ISSN 2330-717X

Malaysia’s Secret Brain Drain – Analysis

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Its just not non-Malays migrating from Malaysia 

It has long been known that a significant number of non-Malay Malaysians have migrated to other countries in search of more opportunities and a better life. The establishment narrative has been ‘tak apa’ or ‘good riddance’, or more thoughtfully, an explanation that this exodus of Malaysians from the country is just part of a general regional and world trend.

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Names like Jimmy Choo, Tsai Ming-Liang, Kwen Liew, Zang Toi, Yuna, Bernard Chandran, Tan Hock Eng, Ng Yi-Ren, James Wan, Pua Khein-Seng, and Penny Wong come up, just to name a few successful expatriate Malaysians. In addition, there are thousands of expatriate Malaysians running or holding key positions in companies in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, and even the United States. 

Current statistics of the brain drain from Malaysia are difficult to come by, as it’s a very sensitive issue. What we do know is that the brain drain slowed a little from 2016, and dramatically dropped when Pakatan Harapan won government in 2018 and the Covid restrictions began in 2020. However, recent media reports indicate that Malaysia’s brain drain is increasing at the rate of 6 percent per annum once again. 

If one talks to members of the Malaysian diaspora in Australia, New Zealand, United States, and Britain, there is a significant number of Malays exiting Malaysia to migrate to other countries. 

Back in 2007, controversy erupted when then deputy home affairs minister Tan Chai Ho released statistics showing that out of 107,000 Malaysians who had renounced their citizenship since independence, 79,000 were Malays. 

Three decades ago, those Malays who went overseas and didn’t return were those who either married a local when they were studying overseas, or got a job offer they couldn’t refuse. However, this demographic is very different today with whole families migrating abroad, based on reports by local Malay community organizations assisting these families settle into their new country.

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The author has spoken to a number of Malays who have migrated abroad to find their reasons. All mentioned the better economic opportunities, higher salaries, better education systems, and better quality of life for them and their families. However, straight after that ramble, many talked about not being able to freely express themselves in Malaysia, and the need to socially and intellectually comply with the prevailing narratives, rituals, and codes set by society. 

Many Malays, who are Muslims, object to being told how they should practice Islam. These Malays are not disinterested in Islam, they have a passion for the religion, as indicated by their active participation at local mosques and religious schools in their new country. They just want to practice Islam how they believe Islam should be practiced. 

Today there are Malay mosques in Perth, Sydney, and Melbourne. Malays in Australia have also been involved in building several mosques back in Malaysia. 

Many went on to complain about the political situation, which some said was ‘hopeless.’ The continued ‘fighting’ between ‘corrupt’ politicians who just want power, and don’t really care about improving society. They reject elitism, saying things like ‘there are more Datuks at the market in the morning than there are apples for sale.’ They turn to the society they are living in now and say, ‘here nobody cares about position and titles like back home.’ 

Professionals and in particular academics the author spoke to, said that nepotism and favouritism within the workplace prevented hardworking, honest and high achievers from rising in their careers. They complained their bosses were more like politicians than academics or professionals. The corporate culture within the organizations they worked within stifled creativity and the ability to express ideas freely. Work tended to be orientated around achieving the personal agendas of bosses who wanted to rise in their own careers. Those who couldn’t conform to this culture were often bullied and became very unhappy within their workplaces. 

Malay entrepreneurs complained about the bureaucracy in Malaysia and difficulty in getting the necessary licenses to operate, and claim it is much easier to do business in countries like Australia and New Zealand. 

Malay entrepreneurs within the arts the author spoke to in London and Amsterdam spoke of the inability to freely express themselves within the arts and entertainment industries in Malaysia and LGBT issues. 

All the above reasons run contrary to the narrative that Malays are attracted to other countries due to the pull of better opportunities, where the grass seems to be greener. In contrast, most reasons given by Malay migrants indicate push factors that influence them to seek an alternative future outside of Malaysia. 

Although some of these push factors are structural issues like low wage rates which is complex to remedy in the short term, issues such as meritocracy in the workplace, can be changed with a strong will by Malaysia’s political leadership. Other reasons given, the repressiveness of society in general and restrictions in practising Islam the way most were brought up, indicates some dissatisfaction with the way Malaysian society is heading.

A major migration agent in Kuala Lumpur told the writer that there is an increasing number of Malays seeking migration visas to Australia, so they can be on the ready to exit the country, should they feel the need. According to this migration agent, 15 percent of migrant visa application to Australia are now from Malays. Currently 15 percent of 64,000 visa overstayers in Australia are Malaysians. Although, there is no statistical breakup in Australian statistics, members of Malay associations in Australia admit a number of members are overstayers. An article in the local Malaysian media highlighted that it is not just non-Malays seeking refugee status in Australia. 

Today there are more than 2 million Malaysian abroad. It’s too easy to associate the brain drain with discrimination against non-Malays and an environment that prevents equality of opportunity. However, many of them are Malays who have felt strongly enough to leave. Consequently, Malaysia is now losing some of its best Malay doctors, engineers, scientists, university professors, and other professionals due to the environment Malaysia’s leadership has created in the country.  

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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