Survey Shows That Most Overseas Graduates Won’t Return Home to Work


Shun Wen holds a Master's degree in International History from the London School of Economics.

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has all but upturned carefully laid plans for many, not least for the thousands of fresh graduates from overseas universities. Faced with dwindling job opportunities and choices overseas, many have opted to return to their home country to bide their time or to take stock of their options.

As I sat out my quarantine in KL, I wondered if the sheer number of students returning to Malaysia posed a potential reversal of the traditional brain drain.

Malaysia has never been short of talent; even at my university in London, there were many smart, savvy and forward-thinking Malaysians pursuing their Master’s or Doctorate degrees. The problem of course, is that many of these smart people are just too smart to come back home after they get their prized qualifications, largely because there were enough companies eager to employ Malaysian talents.

Of the 54 participants surveyed, 52 did not want to work in Malaysia. Of this, 25 cited politics in Malaysia as their main reason.

But how has the pandemic changed all this, and what do the youth of my generation have to say about it? I decided to conduct an online survey of my peers, and the results yielded some evidence to support long-running arguments that explain why Malaysia’s youths seek greener pastures elsewhere, but also some surprising attitudes and views.

First, the survey focused on those who conducted their higher education overseas as they were more likely to have the sought-after qualifications. A whopping 96% of the respondents do not want to return to Malaysia after graduating and prefer to stay overseas. The reasons for this were unsurprising; they cited better healthcare, high pay, LGBTQ+ freedoms, racism in Malaysia, and most of all, exasperation with Malaysian politics. What is more damning is that roughly half (45%) of the participants who returned to Penang were not willing to look for a job in Malaysia even after coming back. Many simply did not want to work here despite an impactful event like Covid-19 shredding the world economy to tatters.

Some even cited fear of being stuck in Malaysia once they started working, while others believed that their first job helps define their career, so they would like to go overseas if at all possible. Most however, were put off by Malaysia because of politics and how it stifles the country’s potential.

Despite the wide disaffection with the system and distrust of its political leaders, approximately 76% of the respondents would consider returning to Malaysia if the political situation were better, despite the lower pay and fewer benefits.

Young Penangites however, show a surprisingly positive view of Penang – over 70% would consider returning to Penang, citing the desire to stay close to family, good urban infrastructure, and lifestyle and investment being comparable to KL. While they believe Penang has the potential to shine or rival KL, they also recognise Penang’s weaknesses, with the biggest complaint being the substandard digital infrastructure (32%).

In doing this survey, I got the feeling that these youths were neither feeling entitled nor being unrealistic – they do understand the tough economic environment and the competitive nature of working overseas, but they still want to give it a shot at building a brighter future for themselves. If they could secure a job, indications are that they will most likely be a loyal worker, as most (73%) see themselves staying with the same job for at least five years before even considering moving on. Whether this is a reflection of the tight job market, or lack of ambition in Malaysian youths remains to be explored further.

2020 was meant to be a watershed year, as the government’s long-term plan was supposed to have pushed Malaysia into the realms of a “high-income country”. The reality is that Malaysia has failed to achieve that mark, and in the process crushed the dreams of at least two generations of Malaysians. It is said that vision is always 20/20 in retrospect, but if Malaysia is to have any hope of retaining its talents, the political will for honest introspection and responsiveness to the needs of the youth of Malaysia will be of paramount importance. Here’s hoping that 2021 will see the beginning of the reversal of bad fortune for both Malaysia and the world.

“Backdoor government and poor performance of the Opposition in the recent by-elections made me weary.”

“Malaysian politics will always revolve around race and religion.”

“Better lifestyle, better government systems (overseas), easier to order items online (less tax).”

“To me, success does not necessarily mean more money. I’m happy with what I do, and it would be even better if I could work in Penang.”

“Penang was already rapidly developing prior to my departure from Malaysia. Since then, I have been astonished by how far Penang has come as a state and municipality during my biennial visits.”

“High levels of urbanisation, and major upcoming infrastructure projects (the Penang Transport Master Plan).”

“It’s the state that received the second-most in foreign investment.”

“I like Penang. I think it has the potential to avoid the issues other rapidly urbanising areas face, becoming a better city of the future.”

A recent Master's graduate from the LSE in international history, Shun Wen has enjoyed history since he began digging for "fossils" from dinosaur kits at the age of three. Ascribing to his school's motto "Rerum Cognoscere Causas" which means understanding the causes of things in Latin, Shun Wen continues to dig into the past to shed light on the future.

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