Love, Life Stories

Malaysia’s brightest minds are leaving the country in the thousands, and here’s why

“Malaysia is a beautiful country. But I have been led to believe that I am a second-rate citizen in my own home.”

It’s August 31. I wake up to a Twitter feed full of my peers jubilantly celebrating with GIFs of fireworks. It is beautiful and moving. The 59th anniversary of Malaysia’s independence from the United Kingdom has begun, and social media patriotism, whether truly believed or not, is at its yearly peak.

Still, I find myself scrolling groggily through my feed, in a flat in the London borough of Brent, where I’ve been living for the past year. I haven’t called the city of Kuala Lumpur home since I was 11 years old, and I don’t know if I ever will again.

Malaysia has a brain drain problem. Recruitment agency Hays reports 84% of Malaysian job seekers dream of a career overseas. 53-year-old Noah* isn’t surprised. He cites “an unpredictable exchange rate” and “racial bias” for reasons to encourage his children to “venture out of Malaysia.”

He isn’t the only one with complicated feelings towards his homeland.

This may be venturing into meta territory, but when I was commissioned to write this piece, I wasn’t expecting such a high level of response. I put out a short survey out on Twitter, expecting five responses at most.

I got fifty.

My inbox was flooded with people, my people, grappling with their decision to abandon their birthplace. Some stories made me weep. Stories like AJ’s*, who is struggling with the idea of returning to Kuala Lumpur because he will have to deal with the extreme level of discrimination the LGBTQ+ community faces. “Malaysia is a beautiful country. But I have been led to believe that I am a second-rate citizen in my own home.”

“I’m a second-rate citizen as an immigrant anyway. So, if I’m going to be treated as a second-rate citizen, why not be treated that way in a country where I can live a better life?” AJ* says, making a heart-breaking point.

I have been led to believe that I am a second-rate citizen in my own home. Click To Tweet

LGBT rights are largely unrecognized in Malaysia. In fact, being in a homosexual relationship could land you in jail for 20 years. Sodomy is an illegal act in Malaysia, and is defined as ‘gross indecency with another male person.’ I am ashamed to have even needed to type that sentence out.

There are others with conflicted views. I asked my respondents to describe how they felt about Malaysia in one word. ‘Disappointed’ was the top word, followed closely by ‘complicated.’ There is a difference between leaving home because you’re excited about your destination, and leaving because you feel like your home cannot sustain and fulfill you.

The perception that first-world countries provide new and exciting opportunities is one of the most common reasons for a young Malaysian’s departure. However, life in a foreign country has its own challenges. When times get tough in London (and in this big, cruel city it often does,) I sometimes ask: “Was leaving Malaysia worth it? Is this struggle worth the thousands of miles of distance that now exists between me and my family?”

I sometimes think about the time when my mother called me “arrogant” for acting like I knew it all because I lived in a developed country. Whether that is the truth is debatable – a clash in values often happens when you move to a more liberal country than that of your parents’. Nevertheless, that wound hasn’t yet healed. I had been permanently changed by living abroad, and there is no undo button that can take me back to who I was before I left.

I’d been permanently changed by living abroad, and there is no undo button. Click To Tweet

Young Malaysians are taught that a better life exists on the bright green grass that sits on English soil, the vast flat expanses of the United States, or the arid climate of Australia. We choose to leave, even if it frightens us, even when, according to more than twenty respondents, it makes us “terribly sad.” And when we do, we can never look at our country in the same light.

We choose to leave, even if it frightens us. Click To Tweet

I still don’t know whether leaving Malaysia was the right thing to do. However, this is my, and thousands of young Malaysians,’ harsh reality. We wake up to a world that looks at our home country as nothing more than a den of corruption, and either mourn the fact that we’ll never return or dread having to go back. I have hope, however, in the respondents excited to land at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, to be reunited with their loved ones, to begin a brighter future guiding my country into the light.