Can overseas Malaysians contribute?
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 02 Nov 2012
At the Singapore FreedomFilmFest 2012 where the three documentaries were screened (including The Rights of The Dead, on the late Teoh Beng Hock’s story), a sizeable number of Malaysians interspersed the audience. Roughly making up 20% of the crowd size, the question-and-answer session following the screening reminded me of the aspirations Malaysians living overseas continue to have about their country, back home.
The interactions I have with Malaysians in Singapore usually centre on whether or not things are improving back home. During the discussion, one person even asked if life in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore is better for me as a young Malaysian. There is a genuine sense of struggle that I felt amongst them – the emotional ties they have with their tanahairku, but yet making the tough decision to leave because of better salaries and an education system and other reasons like marriage.
The World Bank report on Brain Drain released last year said that out of the one million Malaysians living abroad, close to 60% are in Singapore, out of whom almost 90% are Chinese. Two out of ten Malaysians with a tertiary degree migrated in 2000 to Singapore and other OECD countries, more than twice the world average. More than a third of those interviewed cited career prospects as the primary reason for leaving, and social injustice as the second reason.
With this staggering number of talented Malaysians abroad, the question has always been: how can the country continue to grow without them around? But the truth is that migration is a global phenomenon, and all developing countries are facing this problem equally. The best way to tackle the issue is to accept that cross-border movement is inevitable. People will move to where they feel opportunities exist, and trying to stem this tide may be futile.
The more pertinent things to ask are: first, how can Malaysia be so attractive that its citizens would prefer staying back? And second, even if they were to move abroad, how would it be possible for them to contribute from wherever they are, to the development of the country? The first issue is something Talent Corporation is trying to tackle, but it cannot do this alone given that it is the structural problems of Malaysia that need working on – if the education system was improved, economic barriers of cronyism and corruption removed to allow for greater opportunities, and the handling of the police force was more systematic, for example, things might change in the minds of those intending to migrate.
However, the assumption that Malaysians cannot help the country by being away must also be questioned. One of the best tools at our disposal in helping to open up minds is the Internet. Because we have a fairly high Internet penetration rate at 60%, and an equally high social media penetration rate of 91% among those who have access to the Internet, the power of online organisation should not be underestimated. This is precisely the medium within which overseas Malaysians can, and already have been, contributing to. Writing articles or using the medium of video is just one way of doing it.
The experience of overseas Malaysians in their respective fields of interest is an important resource that ought to be tapped into. All around the world, Malaysian experts exist in a variety of fields including medicine, engineering, the arts, and science, all of which are areas that will be needed to expand our own economy in the immediate and long-term future. These professionals can contribute to Malaysia by either conducting trainings for locals, or building networks with Malaysians for transfer of knowledge.
MyOverseasVote, a group of overseas Malaysians advocating for their right to vote in the elections, believe that Malaysian citizens overseas can be engaged “in charting the future course of the country”. As such, they are bringing legal proceedings against the Election Commission, challenging the Election (Registration of Electors) Regulations 2002 that only members of the Armed Forces, public servants, students and their spouses living overseas are eligible to register and vote as absent voters.
One argument against overseas voting is that because they are not physically present in Malaysia, and are therefore not paying taxes to the Malaysian government, they should not have a right to determine policies and plans for citizens within the country.
However, this is a fallacy, given that many Malaysians abroad do harbour hopes of returning to the country. They may also have vested interests within their home land for their parents and relatives who still live in Malaysia.
Can overseas Malaysians contribute? It is my opinion that it is a resounding yes. Especially for the 600,000 Malaysians living in Singapore, it is likely that they form an extremely important pool of influence and opinion-shaping that would be crucial for the future. Coming from all over Malaysia, they are more likely to return for Chinese New Year, other festivities, or to vote, given the proximity of the country to home.
In one sense, Malaysia can be likened to a lover who can make or break your heart. It is hoped that the social and political movements of change taking place in and outside of the country will help to eventually convince overseas Malaysians that they, too, still have a crucial role to play in charting the course of the country forward.