Debate over ‘brain drain’ as Malaysia cheers election of Penny Wong, Sam Lim in Australia
The appointment of Malaysian-born Penny Wong as Foreign Minister and the unexpected election of former police officer Sam Lim in Western Australia have been met with a flurry of pride in the Malaysian press and on social media.
- Malaysians have taken an unusual interest in Australian politics after Senator Wong and Mr Lim were elected
- Thousands of Malaysians renounce their citizenship annually when they take on another country’s citizenship
- Policies that favour the Malay-Muslim majority put ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians at a disadvantage
It has also reignited a familiar debate over “brain drain”: the exodus of skilled Malaysians, particularly from ethnic minority backgrounds, that has been a long-term challenge for the South-East Asian nation’s economy.
Malaysian MP Charles Santiago, in congratulating Mr Lim, said Australia “benefits from Malaysia’s brain drain”.
Senator Wong, long a powerful figure in the Labor Party, was recently sworn in as Australia’s first Malaysian-born and ethnically Asian foreign minister.
Malaysian newspaper The Star interviewed Senator Wong’s brother James, who still lives in the state of Sabah on Borneo island, and described his older sister as “loving and genuine”.
“Penny’s story should be an inspiration to our young Sabahans,” Mr Wong was quoted as saying.
“Looking at the rise of a simple Sabahan girl in Australian politics, it means that Sabahans have the potential to succeed and should not underestimate themselves.”
During Mr Lim’s first media appearance as MP-elect, meanwhile, he talked about growing up in a “very poor family” in Malaysia, with a leaking roof and no power.
The former dolphin trainer, who has worked as a police officer in Malaysia and WA, defeated former prime minister Scott Morrison’s close friend Ben Morton to become the Member for Tangney in suburban Perth.
James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania, said Malaysians had largely celebrated the news.
“By and large, the general comments are: ‘good on these Malaysians, or ex-Malaysians, they have really done well for themselves,'” he said.
Mr Lim told local outlet Free Malaysia Today in 2020 that due to a low salary working as a police officer in Malaysia, he had been unable to properly support his family.
Professor Chin said Mr Lim’s relocation to Australia in 2002 was “really, really typical” of many middle-class Malaysians who migrate overseas.
“The usual place is Singapore and Australia because these are very close by and there is already a well-established Malaysian community,” he said.
“Perth is only five hours away. You can catch a midnight flight from Kuala Lumpur and you arrive at five in the morning.
“Perth has a huge Malaysian community … [and] it’s in the same time zone.”
‘Safeguarding the Malays’
While the statistics are not made freely available, thousands of Malaysians are reported to give up their citizenship each year when they become a citizen of another country because Malaysia does not recognise dual citizenship.
Then-home minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told parliament in 2016 that 56,576 Malaysians had renounced their citizenship over the previous decade.
He said some 90 per cent of these people were ethnic Chinese.
Minority groups have long complained of discrimination in Malaysia.
The Malaysian Constitution has an article dedicated to “safeguard[ing] the special position of the ‘Malays’,” an overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic group who constitute a majority of the country’s population.
As the Australian Department of Home Affairs notes on its website: “In the late 1960s, the Malaysian government introduced affirmative action policies favouring indigenous Malays.”
“These policies, combined with factors such as race riots and unfavourable socio-political conditions, had a negative impact on Chinese and other minorities in Malaysia.
“Many Malaysians of Chinese background left the country during this period, migrating to Australia and other countries,” it says, noting that the Malaysian-born population in Australia doubled between the 1986 and 1991 censuses.
While originally intended to be temporary and to benefit Malays who were disadvantaged under British colonialism, the policies — including greater access to government-funded scholarships and universities, to employment in the public service and to purchase land — continue today.
As does the outward migration from Malaysia, particularly by ethnic minorities.
The World Bank warned in 2011 that brain drain was “intense” and likely to persist, resulting in skills shortages and holding back Malaysia’s chances of becoming a high-income country.
Last month the southern Malaysian state of Johor — where Mr Lim grew up — established a task force to focus on preventing brain drain to neighbouring, ethnic Chinese-majority Singapore.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian-Australian community has continued to grow.
Australia provides more opportunities for some Malaysians
There were more than 172,000 Malaysian-born people in Australia in 2021— up from 134,000 in 2011 — according to Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates.
Malaysia was ranked eighth among the countries of birth for Australia’s overseas-born population ahead of Italy, Greece and Lebanon.
“A lot of people in the middle class have sort of given up on Malaysia,” in light of the political dysfunction of recent years, Professor Chin said.
There was “institutionalised racism” and a perceived lack of meritocracy in Malaysia, he said, where only those with personal connections were able to get ahead within the “Malay-first” environment.
But the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s country report for Malaysia in 2021 said Australian officials had concluded there were “low levels of official discrimination” against ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians.
“For the typical Chinese or Indian family, your chance of getting into the public service is virtually zero,” Professor Chin said.
Manveen Maan, a Malaysian Indian based in Melbourne, agreed.
Ms Maan, a government communications advisor, said she would have loved to work for her own government in Malaysia but the common perception was that most positions were reserved for Malays.
“The word on the street is, you’re not going to get very far, so why bother? And that’s if you get in at all,” she said.
“The greatest irony is that I’ve come to Australia, I’m not a citizen, and I’m still working for the government here.
“The fact that you can come to Australia, you can be from an ethnic minority background, you can be a woman, and you can be elected to represent your local council, or your local area and become an MP.
“That speaks to the opportunities that you get in Australia that you don’t necessarily get in Malaysia anymore.”
The Malaysian Foreign Ministry has been contacted for comment.
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