The dilemma of overseas Malaysian students

Many Malaysians are studying overseas. Many have graduated. Some have come back, but many have stayed back overseas.

The million dollar question many of these overseas Malaysians, whether they are already working or still studying but would be in the job markets soon, ask is whether they should stay put or return to their homeland.

I have been asked many times by overseas students whom I have met. Take the case of my 2 eldest children who are now working overseas. All, I repeat, ALL their Malaysian classmates chose to stay back overseas. I have not known any of their classmates coming back to work in Malaysia. That maybe peculiar to those studying medicine, since the working conditions and remunerations, and the opportunities to specialise is so much greater and brighter.

As a parent, I long for them to return, but I have left the decision to them, and anyway I have told them to at least specialise first before coming home, as in Malaysia, the chances of being selected to do specialisation depends not so  much of your work or attitude, but more on who you know. SO we have a dilemma here. We would like them to be home but we would also like to see them success and living a easier and less hectic lives than us.

To those studying overseas, they have a dilemma too. Whether to be home to be with their dear ones and perhaps suffer from less material comfort  and lower degree of upward mobility , or to remain overseas and have better chance to realise their full potentials. Life overseas is not a bed of roses. Many would have to face loneliness, a change of living and eating habits, forgoing the warm and love that only family support can provide.

Time and again, I have been asked for my views, in person as well as in blog comments.

It is difficult to generalise since everyone’s situation is different and since circumstances are different for different persons.

First thing to consider is their own family. DO they want to come home and be with their parents, especially those parents who would not be well adapted to western living and who may find it a hassle to travel overseas to visit their children? To be home would be great, what with all the family support , care and love that you do not get staying alone overseas. For me, it would be Ok for my children to be overseas, since internet and technology have make the world smaller, and even though they cannot be physically with me, I can always see their face and surroundings through such marvels like skype and msn messengers. But not all parents are tech savvy.

Another prime consideration for most people would be their line of work, the fields in which they major in. If you are an aeronautical engineer , it would make sense to work for Boeings or Nasa than to come home and work for some VIPs to care for their private jets.

Then  of course you have to consider the upward mobility and job satisfaction. JOb satisfaction means that you work and your efforts get recognised and appreciated, and in the process, you get promoted and maybe someday head a unit . Where do you think you can have better job satisfaction? In Malaysia, often it is who you know, and not what you know, or what you achieve that is important..In Malaysia, there is an unwritten rule that promotion in certain sectors depends more on which group you belong to , rather than excellence of work.

There are discriminations everywhere, even in US , Australia , Canada. It is human nature for a flock to stay together, like the birds..Birds of a feather like to be with the same, and so are human beings. SO you cannot escape discrimination anywhere.

One big difference is that in most developed countries, discrimination is an individual reponse and is not institutionalised.  The same cannot be said for Malaysia, where the perception is there is institutionalised discrimination. Because of this perception, many overseas graduates prefer to stay there.

So for those who long for better prospect of upward mobility and job satisfaction and promotion, the choice is clear and many did not come back because of this reason winning over the urge to be with their own families.

One more point to consider is of course your own loyalty to your country. This is your own home , your mother land. You grew up here, and as the saying goes, who do not wish to be like the leaves that drop down to be with its roots? If you are this group, then come back and join the rank of  those  fighting asking  for a better Malaysia. (‘fighting’ smacks of politics; this post is purely on merits and demerits of coming home, and not on politics).

As I said before, each must take into their own unique circumstances into consideration, and each must make their own decision on whether they wish to return or remain overseas.


31 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mrs S Y Keen
    Jan 07, 2010 @ 16:06:25

    Iread this article with interest. I am a teacher in UK and I am now Head of Maths, Head of a Year group and Head of Gifted and talented for over 10 years. I was recognised for my hard work and responsibilty. My colleagues respect me for my proficiency in English and integrity. I return every year in the summer months to be with my aged mother. I keep in contact with family via emails and facebook. I ring home regularly. Just like you stated, it is far from being within the family circle. I miss the food as well. I enjoy working in the education system here as you are recognised for your work and expertise not who you know. I know that I can share my expertise in education in Malaysia but I am not proficient in Bahasa so I cannot come back to work. I am making most of the day off school because of the bad weather – temp is -4C.


  2. Dr Hsu
    Jan 07, 2010 @ 16:29:28

    Mrs S Y Keen

    If you are happy where you are and you are being recognised for your contribution and have job satisfaction, then i am sure your aged mother would like you to remain where you are.

    It is a real pity that we are losing so much of talents overseas.

    But the world is getting smaller, air travel time is shorter and shorter, and being in UK is no difference from working outstation in Malaysia. The only difference may be the cost of travel, but when you are using foreign currency, travel is not that expensive.

    Thank you and take care.UK is having the coldest winter and heaviest snowfall in decades.


  3. klm
    Jan 07, 2010 @ 17:25:16

    Dr. Hsu’s comment on the world is getting smaller, air travel time is shorter and shorter reminds of some stuff I am reading.

    It is a discussion on how Taiwan successfully make a transition from an agriculture economy to high tech economy. This discussion was on the Taiwanese diaspora. In the 60’s and 70’s ten’s of thousands of Taiwanese left for the US to study and then settled there. There was worry by the Taiwan govt on the brain drain.

    Two Taiwanese minsters (YS Sun and KT Li) instead of bemoaning the brain, engaged these people for policy advise, technology transfer and eventually some returned to start companies.
    (Taiwan allowed dual citizenships)

    The argument is that It can be brain drain or it can be brain trust. In the case of Taiwan what was viewed as brain drain was the brain trust that contributed greatly to the success.

    With travel time getting shorter and shorter, this brain trust thing can work even better, if there is a will to tap it. Otherwise it will be just remain as brain drain.

    Mrs S Y Keen and many Malaysia overseas are our brain trust. Would the govt dare to tap on them.


  4. CYC
    Jan 07, 2010 @ 17:40:09

    Medium of instruction is never an issue. Race is never an issue. But politic exploits all these into a big issue that becomes a hindrance to progress and innovation.

    Just look at the number new enrollment of Chinese independent school this year and u can conclude how disappointed were parents towards our national education policy and standard. And these pupils are the potential to leave the country to pursue further education and most probably not returning to their home country.

    The dilemma will continue as long as our country fail to reform its education and human resource policy. Sadly this dilemma is man made.

    With this, it creates another social problem where cohesiveness of family will begin disintegrate depending on how adaptable are they with each other. More lonely old folks will be a norm in our society. Young children raised abroad will never taste grandparents love and affection anymore. Human love and bonding will much adversely affected. A new learning curve is needed to readjust our future life style.

    See, we never need MCA’s lifelong learning guide but the society will naturally evolve by itself.


  5. LBY
    Jan 07, 2010 @ 18:18:35

    Dr Hsu,

    It’s indeed a tough call, and invariably depends individual cricumstances.

    But from perspective of aged parents, especially if one of the spouse has passed away or separated….it can be very lonely with your children not near you especially when you are sick, hospitalised, need comforting, some-one to hold, things to share, etc .

    You are alone most of the time……and you would not want to dispaly your fear of loneliness out of love for your children.

    But then again it’s meaningful to live your golden years mostly alone… an empty house filled with memories of your children…


  6. Dr Hsu
    Jan 07, 2010 @ 18:25:00

    I have penned before on this topic, about the dilemma faced by NonMalay parents who children are working overseas. It is indeed a very lonely life, and some who travelled overseas to stay with their children come back because it is very difficult for old people to adjust in a new environment.

    We need to change to a meritocracy in order to attract our children to come home. They will if they are given a equal chance to realise their full potentials.

    It is indeed very sad to see families separated this way.


  7. klm
    Jan 07, 2010 @ 20:13:48

    Dr . Hsu. I have no regret that my children are not here. My wife and I are happy. There is one advantage. We do not have to take care of the babies that most grandparents ended up doing.

    The children are happy and we are happy. The only thing to do is to be open minded. Like you say, there is Skype, email and telephone.


  8. A true Malaysian
    Jan 07, 2010 @ 23:05:43

    Education in Malaysia is in dire state, and is definitely a concern for all parent. Recently I attended a “taklimat” for new school term in a government national school. To my surprise, the school principal appealed for donation from parents to buy chairs and desks. PIBG appealed for donation to complete the building of multipurpose hall, which was constructed without seat and wall using donation fund previously donated.

    Both principal and PIBG claimed that the Education Ministry has no sufficient fund. Can you imagine this in a government school? Government can afford to spend billions for under-used mega projects, but tell the school don’t have enough fund for buying desks and chairs.

    I don’t think Umno / BN can buck-up before 13th GE. The only direction to go for Umno government, i.e. to oblivion, OUT.


  9. disgusted
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 00:47:43

    Unrequited Love. We all love our Mother Land but does our country loves us?


  10. stevent
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 03:10:33

    Hey Dr. Hsu
    Thanks for the post. I’ve been taking a break back in Malaysia and now thinking whether i should go back to the states or try to make some changes here. It’s quite sad for me to see the deterioration of this country now in contrast to six years ago. About 90% of my friends and classmates have one way or another settled overseas (i was actually expecting 70%!) and i doubt even half of them will come back in the near future. That’s why the post written by Cindy Tay totally reflected my current thoughts. My friends which have remain here have already accepted the fact that corruption is the way to go to do business in this country. This will most likely be a never ending cycle. I guess i still need more time to make up my mind =)

    To klm
    Thanks for the advice. Truth to be told, i was very active at the political campaigns in silicon valley. I’ve sharpened my political predictions over the years (Larry King live was my favourite TV program when i was 11) and so far had been quite accurate. My mentor there had told me that if i kept on working these campaigns for 10 more years, i could possibly run and stand a chance to be mayor of the largest county. That’s where my career dilemma lies now.
    One more thing – Arnold is a republican, i’m a democrat =)

    For the rest who gave me advice
    Thanks too ^^!
    I’ve been studying and asking relevant people about the PR leadership especially in my hometown, Penang. I have a few points to make bout politics in general:
    1) Politics will forever be politics and politicians will forever act like politicians – don’t be too idealistic about a party or candidate. Their objectives are all similar – to remain in power – though their intentions might differ.
    2) Everyone has a price. We should therefore be wary of each elected official and be ready to forgive at times. Just don’t stick with them blindly. It’s always money first, ideology second. Even the jihadists have to be convince that they’ll be given endless supply of virgins before they willingly blow themselves up!
    3) It’s policies that matters. This means we should be policies oriented rather than the candidates or parties. Always focus on the policies. This is where most grassroots fail to do.
    4) Change will not come easily. Only when sufficient grassroots are willing to keep the incumbents in check will we see change. This means consistent noise by the grassroots. However it is not in our culture to go against party leaders, in addition to the ‘save face’ mentality. That got to change first. Else it will be more of the same.

    I’m just going to go briefly about the problems that each PR member is facing. I”m just too sleepy so forgive me if i generalize too much.
    DAP – Mentality of the past. Still living in the opposition world. Lack of talent. Most importantly no future vision. For this, Penang will become like Florida in the near future – dumping ground for the retired and the rich. 70% economy controlled by thugs. Cronyism is a problem whether you believe it or not. Else why is there a lack of talent?!
    PKR – 2nd UMNO. It’s all about the money but with hope.
    PAS – Trying to be kingmaker. It’s all about the money (look at the Terengganu stadium that collapse) once the old generation dies off. Honestly, how could you resist easy money? No money, no talent. Can you actually trust them to hold cabinet positions? Finance, Transportation, Education, Defence, Home etc… there is no qualified elected official to handle the problems Malaysia face in the 21st century. They want a bigger piece of the pie yet not willing to expand their limited horizons. Honestly. have anyone heard anyone debating policies apart from cultural issues? An unholy alliance with UMNO will be the only way to please their members. That’s why you see so much negative attacks against Tok Guru now. He’s the PR fort.

    If BR wants to win, PAS will either have to compromise greatly (maybe have more state seats but with a lot less federal) or go without PAS. We can’t pin this nation’s future on hope alone.


  11. Dr Hsu
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 07:59:24

    Those who have gone to attend political seminars overseas ( I have never attended but heard from those who were sent overseas to attend political course and meetings) will often be told that in politics, there is only one aim “To win”.

    But to win, you must have certain policies that attract voters, as you have so elegantly put it, policies are the important elements. BUt to me, policies arise from idealogy. Take Margaret Thatcher.She believed in Privatisation , since at that time, UK ecoomy was stagnant and was held in ransom by the unions. She used privatisation and legislation to break the unions and motivated the people to work becase a private enterprise was more efficient and was able to pay better to the workers. So her policies was derived from her belief of privatisation, and UK economy in the 80s was the fastest growing among all developed nations.In the end, the workers got higher pay and better standard of living than before when they had to heed unions’ call to strike.

    BUt , alas, in Malaysia, the ideology of politicians were to make money, so they used privatisation as a front to set their cronies up and made m-b-(tr)illions of dollars .

    The difference in these 2 countries is that in UK, they developed policies genuinely on the ideology of privatisation, whereas in malaysia, the underlying idelogy of these top fellows are not privatisation or to make the people’s lives better, but to make their own lives richer and better. Siimilarly, race and religious issues are utilised not based on any deep seated ideology, but to achieve only one purpose, to hold on to power so that they can continue the processing of self enrichment.


  12. A true Malaysian
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 09:21:47

    “DAP – Mentality of the past. Still living in the opposition world. Lack of talent. Most importantly no future vision.”

    If this is true, stevent should join DAP. Doesn’t he?

    Perhaps it is because of brain drain that caused this ‘lack of talent’. You can read this happened in Dr. Hsu’s family and friends.

    Lack of talent definitely is there, but there are still many talents around like Tony Pua, Liew Chin Tong, Hanna Yeoh, Sim Tze Tsin (PKR), …. just to name a few.

    Tsunami 308 came out of sudden, all parties least expected it. “Opposition mentality” is there for such short span of time. Give then chance to prove themselves.

    Stevent, it is good you can share your views on PR parties. If can, please share your views on BN parties as well, especially Umno.


  13. clearwater
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 09:30:25

    Shoot, if i had the remotest chance to be mayor of , say, Orange County in Southern California, I would not have have returned to Malaysia in 1990. The US is still a great country for talented hardworking people, tolerant and accepting of immigrants and cultural diversity. But then, I detest politics in general and Malaysian politicians in particular.

    Hey, just heard a church in Desa Melawati in KL has been firebombed. This raises the Allah issue temperature, especially if there are going to be Muslim NGO led protests after Friday prayers today. Currently raining in KL, may deter gatherings.


  14. A true Malaysian
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 10:02:20

    It is always the case certain colour or faith show their anger by rioting, bombing, demonstrating, and it seems to be ok to the government.

    Intelligent people understand what I mean. I can directly tell you the colour or faith, but it is unfair to people of the same color and faith. There are many of them sensible as well.

    Those showing their anger this way, I hope, is minority among the color or faith. If not, Malaysia has no future.

    No politics, from now on, you need to read from all angles, left to right, right to left, up to bottom, bottom to up….


  15. 1MY
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 10:43:39

    My children was in one of SMK in the capital city of Sarawak which generated the most A students year after year.

    Well if you were to visit the school and peep at the classrooms, you will be shock by the condition – chairs and tables which can be used for firewood, leaking ceiling, dirty wall, etc – just like a warzone. And the lab is still in the 60’s condition – timber top basin bench and lab equipments are so backdated. My school in my hometown in the same state 20 years ago was even in better shape.

    Imagine students were still able to excel in their education under such condition. Well, when the going get tough, the tough get going.

    Our Education Minister should really visit this school.


  16. A true Malaysian
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 12:06:27

    During the “taklimat”, a parent clarified that in previous year, he has donated some money to buy desks and chairs.

    The principal replied that due to increase in the population of student in the school, the school needs more. If not, then the afternoon session pupils need to carry their own chairs and desks from another classes.

    You just see, how bad in term of hardware facilities. No wonder, sekolah kebangsaan students, when they visit Chinese primary schools, they exclaimed, “Wau !!! Changgihnya, macam mana?”. It’s sort of eye opener for them. The thing is, money for these “Changgih” facilities comes from donation of Chinese community, not from the government. At the same time, Chinese schools collected old newspapers from students to sell and save the money for future use.

    We can see how different are the mentalities. It is the same line of story with the oil curse. With oil, money comes easily, don’t need to work hard, that’s the different.


  17. A true Malaysian
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 12:19:15

    The MCA Wee should visit these schools and see for himself. No point crying like a baby in TV for people to see.

    Crying in tv, you give bad example to the pupils. Is this our deputy education minister??? They asked.

    Beside hardware, what about software? These people are playing full time politics, not governing.


  18. klm
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 12:28:49

    Dear Stevent

    On your note that Arnold is a republican,your are democrat. The maturity of the political thinking in us , in part contributed by the education system and in part through baptism of multiple fires, is such that a democrat will support a republican candidate if he or she think that the republican candidate is better. It also works the other way round.

    In the last election many republican supporters voted Obama, including many of my family members.

    Unfortunately in Malaysia,this does not happen. That is why I say we are in political stone age.
    For the change to happen, Malaysia will have to go through a violent phase. We are not there yet. But it is building up to that. We need a fire to burn the ghost of the past to progress. To me this is inescapable for Malaysia.

    Please do not be naive of the politics in Malaysia.


  19. Dr Hsu
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 14:23:21

    In USA, republicans can work for democrats and vice versa.In many cabinets, some of the cabinets members were across party and no one questions them about their loyalty …

    In Senate and House of representatives, sometimes members of a party voted against their own party.

    I have said many times that we should not be too partisan


  20. cilipadi
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 16:31:02

    If Hsu is a politician,
    He is the 1st non-partisan politician,
    PR government may appoint Hsu as Health Minister then…………….though he is a Gerakan member.

    Possible? Will you accept this appointment, Dr. Hsu?

    Partisan makan cili, non-Partisan rasa pedas


  21. Dr Hsu
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 16:46:45

    That is fantasy and i don’t live in fantasy

    fantasy makan cili, reality rasa pedas


  22. cilipadi
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 17:03:35

    You must be a politician first, then
    no fantasy but reality
    remain in Gerakan, to make this a reality

    fantasy makan cili, reality rasa pedas


  23. klm
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 23:09:34

    Dr. Hsu. We may not be around to see non-partisan politics in Malaysia. It is still scorched earth politics here.

    I still maintain there will be no political maturity until we have our equivalent of the American Civil War or the English Civil War or the French day of the Bastille. We need a process of destruction to remove the old baggage.

    And before you say it. I know. My view of the world gets more violent as I get older.


  24. cilipadi
    Jan 08, 2010 @ 23:44:35

    Rot now is because of partisan, but
    partisan is now needed to kill partisan rot.

    Non-partisan can only be nurtured by then.

    Succeeded or otherwise, “who” know? At least Malaysia is rid of one partisan rot. No?

    This is just my humble opinion as a non-Malaysian.

    Partisan makan cili, non-Partisan rasa pedas


  25. cbc
    Jan 09, 2010 @ 09:12:01


    the choice is clear. i may be a tad too old to migrate but i am preparing my kids for overseas studies and will be advising them not to come back.

    loyalty to the country? it cuts both ways, aint it? if discrimination is officially sanctioned and widely practised, you still expect us to sit still and be absolutely loyal? worse, you work like a dog and pay your taxes on your hard-earned money dutifully and they tell you are a second class citizen. the world is our oyster, doc.


  26. klm
    Jan 09, 2010 @ 20:50:34

    Do I sense a feeling of violence in cilipadi now?


  27. Rina
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 10:07:29

    Come back to Malaysia for what? Engines flying off to Argentina by themselves (only blame two greedy Indians,never mind the other race bosses, eh?), burning churches because of a High Court decision going against them, a Mongolian beauty being blown up with C4, massive corruption, hatred and dishonesty in ruling classes that I cannot find eve in a work of fiction.

    I almost said ‘Alamak” but stopped because UMNO does want me to use THEIR word, so how can I refer to HIS mother? Migrate, I say. Migrate now and learn to live in dignity, freedom and lead a rich, enriching life the in ‘wicked’ West. I did and I have never looked back.


  28. ahoo
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 11:07:15

    There may be a new dawn for politivs in Malaysia. Japan obviously had brain drain after the second world war. Most of their talented ones were sent overseas for education. From the ruins of the war the came back much stronger as a nation. They managed to learn from others of new technology and came back to Japan to uplift their nation back into a technology based super power. Those brains that were overseas all came back to make their nation great again.

    Well, there is still hope for Malaysia. Firstly, we must get those corrupted ones kick out of Parliament and with a new govt based on meritocracy, it will attract all those brains from overseas. With all those variants (people with the best in their fields) we can hope for this nation to regains its lost glories.

    That may take another 50 years as we have lots of people with ” tidak apa ” altitudes but still a worthwhile hope a change is imperative. Thus, let the young ones go overseas but do tell them to be prepared to return when needed. By then their savings would be substantial and they can invest in the industries of their choice with a new govt.


  29. Atila
    Jan 22, 2010 @ 07:59:18

    Dr Hsu,

    what a malu-ation when many malay malaysians become directors to mega super companies of republic of china lobbying projects for china in mid-east.

    these malays cannot survived work in msia with “tikam belakang” frm pro-paklah/kj.

    400 over glc, if you study, its all parked pro-paklah/kj. najib got to shuffle/change one by one. yet the new ceo for ncia/ncer is still pro-paklah. we have cancer circulating.


  30. wisely
    Jul 24, 2010 @ 19:21:01

    In brief, Malaysia is a good place to live but not a good place to work!



  31. Rose Oon
    Dec 19, 2011 @ 17:05:49

    Dr Hsu,
    Anyone of you drill down to Penang. Penang is ‘happening’ now ! check out some info here at My Penang…My workplace. Your global gateway to jobs in Penang


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