KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 28 — Some Malaysians who left the country for better prospects abroad are quietly trickling home, citing positive progress in Malaysia that could see others follow suit.
While the country still experiences a persistent “brain drain”, returning Malaysians told Malay Mail Online that they came back after seeing both life at home and abroad for themselves.
Vignesh Nagenthram, who worked in investment banking and in the hedge fund industry in London, San Francisco and Singapore for 22 years before moving permanently back to Kuala Lumpur in 2013, said Malaysians may not necessarily earn much more or lead an affluent life in developed countries.
“The quality of life here can be as good as the one you get over there,” Vignesh told Malay Mail Online in an interview.
“We have great restaurants, good food, different types of bars, and the cost of living here can be a lot cheaper than in London or San Francisco,” the 43-year-old added.
Vignesh now does his own investments and recently opened a family-friendly bar and restaurant called “The Enclave” in Bangsar after finding a gap in the market for quiet and relaxing bars.
He decided to come back to be closer to his parents, whom he said did not want to relocate as they were used to life here with their friends.
According to a World Bank report in 2011, the number of skilled Malaysians living abroad rose 300 per cent in the last two decades, with two out of every 10 Malaysians with tertiary education opting to leave for either Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries or Singapore.
Minorities leaving the country regularly cite discriminatory practices and policies as reasons for moving abroad.
When asked about such issues in Malaysia, however, Vignesh said these exist everywhere.
“There’s no utopia,” said Vignesh, pointing to Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump as US president and the rise of right-wing parties in Europe.
“But here, it’s still a nice place to live in. The weather’s good, the food is good and the quality of life is decent.”
Former Olympic swimmer Jeffrey Ong, who lived in London for 14 years before moving back to Malaysia in February last year, said he decided to come home for reasons such as family, lifestyle, food, weather and career opportunities.
“Malaysia is still home,” Ong told Malay Mail Online.
“Despite some slowdowns here and there in various parts of the region, I still see a lot of growth potential here. So it’s good to be in Malaysia because it’s a hub for the Asean region and it’s a good place for me because my role is more international, more regional. I think it’s a good place to be,” added the 44-year-old retired swimmer who had represented Malaysia in the Olympics in 1988 and 1992.
Ong said he used to do event planning in London. Currently, he is regional commercial director with the PGA TOUR, the organiser of the CIMB Classic golf tournament, and based in Kuala Lumpur.
“Every country has its issues and challenges. So Malaysia is no different. I think for people who haven’t lived abroad, sometimes the grass seems greener,” he said.
Dr Helmy Haja Mydin, who went to the UK in 2000 for his undergraduate studies and worked as a doctor subsequently before returning permanently to Malaysia in 2014, said he took up TalentCorp’s offer under the government agency’s Returning Expert Programme (REP) when he came home. The REP aims to attract Malaysian professionals living abroad to repatriate.
“Malaysia is still growing and learning,” Dr Helmy told Malay Mail Online.
“The environment is more exciting to me, because I feel that I can contribute more (both in terms of the profession and in terms of society at large). Yes we have challenges, but I think it’s important to actively get involved in shaping our country,” added the consultant physician who specialises in respiratory medicine at Pantai Hospital here.
Dr Helmy said he had worked with the National Health Service (NHS) back in the UK, where he was predominantly in Newcastle and spent three years in Aberdeen before returning to Malaysia in 2014.
“There is a fixed income when working with the NHS, and it is generally enough to get by especially as because things like healthcare and education are free. However, one has to pay one’s own way through post-graduate training (exam fees, registration fees etc), which is also a struggle that doctors in Malaysia face,” said the doctor in his 30s.
“If I was into basic science research, then I might have stayed back in the UK because facilities may be better. But my interests are more in clinical and policy development,” Dr Helmy added.
He said he has helped with tobacco control policy since returning home and does work with local think tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).
Most Asians end up working in Chinese restaurants
Many Malaysian professionals hoping to move abroad have dreams of securing comparable work as they perform here, but with more lucrative pay and better quality of life. But the reality is far grimmer for some.
While some manage to get white-collar jobs abroad, not all are so fortunate.
Lee Kok Loong — who prides himself as a success story, having worked as a materials testing specialist in the aerospace, oil and gas, marine, power generation and automotive industries in the UK—said most Asians end up working in Chinese restaurants and Chinese takeaways because they cannot find work in their original industries due to tough competition.
“In the UK, you’re not just competing against local people, but people from all over the world, Europe, and Asia. Before a UK company can employ you, they need to justify to the Home Office why they want to employ you,” Lee told Malay Mail Online.
The 40-year-old pointed out that he used to hire people back in the UK and that 400 to 500 people would vie for single position. He also found that it has been getting harder for foreigners to get jobs in Britain during the last five years and that most Malaysian students returned home after finishing their education.
Lee, who worked all over the UK for the past 15 years before returning home to Malaysia on January 9, said, however, that he used to get about two calls a week offering him a job during the last few years in the UK.
“(But) what I do back in the UK is quite niche, so not a lot of people have the same skill set,” said Lee, adding that he was included in the “Who’s Who in Science & Engineering” by US publisher Marquis Who’s Who on the world’s leading scientists. He has also written many journal papers and a book.
Lee, who is now based in Petaling Jaya, said he decided to return home permanently because of his family, describing Malaysia as a “peaceful country”.
“I hope that my success will inspire young Malaysians to excel in their chosen field,” he said.
‘Here, I’m just an average Joe’
John Ling, who has been living in New Zealand for 13 years since graduating there, said he observed that most Malaysians who emigrated were upper middle-class professionals and that some went home because they could not get a senior-level job abroad.
“From what I hear, it’s the fact their experiences and qualifications do not carry over. And they are reluctant to start all over again,” Ling told Malay Mail Online.
“So the thing is that countries like New Zealand are great in terms of average income. So if you compare the average New Zealander to the average Malaysian, it’s obvious which has a higher standard of living.
“But the Malaysians who arrive in New Zealand are not average. They are often successful in their fields back in Malaysia. So it’s hard to stomach being ‘average’,” added the 33-year-old, who is currently based in Auckland working as a marketing manager.
Ling cited a Malaysian who had told him: “Who cares if there’s corruption and crime in Malaysia? I just go back, make heaps of money, then live in a condo with proper security. Solved. Whereas here, I’m just an average Joe, and I’m struggling just to keep my head above water”.
He added that a senior manager might earn RM10,000 monthly in Malaysia “at the expense of the countless underpaid workers under you”, but a company in New Zealand might not be able to provide the manager with an equivalent salary due to minimum wage laws.
Over 4,000 Malaysians approved under Returning Expert Programme
More than 4,000 Malaysian professionals have been approved under the REP to date since the initiative was transferred to it in January 2011, TalentCorp said.
“To better target talent with skillsets in shortage in Malaysia, TalentCorp works closely with a strong network of leading employers to connect Malaysian professionals abroad with job opportunities in Malaysia, in addition to administering the Returning Expert Programme (REP) to support employer efforts to attract talent back home,” TalentCorp CEO Shareen Shariza Abdul Ghani told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.
According to TalentCorp, citing World Bank data on 1,654 REP applicants, 76 per cent were men and 89 per cent had a bachelor or master’s degree.
REP applicants were on average 38 years’ old, with 7.3 years of experience working abroad, have been in their current jobs overseas for about 3.2 years, and have an average annual income of US$61,269 when abroad and US$59,924 when in Malaysia.
Thirty-five per cent of applicants worked in business services, followed by engineering (28 per cent), and finance and banking (14 per cent). About half of REP applicants were categorised as technical experts.
“Malaysian professionals abroad who fulfill the stringent criteria of becoming a returning expert are eligible for an optional 15 per cent flat tax rate on chargeable employment income for a period of five consecutive years; tax exemption for all personal effects brought into Malaysia, limited to one shipment; and one locally manufactured Complete Knocked Down (CKD) or fully imported Complete Built Up (CBU) car per successful application exempted from duty/taxes up to a maximum of RM150,000 worth of duty/taxes.
“Foreign spouses and children of successful REP applicants are also eligible for Permanent Resident (PR) status within 6 months upon receipt of their complete PR application form by the Immigration Department of Malaysia,” said Shareen Shariza, describing REP’s fiscal incentives.