There are people who say, “I am not interested in politics, it is not my cup of tea.”  Strange thing is, politics affect your daily life and the cup of tea you are drinking.

I had an interesting conversation with a friend this week about some of the choices made by people we know.

Over dinner, my friend related to me about his brother who had worked and lived in France for many years and how he had decided to return to Malaysia for his retirement, only to find out that his citizenship had been revoked.  He tried to appeal to the government, but was turned down and so returned to France dejected.

He also related about his sister’s family who, likewise, wished to return, but after coming back for a holiday and looking over the socio-political environment and inequality here, changed their mind. My friend further told me that many people he knows are making plans to emigrate to Singapore or Australia.

It was a dinner conversation that left me with a heavy heart because I knew that these are not isolated accounts, but all too common and true, attested to by statistics. (For more numbers on immigrants and emigrants, Tindak Malaysia has done the homework for us and you can read about it here).


The economic and social impact from the loss of these citizens are hard to quantify empirically, but would be colossal in the long-term. We are not talking just about the funds which would flow out with them but also with it their talents. Remember, most are migrating to countries like Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, etc, where migration criteria are stringent. In short, they would only accept the highly educated, most talented or wealthier from us.

It is a tragedy made worse because it shouldn’t be.

In my humble opinion, Malaysia is still one of the best countries to live in. Geographically, we are strategically located in one of the main shipping lanes of the world. Almost all our lands are fertile and arable. We are blessed with an abundance of both renewable and non-renewable natural resources. Our climate, though a little humid, is mostly stable and comfortable and relatively free from natural disasters like earthquakes, typhoons and floods that plague our neighbours regularly.

But all these endowments are pale in comparison to our greatest asset – our human resource. As a melting pot, with people from some of earth’s greatest civilizations here, we have all the right ingredients to forge a great people and make an impact on human history. But the cooks who are entrusted with cooking this great stew have messed it up for us big time. We have messed it up and people are leaving.

Perhaps, you, too, are one of those people re-considering your future with Malaysia, or at least have had the thought cross your mind. The way I look at it, we have three choices before us:


According to a World Bank Economic Monitor report in 2011, there are more than one million Malaysians living abroad, with Singapore absorbing almost 57% or 570,000 of these. Ethnically these are mostly Chinese, though not exclusively. The reasons cited are poor governance and lack of meritocracy issues.  In short, they don’t see a future for themselves and their children to remain here and our loss is their gain. Some of our brightest are holding high office in Singapore and around the world.

Recognizing this loss, the government initiated a programme called Talent Corp to attract back those who have left by offering them various incentives to return.  According to Talent Corp’s CEO Johan Mahmood Merican, the greater significance is that 200,000 of the one million Malaysians overseas are tertiary-educated.  Since there are about 2 million tertiary-educated Malaysians in the workforce here, that means one in ten of Malaysians who would otherwise be contributing to Malaysia are living abroad. “And it warrants attention because we need this qualified and experienced group for our economic transformation,” said Johan.

According to Talent Corp’s press release this year, a total of 1,192 Returning Expert Programme applications were approved since its inception 18 months ago.  While commendable, it is still a paltry number compared to the 200,000 who are still not returning.

Further, in 2010, Deputy Foreign Minister Senator A. Kohilan Pillay reported that 304,358 Malaysians had migrated from March 2008 till August 2009 compared with 139,696 Malaysians in 2007.

The fact remains that, unless and until we address the root causes for people to want to migrate away, the efforts of Talent Corp would gain little traction and the brain drain would continue to our detriment as a nation.


Another option we have if we are not planning to emigrate is to adopt an “encampment mentality”. We say to ourselves, “Why bother with what’s going on in this country? As long as my family and I are alright, that is all that matters.”

This is perhaps the choice of many Malaysians today and who can blame them? After all, don’t we all want a good life for ourselves, free of hassle and concerns? We see inequalities, lack of opportunities and poor governance as road bumps or potholes on the road of life which we would try our best to circumnavigate by being tolerant, closing one eye and resigning to it. Life becomes bearable when we have such qualities and so manage our blood pressure better by it.

We encamp around what we are comfortable with – social circles that share our language, values, religion and cultures.  We build for ourselves nice little “ghettoes” in our nation, where we feel at home with our own kind.

Today as we move around in our cities, we see such “ghettoes” where one would be forgiven; if you are an “outsider” you would feel like you have walked into a foreign land.  The Chinese have sections of cities and even whole towns where the Chinese culture and language is predominant.  Indians have their communities in every city and towns as do the Malays and the other groups. I honestly hate to use such racial terms to describe ourselves but the fact is, we still see ourselves through such lenses.

The encampment is not confined to racial lines but also to social and faith-based lines. The English-speaking well-to-do crowd from all races get together in their country clubs, the Christians in their own church communities, the Sikhs around their gurdwaras, Muslims in their mosques, Indians in their temples and the poor in their inner city slums.

From a human social behaviour angle, the choice to encamp around what we are comfortable with is an instinctive one, especially when one feels threatened and vulnerable. Herding together with our own kind gives us a sense of identity and strength, making life bearable and even enjoyable.

However, not only does this option fail to deal with the larger problem that exists, it also adds to the problem in at least two ways:

Firstly, the problem of poor governance, corruption, injustices and inequalities remain and the people who profit from it continue to have a free rein perpetuating it. In their hearts (if they have one), they would say, “Please stay in your ghettoes, your churches, your temples, your country clubs, your kampungs and new villages, while we continue to plunder!”

Secondly, our ghettoes are a powder keg ready to explode one day. We grow farther and farther from each other, pursuing our own cultures, languages and religions. We have become strangers to each other and one day we will see each other as enemies. When the time comes, the same politicians who kept us apart will incite us to fight each other. It will happen; it’s just a matter when, not if.

We do not want to see an Arab Spring in our beautiful country, where the people are so desperate that they would be prepared to die for a morsel of freedom. And die they did. Will my children or grandchildren one day be as desperate as those Egyptians because of my choice to do nothing now?


There is another choice we can make and that is to actively engage the political process. There are people who say, “I am not interested in politics, it is not my cup of tea.”  Strange thing is, politics affect your daily life and the cup of tea you are drinking.

Instead of saying, “I am interested in politics”, I’d rather say, “I am interested in decisions made by politicians that would affect my well-being and that of my children.” How can we sit idly by while people elected by and paid by us are passing laws that curtail our freedom and future prospects?

Engagement or having a say in our future is not limited to voting in the General Elections but it can happen on a daily basis. Some of the ways we can engage the political process are:

  • Being well-informed of what politicians, government agencies and city councils are doing and whether they are doing their appointed jobs.
  • Highlighting issues, provide constructive suggestions and feedback.
  • If nothing is done and we are suffering the consequences of failures, we can take the matter further by going to the press, organising petitions, and even protestations.
  • Reporting to the relevant authorities any wrongdoings like corruption and abuse of power by government officials.
  • Supplementing and complementing the work of government by volunteering for social work like caring for the aged and handicapped, doing new voters’ registration and serving as polling agents on polling day.
  • Working together with lawmakers to craft laws that are consistent with the Federal Constitution and that address certain shortcomings in our society.  Just be aware that because they are YBs, they would know everything, they still need us.

UndiMsia! has produced a book called Activating Malaysians: The D-I-Y Toolkit which would be very helpful to Malaysians who choose engagement rather than emigration or encampment.  You can read a review of the book HERE.


English writer Gilbert K. Chesterton once said, “You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it.” All of us have the freedom to choose between emigration, encampment or engagement when it comes to our future in this nation. As for me and my household, we have chosen to stay and engage as much as we can with the political process as citizens because we know, selfishly, that it would affect our lives.

Or maybe as Chesterton suggested, it is because we love this country and consider it our home, not just a guest-house at which we can stay or leave depending on the services we are getting.

Thomas Fann blogs at

Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Some 25 years ago I made a decision to be counted amongst the good men and in many small ways attempted...

One reply on “The Choices Before Us – Emigration, Encampment or Engagement”

Comments are closed.