They left Malaysia and aren’t going back

brain drain
Statistics show that most highly skilled Malaysian tend to reside in Singapore. Source: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Malaysians are eager to leave the country. At least that’s what the statistics from EMIR Research, a Kuala Lumpur-based independent think tank, suggest. The figures released support an alarming trend that has been steadily growing: Malaysia’s facing a brain drain crisis and talents are not coming back.

The report states that approximately two million Malaysians are living abroad. From this number, around half a million are highly skilled individuals above 25 years, who are likelier to be employed in various professional fields. EMIR Research estimates that this talent drain will lower the country’s Gross Domestic Product growth by 2%, according to the Sun.

Professor James Chin, the director of the Asia Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania, shed some light on why many foreign-educated Malaysians leave for greener pastures abroad. 

“There is a big difference between ‘bumiputera’ professionals and non-‘bumiputeras’ leaving the country. For non-bumiputras, of course, the main issue is the perceived discrimination faced by them in all aspects of Malaysian life,” he explains. “Bumiputera” refers to indigenous people or “sons of the soil.”

Below are four individual stories of this Malaysian exodus:

Malaysia’s brain drain phenomenon: 4 examples

1. Nur Amalina Che Bakri

Dr. Nur Amalina Che Bakri is a general surgeon and clinical research fellow in breast-cancer surgery at Imperial College London. You may know her as the person who scored 17 As in the national examination, SPM (the Malaysian equivalent of the O Levels). 

The young Malaysian secured the Kijang Emas Scholarship from The Central Bank of Malaysia, and she graduated with a medical degree from Edinburgh Medical School and a degree in pharmacology. Che Bakri interned at Harvard Medical School, followed by a housemanship in Cambridge — all while completing her Master’s in Translational Medicine and Therapeutics from University of Cambridge.

Currently, Che Bakri is pursuing her PhD in surgical innovation and breast cancer using wearable activity monitors, which are aimed at achieving better patient outcomes. She has a clinical research fellowship from Imperial College London and funding from the National Institute of Health Research. 

In 2021, the Malaysian married her partner, Alexander Charles, in London. 

2. Lavnya Balenderan

Lavnya Balenderan first went to the UK at 18 to pursue medicine at Newcastle. Five years later, she secured a job and settled down.

The Malaysian cited job opportunities as a significant factor for migrating to the UK. “Even being international and having to go through Resident Labour Market Testing, it is easier to get a training or specialist post in the UK than it is back home,” she explains in her Youtube video.

She prefers the lifestyle there too. “I love online shopping,” Balenderan enthuses. “Every store has online shopping. We have free next-day delivery, free return, and it’s so easy to get stuff and do shopping online.” 

She also states that she faced less racial discrimination, despite being a minority in the country. In Malaysia, she experienced more racism even though she is a citizen. 

3. P. Dheenesh

P. Dheenesh headed to Birmingham to pursue his postgrad studies. Dheenesh, 31, said in an interview with the Sun that he received fair treatment, better diversity and inclusion and equal treatment in almost all aspects in a foreign country.

“The cost of living is also relatively lower than in Malaysia,” he explains. “I am no expert but I believe it will take at least 10 years before Malaysia can shed the racial differences, cronyism, corruption and be able to offer equal opportunity to all. Till then, I intend to raise my family here.”

4. Jacqueline George

She moved to Brisbane to pursue her studies before relocating to Malaysia for a year. Following that, she permanently migrated to Australia.

Her reason? She aspired to follow in her grandparent’s and parent’s footsteps. “My grandparents migrated from India for a life better than their parents and worked hard to give their children that,” she explains in an interview with Malaysiakini.

“My parents did the same for us, and I feel that if I had stayed in Malaysia, at most I could only equal what my parents have achieved.”