild. It’s painful, and I have my doubts the powers-that-be have the will and self-sacrifice to do it. Even if I stay, I do not think my children would call this home. I have always thought of staying and fighting for my right to stay. Now with the alarming state of our leadership, public services, education, healthcare etc., I am thinking, should I want a front seat to this disaster and even participate in it to see if there is a happy ending? Or do I want to live elsewhere and come back for the food? I miss the food, dammit!

  30. Antares says:

    What keeps me in Malaysia? What keeps all of us on planet Earth? It’s the beauty, the variety, the blessedness! Look beyond the mundane distractions of power politics and money-grubbers and truly see what’s all around us. We’re BIGGER than all our petty fears and inbred prejudices!

  31. SFMalay says:

    First, kudos to Deborah for bringing up this subject matter. I have been living, studying and working in the US for the last 12 years. Therefore as a Malay Muslim, I can share my view with readers from my own personal experiences.

    I pursued overseas opportunity without any assistance from the government or corporate companies. I [saw] no opportunity at all in Malaysia even as a so-called bumiputera. My family is really poor, and they still live in a village where I grew up … Some of my best friends were Chinese, Indian, Baby, Nyonya and Malay [Malaysians], and this was the best gift ever. I treasure my friendship with them to this day.

    What I love about Malaysia is the people, cultures, and food — yes, we are a “makan” society. I agree with most readers here that you can’t get mamak stalls anywhere. It’s only in Malaysia that I’ve always had the joy of seeing different races come together and eat nasi lemak and drink teh tarik without worrying what religion one embraces.

    In the US, they have racism issues as well. No country is perfect and no system is infallible. We are bound to make mistakes, but we have to learn from them. Let history be our greatest lesson. Malaysia is a wonderful country, but at times when situations like this happen, one can’t stop thinking, why must it happen in our beloved land? It’s 2010, people! We are no longer living in medieval times!

    Malaysians, especially the Malays, ought to come together to help fellow Malaysians and show our love and support regardless of our different belief systems. God bless Malaysia and the people as well.

  32. Behonest says:

    Dear Debra

    Please do not rationalise against common sense. You are deluding yourself and your family. Malaysia is not going to change as the number of asses has reach a critical mass. This of course was a long time in the making starting from Razak, reinforced and aggravated by Mamak and now subtly encouraged by double-speaking cousins. Join me, I love Malaysia but I left after 513. I saw no future then and I see no future now for honest decent Malaysians, including Malays. Don’t waste your time and your family’s well being by trying to believe in false hopes. You will in fact be a very loyal Malaysian supporting the NEP by giving your place to one of God’s chosen people.

  33. magebane says:

    Thousands of people are leaving Malaysia to find greener pastures elsewhere. While some people have the privilege, many like me don’t. So, whether one loves or hates this country, he or she would have to stay.

  34. D Lim says:

    I love Malaysia but I am also very frustrated with the politics and increasing crime rates in the country. I am frustrated with our inability to put racial differences aside and aim for the common good instead of harping over our little differences.

    The Malaysia I knew when I was young was better than today. I mixed with friends from different races; we visited each other and we didn’t worry about little things like having to serve packet drinks because our glasses are washed in no-Muslim homes. I could voice my different opinions about aspects of society without offending others.

    Where is that Malaysia? Kids no longer mix with other races because the adults create barriers for them. Where we don’t mix and get to know and accept each other, we will never grow together. It is human nature that when there are too many constraints, it is easier to avoid. Hence, the more we are unable to live together with our differences, the more segregated we will be. The consequences are already felt.

    I have left Malaysia for the sake of my children just as many Malaysians have. Many Malaysians leave not for economic reasons; it is for the future. Life is not a bed of roses overseas, but the glimmer of hope for a less discriminatory educational system and government policies draws us overseas.

    I still love Malaysia for no one can take away the few decades I spent in my country of birth and relationships of my families and friends still living in Malaysia. They mean a lot to me. I care and worry when bad things happen to Malaysia. But whether my kids will still feel the love I have for my country of birth is something they have to work out for themselves.

  35. Nic says:

    What is keeping me in the country?

    2009 economic recession, nasi lemak and good sambal belacan.

  36. feistgeist says:

    I’ve been studying overseas for nearly five years now and this year I’m adamant on coming back to start my career. People think I’m crazy but I have to agree with you, it’s about the potential. Malaysia always manages to surprise and excite me. I always feel like I’m discovering a part of myself when I discover something new about our country. Maybe the money’s better and life is easier in other parts of the world, but living happily in a first-world country can get boring. Critical issues in first-world countries can be so transparent sometimes, it stresses me out more because there’s nothing worth fighting for! I’m too young to skip all the drama. Heheh. Maybe some other time.

    Nonetheless, my fears of living in Malaysia have always had to do with persecution due to my liberal views on race and religion — I’m spiritual, but not very religious. I’ve often received harsh criticisms throughout my lifetime from fellow Muslims, and if they ever got violent, that would be my breaking point. Religious freedom in Malaysia to me is not about being Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhists or Animalists, it’s about the freedom to practise your own spirituality so long as you maintain good values and it does no one else harm. I doubt I’d see that day in my lifetime, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

  37. Miriam L says:

    -Some of the most striking works of art, photography and literature have come out of less than comfortable circumstances.

    -The idea of leaving for anything better is irrelevant.

    -[...]
    -[...]

    From someone who will alternate between Malaysia and other horizons only because of love, and NOT for what Malaysia ISN’T.


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