By Michael Lee | TMI
Once, on the way to the airport in the cold dead of night, I had a heated discussion with an acquaintance of my father from the US about having a life outside of Malaysia.
I was in my teens then, fresh from the Malaysian public education system and was a staunch supporter of our government’s policies. The man who initiated the discussion, on the other hand, was a successful overseas Malaysian himself and was going on about the many merits of leaving Malaysia for a better life abroad. He himself had left Malaysia decades ago after getting his degree and has since found success in an auto-parts business he founded.
Throughout the drive, he cherry picked on the rampant corruption and injustices, particularly against non-Bumiputeras, like us, deep set in the Malaysian social, economic and political system.
While I believed most of what he said to be true, it was not something I haven’t heard before.
Again and again, my defence was that Malaysia was young in being independent compared with the US and needed more time to mature before the inequalities and inefficiencies fade away. The conversation ended in, what I believe, a stalemate, with his detailed reasoning unable to pierce the wall that was my youthful optimism. This took place about 18 years ago.
Fast forward another 6-7 years, in a mamak stall somewhere south of the Klang Valley, with my two friends, both many years my senior. One of them raised his decision to move to Taiwan and to start a life there with his Taiwanese wife. Coincidentally, he had just a few months previously returned from Taiwan after his privately-funded tertiary education there ended. Despite our suggestion, he did not believe that bringing his new Taiwanese wife to Malaysia instead would be an alternative worth considering.
Again, as with my father’s friend, I attempted to sway him home, albeit unsuccessfully. Halfway into the drinks, his reasons for leaving unmasked into, again, the injustices, perceived or real, that plagued the non-Bumis in Malaysia. He saw no agreeable future for him in Malaysia. There was nothing we could have said to convince him otherwise. He moved to Taiwan later that year and has since worked hard to start a small food shop that sustained his family’s life there.
By far the most poignant experience I have on the matter was with my distant cousin in Ireland. He was there working part time as a small-time cook for a former Malaysian in a two-man operated neighbourhood curry shop to finance his culinary studies in a nearby town. He studied during the morning and worked in the afternoon and late into the night. On weekends, he worked all day and well into the night. All the while, he stayed in the cramp and dusty attic of the curry shop by himself, sleeping on an old mattress on the floor.
It was during my visit in the middle of winter that I experienced for myself first hand just how lonely and bitter that type of living arrangement was. Unlike the previous two, it was obvious, even to me, that the man did not need any convincing Malaysia is good, because evidently, his willingness to go through what he had been going through daily was conviction enough for all to see. As it worked out, a handful of years of perseverance later, he is now residing in UK as a successful chef and, the last I heard, had since succeeded in his own pastry business there.
On a related note, and I’m not sure if it’s still the going trend these days, but back when I was a secondary student at my Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK), I have watched many of my better-than-average secondary classmates whisked away to Singapore via the Asean scholarship and, to my knowledge, none have returned back to Malaysia. Our southern neighbour was so keen on Malaysian academic achievers that some of those who failed to apply for the Asean scholarship programme were approached individually after their STPM exam.
A close friend of mine attests to this as she herself has experienced this. In her first few months in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Nanyang Technology University of Singapore (NTU) contacted her directly at her house to offer her a full scholarship for a degree course in information technology. Ironically, the course offered has always been her first choice but the course she was studying at UKM at the time was the last on her list of choices.
Due to family obligations at that point in time of her life, she was forced to decline the offer. But this was not the end to it. Further to this, NTU called her again days later to ask her reasons for declining their offer and gave her the opportunity to reconsider again.
After much thought and consultation with her friends and family which was unanimous in their bias, she took up NTU’s offer and left for Singapore. She is now working with a multinational corporation there and has since taken up permanent residence in Singapore.
The above are just an inkling of some of the real cases that I have personally come across. I don’t think it’s necessary to point out other examples as I’m pretty sure a lot of Malaysians may be already intimately acquainted with this phenomenon. Given the very recent World Bank statistics on Malaysia’s human capital outflow, the above, unfortunately, are but a scratch on the surface.
The fact was not lost on me, of course, that the Malaysian government throughout the years has had more than its fair share of unflattering news, deserved or otherwise. But I always held on to the hope that all the corruption, inefficiencies and misdirection would be scraped away eventually in due time. Not so because of some inner sense of righteousness or of my own naive optimism in the conscience from our leaders but from a more practical and realistic standpoint — that being, because we live in among an increasingly competitive global economy and we are quickly running out of excuses and options.
But that did not happen.
As a nation, we have been steadily but surely reaching an impasse. The fact that we are overlooked by foreign and even domestic investors nowadays shows that Malaysia is no longer the “Asian tiger” it once was.
The rise of the opposition political parties after the 2008 “tsunami” elections intensified the in-fighting among our leaders and stirred the incumbent BN leaders to become more preoccupied in staying in power rather than to govern the country properly for once.
The news we read in the media grew more and more unbelievable and outrageous. From unsinkable submarines to RM25,000 laptops purchased by civil servants, from the provocative act of dragging of a cow’s head in public to the Molotov cocktail attacks on churches, from the rise of Perkasa/Pembela to the Allah debacle in east Malaysia, from calling for the abandonment of English in our education system to the recent import of 300 American teachers, etc, etc. The list goes on, even today.
And while those sensationalistic news peppered itself regularly all over the local media, boiling beneath the surface are the bread-and-butter issues that have been increasingly plaguing the day-to-day lives of the average working Malaysian.
From the price of homes to the price of food, the rapid rise in the cost of living is now more prominent than ever. For an ordinary salaryman like myself, even as a degree holder, I foresee that my meagre income will no longer be able to meet my young family’s future financial needs.
I found myself starting to apply for a job overseas since a year ago, just to chance the possibility that some company outside of Malaysia might want to consider hiring me. In the beginning, my family, I especially, had been very reluctant to even consider leaving as I have a very rewarding career in Malaysia. Also, Malaysia is my home. I was born and raised in Malaysia and has always felt that Malaysia is a wonderful place to call live. This is not solely because I’ve been told this repeatedly by the government-sponsored media since I was young, or because I grew up well integrated with our public national school system philosophies.
To cut a long story short, and to my surprise, a job did find me months later, and following in my predecessor’s footsteps, my wife and I, together with our three-year old son have recently moved to Hong Kong. To be honest, the overall package offered was only slightly more lucrative than my job in Malaysia when one factors in the cost of living. Even so, it did not affect our eventual decision to take the job because that was not the sole reason for applying for an overseas job in the first place.
I do not think it’s necessary to go through the faults of Malaysia, or more specifically, its government, just to prove that it has faults. Perfection is not something to be expected from an individual let alone from a collection of provincial populists strung loosely together by bureaucracy. Understandably, no government is perfect. But that’s not really the point.
Even as I type this, I am watching the headline news on HK local television network talking about the effects of the recent minimum wage implementation. I believe that this is a newsworthy issue that directly affects the majority of HK residents. Now contrast this with the headline news in Malaysia two days ago about a major Malaysian newspaper inciting fear against the Christians for allegedly wanting a Christian Malaysian prime minister?
I cannot speak for others who had left the country as to their reasons or their motivations for doing so. I can only speak for myself and, to an extent, my wife. I came to seek our fortunes overseas because I feel that the opportunity cost of just staying put is far too high. Furthermore, in my line of work, I may soon find it difficult to get work in the future due to the shrinking pool of my potential employers.
With regards to the human capital outflow, it is my humble opinion that the government should take steps to build up the country properly first before even considering setting up ad hoc agencies like Talent Corp.
If Malaysians like me who has only recently left Malaysia would not consider moving back to Malaysia solely based upon any temporary and half-hearted measures by our Talent Corp, what are the chances of enticing Malaysians that have been overseas for much longer than I and more entrenched in their lives abroad?
If anything, I believe that, at the moment, the government would be better focused in creating reasons and opportunities for Malaysians living in Malaysia now to prevent them from leaving rather than waste money and effort trying to lure overseas Malaysians to come back.
No one really wants to go through the difficult decision of leaving home, away from family and friends for an extended amount of time if they felt that they had a reasonable choice in the first place.
Michael Lee reads The Malaysian Insider.