The Migrant’s Eye

“SMART Indians go to med school, smart Chinese go to investment banks, smart Malaysians go to Singapore.” Is that true? One of eight finalists in this year’s World Bank International Essay Competition, Shaun Tan reflects on migration, Malaysia’s brain drain crisis and its triggers in The Migrant’s Eye. 

“Our young people represent the future of our country”.

This phrase has been echoed by almost every politician in almost every country in modern history. However the changes instigated by the increasing ease of migration are such that not even this time-honored cliché holds the weight it once did. Young people still represent the future, but it is the future of whichever country they decide to settle in or impact, which may or may not be their country of origin. As with most changes, there are new benefits and drawbacks, and new winners and losers. Among the most pressing questions countries now face are how to prevent their young people from migrating, and how far they should go in providing for the migrants residing within their borders.




Smart Indians go to med school,

Smart Chinese go to investment banks,

Smart Malaysians go to Singapore.

– Anonymous


My first brush with migration was in 2002. My father came home one day in a state of great excitement. My father is an excitable guy. He is also an alumnus of a university in New Zealand, and he had just learned that, because of this, our family was entitled to permanent residency (PR) status in New Zealand upon fulfillment of a few relatively minor requirements. One of the requirements was that we reside in New Zealand for at least three months over the next two years. We discussed it and decided it might be fun. We packed for summer.

Within a few weeks I was bored. New Zealand was charming enough in its own way, but it didn’t have the vibrancy of my home city of Kuala Lumpur, and I couldn’t imagine us choosing to live in this land of sheep and five o’clock closing times instead. And yet I understood why my father pushed for PR status so eagerly. He remembered the Indonesian racial riots of 1998, and he kept the pulse of rising extremism in Malaysia. If violence ever broke out in Malaysia my family would have a back door, a way out.

Later on I saw that most of my Malaysian friends who could afford it went abroad for at least part of their education. Some went to boarding schools in Singapore, Australia, and the UK. When it came to university, almost all my Malaysian friends went to Australia, the UK, or the US. The reasons they (and their parents) gave for wanting a foreign education were the same: the racial quotas in Malaysian universities, the skewed syllabi, the controls on free expression, the low standard of the Malaysian education system (apart from a few private university colleges), and the relative quality and prestige of foreign schools and universities.

At university this trend continues. Many of my Malaysian friends plan to remain overseas after graduation, or to work in Singapore. “Everything in Malaysia is on such a small scale,” one of them said. “It can’t compare with the training you get overseas.” Some of them hope to return to Malaysia later, but only in the distant future, after earning enough money and establishing themselves in their industries. I know the power of inertia, and every year that goes by makes it less and less likely that they will return.

Asian societies have very tight family bonds. Most of my friends have parents who miss them very much, and who dislike them living far away. However, far from meeting with parental opposition, these plans have full approval: the message my Malaysian friends get from their parents and relatives is, “Don’t come home”.


No Brain, No Gain

Malaysia faces a brain drain crisis. Recent decades have seen the migration of many ethnic Chinese (comprising 26 per cent of Malaysia’s population) Indians (8 per cent), as well as considerable numbers of Malays, the majority ethnic group (53 per cent).

Shamsuddin Bardan, executive director of the Malaysian Employers Federation, reported that there are 785,000 Malaysians working overseas. Unofficially, the figure is thought to be over a million. According to the World Bank the number of Malaysian emigrants has increased almost a hundred-fold in the past fifty years, from 9,576 in 1960, to almost 1.5 million in 2005. A parliamentary report revealed that 140,000 Malaysians emigrated in 2007. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Kohilan Pillay, the figure between 2008 and 2009 was 304,000. As of 2007, 106,000 Malaysians had renounced their citizenship.

Many of these Malaysians go to Australia, the UK, and the US. About half of them go to Singapore, which has a GDP per capita almost four times larger than Malaysia’s. The portion of the Malaysians who return is minimal (Prime Minister Najib Razak reported the figure to be less than 1 per cent) prompting former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to suggest that other countries should pay Malaysia for having seduced them to stay ‘since by right, the graduates’ training and knowledge should be called intellectual property’. Prominent writer Mariam Mokhtar outlines the reasons given by emigrants: “improved employment and business prospects, higher salaries, better working environments, greater chances of promotion and a relatively superior quality of life”.

This has severely retarded Malaysia’s development. Malaysia continues to be the poor cousin of the Asian Tigers – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Malaysia’s growth rate dropped from 9 per cent a year, from 1991 to 1997, to 5.5 per cent a year, from 2000 to 2008. Stewart Forbes, the executive director of the Malaysian International Chamber of Commerce and Industry, explained that many of Malaysia’s lost investment opportunities stem from the brain drain – because international companies had trouble finding skilled employees in Malaysia.

“People have left, growth prospects have dimmed, and then more people continue to leave,” said Danny Quah, an economics professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Council Member on Malaysia’s National Economic Advisory Council. “It’s a vicious cycle that the economy has had to confront for the last decade or longer.”

The increasing ease of migration has produced new winners – countries like Singapore, Australia, the UK, and the US, who get to cherry-pick from a global talent pool. It has also produced new losers. Malaysia is certainly one of them.


The Malaysian Dilemma

As there are new winners and losers from migration, so too are there new benefits and drawbacks. A classroom discussion threw this debate into stark relief.

It was last year. The date was September 27, the country was America, and I was in my International Relations class. We were discussing globalization, and having gone through some of its benefits, we moved on to its drawbacks.

‘Well,’ said one of my classmates, ‘one drawback is that it increases the brain drain effect and leads to greater inequality between countries. Developing countries lose a lot of the talent that they badly need.’ This received a general nodding of assent.

I raised my hand. ‘Actually,’ I asked, ‘is greater inequality necessarily a bad thing?’. My class, accustomed by now to my mannerisms, still looked at me strangely.

‘I mean, it’s true that many developing countries end up losing their talent, but really, some of these countries bloody well deserve to lose them.’

This created a small firestorm. From my classmates’ reactions you’d have thought I’d asked what was wrong with genocide. There were gasps. Before I could finish, a forest of hands shot up to respond. One of my classmates burst out angrily; ‘Now you’re just being facetious!’

My professor moved to restore order. He was a kindly old man who usually let our discussions run their course. He did however step in whenever our discussions threatened to turn into a pseudo-intellectual brawl.

He turned to me. ‘I assume you said that to be deliberately provocative’ he said gently; a teacher reasoning with a difficult student.

‘No,’ I said, ‘not at all.’.

I looked at the rest of my class who now whispered amongst themselves and eyed me warily, apparently taken aback to see their (I hope) usually charming and amiable classmate say such callous things.

But to me my statement seemed as normal as breathing. And said to any reasonably informed Malaysian, it wouldn’t even have raised an eyebrow. I realized then that there were perspectives on this issue that were unique to Malaysians, and to those who have experienced similar circumstances.


Push and Pull

I’ve left a few unanswered questions over the course of this essay. Like why do loving parents tell their children not to come home? And why do many Malaysians think Malaysia deserves to lose its talented young people? Now at last is the time to answer them.

Malaysia has a lot going for it. It has much untapped potential. It is devoid of natural disasters and rich in natural resources. It is a country with warm weather, amazing food, and hot women. Its people are generally warm, friendly, and (with certain exceptions like yours truly) humble. Pull-factors like these would require considerable push-factors to trigger mass emigration.

But there’s a darker side. A side behind the strained tranquility and Malaysia Truly Asia adverts.

Since its independence in 1957, Malaysia has been run by the Barisan National (BN) party, and its regime is an autocracy that institutionalizes racism. Non-Malays, including the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, are discriminated against in favor of the majority Malays, whose support BN depends on. Malaysian laws make non-Malays pay higher prices for certain goods and services, allocate them only a small percentage of places in public universities, and impose significant barriers against their advancement in the military, police force, civil service, and in government-owned companies. The BN government persecutes minority religions, and major Malay politicians often refer to Chinese and Indian Malaysians as pendatang (immigrants), of inferior status, while the current Prime Minister Najib Razak is alleged to have threatened to ‘bathe a keris dagger with Chinese blood’.

The BN government is also very protectionist, making it even more difficult for international companies to set up business there, for example, international law firms can only operate in Malaysia by acting in partnership with a local firm. Furthermore, the BN government is both grossly incompetent and highly corrupt. Billions of dollars in public funds are squandered on cronyism and ill-conceived mega-projects, instead of being properly used to develop the country. The judiciary is largely comprised of underqualified yes-men, the police force is unreliable, and the public schools and universities are of low standard, such that even Malaysia’s top university, University Malaya, has dropped out of the top 200 universities in the world on all major rankings.

This is why loving parents tell their children not to come home. They don’t want their children to live as second-class citizens in Malaysia, where their ambitions will be limited by institutional inefficiency, where they will be passed over for promotion in favor of others, not for any lack of skill, but for the color of their skin. ‘Money does have a significant role but the most important factor…is opportunity,’ outlined Wan Saiful Wan Jan, Founding Chief Executive Member of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, ‘Malaysia is too politicized and opportunities are not evenly available to everyone,’

This is why Malaysians flock to Singapore, not because Singapore’s government is less despotic (it is even more so), but because the Singaporean government at least prizes efficiency, and recognizes merit regardless of race. When a Malaysian renounces his citizenship, he doesn’t see it as an unpatriotic betrayal, he sees it as washing his hands off a regime that has marginalized and persecuted him. As one Malaysian, Wan Jon Yew, explained: ‘I’m not proud of being a Malaysian because I think the government doesn’t treat me as a Malaysian.’ Migration is beneficial because it increases efficiency; it allows young Malaysians to move to take their best offers, to move to where their ability is truly valued. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and migration helps to reduce this wastage.

Not all Malaysians mass-emigrating are Chinese and Indians. Many Malays are emigrating too. Although they do not face racial persecution, many of their reasons for doing so are the same as those of non-Malays: the corrupt and inefficient system, the lack of security and religious freedom, the quashing of free expression, human rights abuses. Furthermore, Malays face a different form of religious persecution – forced piety by the overzealous Islamic moral police. Non-Muslim Malays and Malay homosexuals are jailed or sent to ‘reeducation centers’, and earlier this year 80 Malays were arrested for celebrating Valentine’s Day.

In light of this, Malaysia deserves to lose the talents of its young people. It doesn’t appreciate these talents; it punishes its best citizens – those brave enough to stand up for themselves, or those too principled to fake devotion to a religion they don’t believe in – and instead it rewards its worst elements – the religious extremist, the racist, the sniveling sycophant. In a sense, we as Malaysian citizens deserve to lose the benefits those talents would have brought, because through our participation or collective inaction we allow this wretched state of affairs to continue. Migration is beneficial because it allows Malaysians to leave, and to live in a country that accords them the dignity commensurate with their status as a human being.


The Open Door

The ability to migrate presents young Malaysians with an open door to the rest of the world. This is not without its drawbacks. Many of the Malaysian émigrés leave not because they are weak or cowardly, but because they are ambitious, or because they are uncompromising – they refused to take orders from those who are their inferiors, or to remain party to a system that is morally indefensible. One cannot help but imagine how much good such spirit could have done if they had no choice but to remain in Malaysia. Not necessarily by engaging in overtly political activities, but by simple apolitical acts – by living their lives in their own way, free from compromise, and refusing to curb their ambitions. As Vaclav Havel explained in his book The Power of the Powerless, such simple acts are often the most potent weapons against oppressive regimes. Thus, migration has its drawbacks – it makes it harder for Malaysia to achieve real change because it takes away some of its most spirited people.

However there are also many young Malaysians who choose to return, and who seek to bring real change to the country. People like Nathaniel Tan – a Harvard graduate, who writes books exposing the abuses of the BN regime, even if his efforts meet with harassment and detention. Or Alea Nasihin – a friend of mine, and a student at Nottingham University, who resolves to return to work as a human rights lawyer. Or myself. For us the open door is comforting. It gives us the courage to say or do things we might otherwise be wary of. Because it reminds us that there are limits to what an oppressive government can do. Because we know that even if our efforts harm our careers in Malaysia, even if the BN government hounds us and bars us from getting a job at any major company in Malaysia, there will always be many other places eager for our talents. It allows us to take more risks and dare greater things. The open door presented by migration therefore simultaneously hinders and helps the process of change in Malaysia.


Point of Origin

From a Malaysian perspective, good measures for broadening opportunities for young migrants in their countries of origin are relatively straightforward. The most obvious one is to increase meritocracy, to distinguish merit instead of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. When each citizen is judged solely on the basis of his ability, when high standards are promoted, when the most innovative people are rewarded and encouraged, the whole country progresses and develops, creating greater opportunities for all. Nepotism and cronyism should be prohibited in all industries, so that positions and promotions go to the most able candidates. This policy should be pursued in conjunction with scholarships and financial aid for poor youths to attend schools and universities, again awarded on the basis of merit.

The other obvious measure is to liberalize. A liberal society that respects human rights provides the broadest opportunities for free expression and the free practice of religion simply because fewer things are prohibited. Laws should be enacted against the interference with an individual’s expression or religious practice, unless he harms or grossly misrepresents another person in doing so. The judiciary should be allowed to become strong and independent, so that everyone has the opportunity for a fair trial.

Meanwhile, opportunities should be given to migrants who consider returning to their country of origin. Those living overseas, but with vital skills in various fields should be invited back and offered senior positions, with PR status or citizenship offered to their families.

A fair, liberal government that rewards merit provides the broadest opportunities for its people. Measures like the Malaysian government’s Returning Export and Brain Gain Malaysia programs fail to attract young people because they make only cosmetic changes, refusing to give effect to the principles of fairness, liberalism, and meritocracy, that are the essence of true improvement of opportunity.



Good measures for broadening opportunities for young migrants in their countries of destination are relatively straightforward too. They largely consist of refraining from the policies these migrants were fleeing from in the first place. Other than some free basic language-training programs, no special privileges should be given to these immigrants, and no affirmative action policies should be implemented. Instead, these immigrants should be allowed to compete for (generally) the same opportunities as everyone else, judged on the basis of their merit, rather than race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. They should be given equal opportunity to exercise their civil rights, like the rights to free speech, association, and religious practice. Their right to marry should be recognized regardless of sexual orientation, and the continued ban on gay marriage is an instance where the US has fallen short of this standard.

However governments should be conscious of where granting formal rights in fact restricts opportunities. In Beyond Liberal Democracy, Daniel Bell contrasted Western and East Asian approaches to dealing with migrant workers. He described how migrant workers in East Asia are denied citizenship (and thus full legal protection) no matter how long they stay, while those in Western countries are able to obtain it much more easily. The result of this is that East Asian countries are able to officially admit many more temporary contract workers. Comparatively, Western countries can officially admit few migrant workers, although many more work there illegally, without any legal protections at all. ‘In the West,’ Bell explained, ‘the liberal political culture places higher priority on the justice of legal forms…In East Asia, by contrast, the authorities prefer to enact…laws that allow for large numbers of migrant domestic workers to engage temporarily in legally protected work in their territories.’ Governments therefore should not dogmatically pursue form over substance, but should be pragmatic in their measures to achieve the best results for immigrants.


“Ich bin ein Inmigrante”



‘Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that immigrants were America.’

– Oscar Handlin



America is not without shortcomings in providing for its immigrants. True equality of opportunity can only be achieved with the shattering of glass ceilings, and there are numerous social barriers that still need to be overcome. To this date, the highest office in the country, that of the President of the United States, can only be held by someone born on American soil. And yet America remains the land of opportunity for so many people. The immigrants in America are integrated far better than those in Europe, because Americans are conscious of the fact that they were all immigrants once. And America has benefitted greatly from this. It gets physics from Einstein, political theory from Arendt, movies from Ang Lee, eye-candy from Maggie Q, and literature from Junot Diaz. The fact that Irish-Catholic immigrants like the Kennedys could become America’s most prominent family, that an Austrian immigrant like Arnold Schwarzenegger could become Governor of California, and that a black man born in Hawaii and raised in Indonesia could become President, is a testament to this tradition.

I am the product of migration. It was through migration that my ancestors from Fujian province in China came to live in Malaysia. It is through migration that I have been able to grow up in Malaysia and study in Britain and America, and it is through migration that I have had the privilege of learning from people from all over the world. My accent is a bastard mix of British, American, and Malaysian. My upbringing was a schizophrenic blend of liberalism and Asian Tiger Mom style parenting. I revel in living in a mixed-up world and having a mixed-up self. I have tried to live consistently with the principles advocated in this essay. Where in my life I have failed I have accepted it and tried to learn from my mistakes. Where I have succeeded, I have taken pride in the knowledge of having done so myself, not needing any legal crutch to prop me up. The only right I have demanded is the right to a fair contest. I think that the right to fair competition is the only thing we can and should expect.

Shaun Tan, 23, grew up in Kuala Lumpur and the UK, and is now studying International Relations at Yale University. His essay The Migrant’s Eye, was one of eight shortlisted in the World Bank International Essay Competition held earlier this year. More than 1,900 submissions were received from 150 countries, and the theme for this year’s competition was youth migration. Shaun can be contacted at

There are 5 comments

  1. msihua

    What a brilliant write up. I can definitely understand, being Malaysian myself. Given a choice, I would never return home other than to partake in the usual holiday. To live there? It would be a step backwards.

  2. Jason

    Very well written article. I guess a product of democracy is essentially majority rule, and problems occur where there exists a homogenous bloc large enough that wills to protect its interest at the expense of the minority.

    A move towards meritocracy and liberalization seems to be the logical direction, but unless enough people within the majority takes that view, it seems like a very difficult state of affairs.

  3. Joyce

    Curious, I have noticed that Singaporeans tend to be more loyal to Singapore than Malaysians. So there you go. I know we’re no way near perfection but we’re getting there.

  4. Karen Lim

    The essay is well written and expresses my sentiments about being Malaysian. There is a little hiccup.. I believe it was Hishamuddin and not Najib that had declared to bathe the keris with Chinese blood several years ago but after that, he repented of his statement. I choose to live in Australia because I love freedom and safety and I remember the curfews of the 1980s when I wasn’t allowed to leave my home.

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