To go or not to go

Dzof Azmi, The Star 

Recently, a friend of mine posted an announcement on Facebook that she was leaving Malaysia. She was sick and tired of its failings as a country, and she saw no progress at all. My initial reaction when reading this was sadness, followed by an urge to ask her to stay and help make this country better – forgetting that she has basically been trying to do that for the last few years in her own way.

Another part of me wanted to say “Never mind the idiots”, but I suspect she believes that it is the idiots who get the most press coverage, and evidence of their idiocy is prevalent 24/7.

But why should I try to stop her, if at the end of the day she believes that leaving the country is what’s needed to be better? I myself advocate going abroad to study or for work experience as it develops a more rounded view of the world with all its eccentricities and foibles.

It may be that she wants to raise a family, and she feels that Malaysia is not the best place to do that. This might have been the conclusion she came to if she had consulted the recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (the sister company of The Economist magazine) titled “Where to be born in 2013”, and found that Malaysia wasn’t even in the top 35 countries to grow up in for the next few decades ( The study takes into consideration overall quality of life, including how happy people are, how economically well off they will be, the prevalent level of crime, trust in public institutions and overall quality of healthcare.

Of the 80 countries examined, Malaysia lies at 36th, above China (49th), Thailand (50th), Vietnam (68th) and Indonesia (71st), but below Australia (2nd), Singapore (6th), Hong Kong (10th) and Britain (27th). Switzerland was top, while Nigeria ranked lowest among the countries listed.

From this, I think it would be easy to assume, “Well, let’s move to Australia or Singapore, where my children will get a better chance to grow up successful”. And yet, reality is rarely as simple as the economic models that try to quantify it.

There are so many factors in play, including your existing economic status and society networks. Obviously, if you move to Britain but can’t get a good job there, then it’s not likely that anything else you do there will be successful.

Other circumstances may matter. While many Malaysians consider leaving for the sake of their child’s education, it was recently reported that a number of Japanese families are relocating to Malaysia in order for their children to get an education here (

The contradiction may be explained by comparing salaries and ambitions: Malaysians may feel good public education is out of reach at home, while the incoming Japanese migrants have money and mature, rewarding careers. What may not be right for you now, may be exactly what you’re looking for 10 years down the road.

What needs to be realised is that in an era of globalisation, people will always have the option to move to greener pastures. The problem exists not just between countries, but between cities in the same nation.

For example, many of the best and brightest of people born in Kuching or Alor Setar will end up living and working in KL or Penang.

As a result, the quality of talent in the towns they leave behind drops, while the large cities continue to grow.

However, after some time, people may reach a point in life where they feel they want to go back to their hometowns and build something there, near loved ones whom they grew up with.

Thus, migration is a flow that can come full circle, guided by ever-changing needs and opportunities.

In all this, if Malaysia wants to be relevant as an attractor for talent, it must develop in the right ways. It cannot be that it is all bad; after all, Malaysia came 36th in the list, not 70th, so there must be things that we are already doing right.

The study suggests that the countries that are successful have robust economic development in an environment that is peaceful and liberal. It is also better to be a small country, presumably because they can better address the problems of disparity between the haves and have-nots.

Putting aside the idea that the Klang Valley could segregate as a separate city-state, I’d say these conditions suggest that some of our national policies seem to be along the right lines – specifically, portions of the Economic Transformation Plan and the Government Transformation Plan – while identifying a few which may eventually be limiting.

And naturally, it is those few that invite the most political rhetoric, which then means that they take up the most column inches and public attention, which in turn encourages some friends of mine to think that Malaysia is going backwards and that they should leave.

Yes, the best laid plans don’t always succeed, and we are right to be cautious of rosy pictures painted by politicians. All I can say is that you can still best identify opportunities in the country you grew up in and have put down roots as long as you keep your eyes open for them.

But your eyes must be open. There are Malaysians abroad who seem embarrassed of their heritage – mainly because they believe the reason they left was because things back home were “so bad” and that progress meant to press on the accelerator and speed away. But if you blinker yourself and only look straight ahead, you may miss opportunities that your upbringing and heritage have best prepared you for.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at [email protected].