The Choices Before Us – Emigration, Encampment or Engagement

By Thomas Fann

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many years and how he had decided to return to Malaysia for his retirement only to find out that his citizenship has been revoked. He tried to appeal to the government but was turned down and he returned to France dejected.

He also related about his sister’s family who also wanted 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 know that these are not isolated stories 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 it would be colossal in the long-term. We are not talking here just about the funds that 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 criterias 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.

Maybe you are also one of those people who are re-considering your future with Malaysia, or at least the thought has crossed 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 and Singapore absorbed 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 come back. 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. Johan said. “And it warrants attention because we need this qualified and experienced group for our economic transformation.”

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 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.”

Perhaps this choice is the one chosen by most 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 we can 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 are predominant. Indians have their communities in every cities and towns as do the Malays and the other groups. Actually I 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.

But this option not only doesn’t deal with the larger problem that exists, it 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 one day my children or grandchildren 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 feedbacks.

● 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.

● Report to the relevant authorities any wrongdoings like corruption and abuse of power by government officials.

● Supplement and complement the work of government by volunteering for social works 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 come out with 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.


The English writer Gilbert K. Chesterton 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 and not just a guesthouse that we can stay or leave depending on the services we are getting.

Thomas Fann blogs at

  1. #1 by waterfrontcoolie on Saturday, 20 October 2012 - 12:25 am

    Of course if you have the cash, most places are reasonable living. If you have to work especially if you just graduate then the comparison with the LITTLE DOT may hurt your feeling. A graduate in Singapore earns s$3,500 to s$7,000 with the later based on a double degree or from a U of standing. A part from having to buy a Perodua or Proton, [which he/she won’t want to touch], he will be quite comfortable by travelling by MRT or Buses to work. Yes, she can afford to go to Starbuck! Back here, you are lucky to start off at rm$2,500.00 and you CAN’T Afford to go to Starbuck or maybe just the Kopitiam! Even in the private sector your promotion may need to be shared with the Owner of this Land! In such scenario, you either may the move or gradually sucumbed to such behaviour and just tack along. I believe many in this antion have taken such option! And soon enough, the whole society will just refuse to compete even among themselves! What more the outside world? Give another 10 to 15 years, we will achieve that condition! By then it will take us another 5 generations to wake up!

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Saturday, 20 October 2012 - 1:30 am

    Well said, Thomas. Let me add the last option for you – vote for a change of government. That is a quick and effective way to change our destiny.

  3. #3 by monsterball on Saturday, 20 October 2012 - 4:51 am

    First they make life difficult for you….that you need to go overseas to earn a living.
    Then they cancelled your citizenship.
    All are not Muslims…and one out….means one more step to make Malays…..majority stronger and stronger.
    This is how Umno B hopes to govern forever….hoping all Muslims will appreciate what they are doing…to the minorities.
    If Umno B can do that….so can they do the same thing to Muslims that do not support them.

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 20 October 2012 - 6:56 am

    Talking about tragedy of outflow of talents/human capital, one possible such that we haven’t lost, so far, appears to be the ‘smart alec’ (Asean scholar) 24 year old Alvin Tan who caused controversy by uploading unto his blog his sexual activities with his GF Vivian. In his essay here -
    he listed 8 reasons why Malaysia is better place to stay than S’pore. Interestingly 1st reason (a plus for Malaysia where others would say its a ‘minus’) is “freedom and lawlessness” compared to the little Dot! “Lawlessness” is not reference to gangsterism but “laxity of law enforcement” of ‘lu tolong gua, gua tolong lu’ kind that allows the leveraging on the corrupt prevailing culture for “encampment” and upward mobility to have a good life!
    Asean scholarship requires him to be bonded to S’pore govt for a good many years and one of the ways after 3 years into law studies is to pose dilemma to NUS by the sex escapade to provoke being sacked which automatically cancels the bond! He can always try later to transfer his transcripts to Uni(s) elsewhere to complete studies, and then return here for the better life! That’s another angle to things, and a choice, as far as he’s concerned.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 20 October 2012 - 7:25 am

    Alvin should bear in mind that here, when he qualifies as a lawyer, he doesn’t even have to eke out a ‘good’ life by drawing on family’s resources, name, capital or solving other’s legal problems. He just have to get get the right connections to political leadership, courier RM40 million dubbed “political donation” and not money laundering and based on ‘lu tolong gua, gua tolong lu’, get a cut of 1.5% thereof for the courier service…You can’t do that in the Little Dot!

  6. #6 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 20 October 2012 - 8:11 am

    Sakmongkol has a great perspective of ‘second class’ citizen in his article

    The whole basis of ‘hak melayu’ myth is that for acceptance of ‘jus soli’. But if UMNO/BN has given citizenships to perhaps millions ( with bumi status!), then there is no basis of ‘hak melayu’ anymore!!!

    In other words, the ‘special position’ in the Constitution, cannot be term ‘special rights’ given what Mahathir has done..

  7. #7 by undertaker888 on Saturday, 20 October 2012 - 8:41 am

    Talent corp is a joke. They [email protected] find more reasons do reject you even though you are qualified. Those committees sitting on their butt making the decisions are a bunch of Yahoos.

  8. #8 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 20 October 2012 - 8:42 am

    Like it or not, for minorities in this country, Emigration must be part of their plan from day 1 when they have children. Its not logical otherwise.

    In 20-30 years, this country will be primarily Malay – they decide what it is they want. They have no one else to blame at that point. The problem is like it or despite reform movement led by PKR and Anwar, the truth is its not self-made by the Malays. If they fail with the help they are getting now, the chances of reform movement in 20-30 years is even more unlikely and likely devastatingly much more costly…

    Yes you can engage, encampment is no choice as its slow death and going by Bersih and destruction of BN component parties, people know that already..

    The problem is engagement is our deeply schistic society is gamble at best – nothing else to lose gamble for those who has no realistic hope of emigrating.

    But hey, life is a gamble. Why not..

  9. #9 by Kingkong on Saturday, 20 October 2012 - 12:26 pm

    Good governance is good business.

    The first world countries have good governance and so easily attract the resources from the poor third world countries. The third world corrupted money siphoned and exploited from the people more often than not flow to the first world countries for safe keeping. That makes the first world countries even richer. In addition, the most valuable assets, the educated, skilled human resources are also attracted to the first world countries and so the polarization of the poor and the rich intensified between the first world and the third world countries.


    If there is an opportunity, most people will opt for a greener pasture. There is a vast difference between the incomes of the first and third world countries. A hard working cleaner in Australia probably will get a higher annual income than a high office holder in our country if this high office holder does not resort to side income viewed as illegal from the first world country.

    There is only a limited time for a person to work in his life. You can say our country is beautiful, full of natural resources, however you have no share in it if you are a discriminated victim, but a poor cheap labor for the power to be. What happen to those who can’t even be their cheap labor?

    You may have beautiful land but poor governance has made the land not livable, high crime rate, and environmental threats due to the greed of the power to be. The first world rubbish production all dump to you e.g. rare earth production from Australia to be in Malaysia.

    It is a tragedy that collectively we have made our country, one of the third world countries poorer and helpless.


    This is a time bomb indeed. Each ethnic group goes by its own way, and willingly being enslaved under the strategy of “divide and rule “. The “ Ghettoes “ will collapse when people go hungry especially there is an inequality among the “ ghettoes “. Please tell me how to unite these “ ghettoes “as a country.


    This is the way out but it is also the most difficult way and needs a lot of sacrifices. With the speedy emigration process, doubtfully will there be many competent people around?

    In fact Arab Spring is the worst of its kind in this engagement process. We do not wish to have this however, if all else fail, the pressure will force through this orifice.


    Emigration is an easy way out if you have satisfied the necessary conditions.

    What we ask for is not much but an equal level playing field.

  10. #10 by sotong on Saturday, 20 October 2012 - 1:24 pm

    Decades of dependency policies, let alone other more serious problems, had significantly affect the economy growth.

    If the economy pie is not growing fast enough from decades of bad policies, majority will continue to suffer.

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