Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Fleeing, Abandoning, Migrating

Written by johnleemk on 1:00:08 pm Sep 8, 2006.

More people than ever are migrating from Malaysia to live and work overseas. This trend is particularly evident among the young; most people with ambition dream of living somewhere other than home. (Certainly, few would reject the opportunity to at least study overseas.) The worrying thing, however, is the nature of this brain drain; instead of returning to apply their skills learnt elsewhere, many Malaysians end up domiciled in some place other than Malaysia.

The conventional explanation in the blogosphere would have something to do with racial discrimination and/or governmental incompetence. Now, although I've blogged extensively about both, I don't think one can be so simplistic as to attribute the brain drain to these factors alone.

Let us look at one particular feature of the brain drain, namely the fact that most who do migrate are non-Malay. Inevitably, one must reach a conclusion involving ethnicity. However, the appropriate conclusion to be drawn need not be the simplistic chants of some harebrained bloggers, and commentators at places like Malaysia Today.

At one end of the spectrum are those who accuse such people of lacking a particular spirit of patriotism. "These non-Malay buggers," they say, "don't love this country. That's why they left." I'm inclined to disagree with this assessment. If you ask those who have left or plan to leave, Malaysia is their home - and they love it. Most who leave don't have a burning hatred of this country or its people - its government, perhaps (maybe even probably), but not the country itself.

The opposite view would insist that these non-Malays have been discriminated against. "How," this side would declare, "can these people stay in a place where they are discriminated against?" While I've used this argument to defend migration as an option, I would not necessarily describe racial discrimination as the ultimate motivating factor in migration. I would instead view it as a tipping factor - the straw that breaks the camel's back.

The thing which got me thinking about all this was a recent BBC News article about Cuban migration. (Unfortunately I have been unable to locate it; otherwise, I would have linked to it.) The BBC's analysis concluded that most Cuban migrants - the bright, young, and educated offspring of socialism - yearn to leave as a way of dealing with the less than ideal situation in Cuba when it comes to civil liberties. Migration is the easy way out for those who lack the passion or idealism to actively fight for what they desire - in this case civil liberties.

I would say that although such a picture does somewhat resemble the Malaysian portrait of migration, this is not a real, main motivating factor in driving people to flee in droves. (Fleeing in droves they are; ask any young person in the city and they can tell you stories of best friends and classmates who just upped and left with their families.) If so, then, what could be the case?

I believe the truth is rather prosaic; many are mainly driven by economic factors to migrate. The Malaysian economy and standards of living cannot compare to those of the countries people favour for migration such as Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, etc. If one can make the cut and gets a decent offer, why not go?

At the same time, in addition to that social contract I oft favour mentioning, other issues contribute to the racial disparity among emigrants. The Malays are protected to a certain extent by the Constitutional provisions and government affirmative action policies related to their special status. As such, they do not feel the need to migrate as acutely. Nevertheless, many who can hack it overseas often do end up overseas; Bakri Musa is one prominent example. The education system also comes into play, as Malays are statistically more likely to gain entry to local tertiary institutions than non-Malays, forcing the latter to seek a degree elsewhere. This provides an opportunity for enterprising countries such as Singapore to woo such students and retain their services.

There is also an unsavoury issue that many are reluctant to discuss: the possibility of another, and worser, May 13. It's not a pleasant possibility to consider, but the fact is that it always remains a possibility. The New Economic Policy and its attendant aggressive economic policies were predicated on a growing economic pie to avoid robbing Peter to pay Paul. Should the economy begin to shrink, and the government be unable to contain the fallout, it would not be too farfetched to expect rioting in the streets again. Irresponsible blockheads are always there to stir up unpleasant sentiments. Presently they are part of the lunatic fringe because of the expanding economy. Should things change - as they inevitably will, unless the business cycle ceases to exist - the lunatic fringe may suddenly be the majority.

I haven't managed to touch on as many issues as I would have liked, and I know this piece can be confusing at times, but hopefully we have been able to look beyond the simplistic homilies of the Malaysian blogosphere. Not everything is coloured by race; relatively speaking, one might say the situation here is still not too bad (despite keris-waving and whatnot). The main issue simply is: can we earn a living here that is commensurate with our ability and needs? If we can, we will stay. If we can't, we will go. Ethnicity is incidental. It plays a role, but rolling back the government's racial policies would not be a magical solution to the problem of the brain drain - something many bloggers seem to enjoy overlooking.

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