Migrate for what???


The age-old adage, “the grass is always greener on the other side”, does signal unwise and unrealistic optimism. Australia is a favourite destination for Malaysians wishing for a better life, but its sparkling and seemingly rich shores, as writer Ken Soong discovers, can be deceptive.

I am a Malaysian living in Melbourne, Australia. My brother, sister and I migrated here in 2004. Our parents came along as well. We applied under the “individual skilled migrant” category and later sponsored our parents. They were given a “bridging” visa from January 2005 until July 2012 before they were finally granted their permanent resident visa. This category of visa allows “aged parents” to stay in Australia on one condition – they must have “two-thirds” of their children living in Australia. Since all three of us were here, they had more than two-third majority.

This article is not about the technicalities of migrating. Rather, it is about the "why" of migrating. Most Malaysians who have migrated or have decided to migrate (soon) to Australia told me that their children would have a better future if they grew up in Australia. Back in 2004, I would have fully agreed with them. The idea of “becoming better off in terms of education, career, family life and life in general” in Australia was a no-brainer for me – of course we would be better off in Australia.

Australia has one of the leading education systems in the world.

Ten years on, I have come to realise that Australia is not as good as we have all made it out or hoped it to be. We have no one (not even Australia since it is only natural that every government presents its country to the world in the most favourable light) but ourselves to blame for our own failure to make a more objective assessment about our future in Australia as migrants. Most of us are still using a very outdated perspective, rooted in our recent colonial history, with which to see the world.

For migrants who came to Australia back in the 1960s, the 1970s or even the 1980s, their decision to migrate would have benefitted them much more than if they were to do it today. Back in those days, Malaysia was still not adequately developed, modernised and industrialised. Foreign direct investments, education and infrastructure were definitely a far cry from today’s standards. Particularly for the average Malaysian professional, his or her work would have been much more richly rewarded in Australia than back home.

If a Sudanese or Afghan were to migrate to Australia today, then I can say with almost absolute certainty that their lives will be better off. But today's Malaysians had better think twice. Jobs are moving in big numbers from Australia to Asia; Australian educational institutions are failing many of their own students, with many schools (even public ones) turning to attracting more students from China, Korea and other Asian countries for financial reasons; drug-related crimes and schoolyard bullying are becoming more rampant; and the total cost of income support (i.e. welfare) payment has now (as of 2014) topped A$70bil a year.

These trends and developments are here to stay, and the shift of fortune from the West to the East is an irreversible one. Investor Jim Rogers frequently remarked that if you were smart in 1807, you would go to London, if you were smart in 1907, you would go to New York, but if you were smart in 2007, you would go to Asia. (In 2007, Rogers moved his entire family to Singapore.)

So I wonder, why on earth are we still leaving Malaysia? What are we actually running away from? While most of us think that we are running away from some potential or real political threat, the actual fact might well be that we are running away from some real lifetime opportunities! With market saturation and an ageing population in the EU, US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China, the Asean region, with its population size, relatively young median age and richness in natural resources, is poised to grow like never before.

When jobs are getting scarce in Australia, why move there at all? Already we are seeing Malaysian migrants’ Australian-born children returning to Singapore and Malaysia to work in high corporate positions because they could not get that kind of opportunity back in Australia! Sending your children to Australia today does not necessarily mean that they will benefit from being exposed to different cultures, because there are now so many Asian students in Australian schools that they do not have to interact or mingle with their Australian classmates anymore! It also means that these children risk being exposed to the rising drug-related crimes on Australian streets, and by the time we retire, the Australian government would not have enough to support our retirements. Yes, Australia is famous for its social safety net. But this net has many holes in it, each of which is getting larger by the day!

Calligrapher at work during the 2014 Sydney Chinese New Year Festival. The most populous city in Australia also has a significant migrant population.

Still, without fail, we Malaysians have somehow managed to convince ourselves that Australia has more of a future to offer than Malaysia. To be fair, I shall wait for another few years to find out, because the future I envisaged for myself in Australia is still not here. Will it ever be here? For my American neighbour and my British and South African friends, they are reasonably happy and satisfied here, but not so much for Malaysians, I feel. Maybe it will happen for us one day. Maybe.

Not many migrants want to admit failure in achieving their goals here. I know of at least two such migrants – one telling friends he works for ANZ Bank (one of the leading banks in Australia) in Melbourne and the other telling people he works for American Express in Sydney. In truth, both of them are working for two Australia-based call centres which provide outsourced customer relationship management services to their clients – who happen to be ANZ Bank and American Express!

Coming from Malaysia myself, I can perfectly relate to the “face” issue most migrants had to handle when they first started out here in Australia. Many of them came from relatively successful professional careers in their home countries after all. I have seen a former middle-aged Indian-Malaysian lawyer working as an insurance underwriter earning graduate entry-level salary, a former listed-company director driving a taxi, a former Filipino corporate accountant studying to become a nurse (because he could not find a satisfactory corporate accountant job) and a former Hong Kong University mathematics professor working as a sales representative in a mobile phone dealership – not because his English was not good enough, but because he did not sound Australian enough.

To migrate and live comfortably here in Australia, we need firstly to have the right knowledge – for example, the tax system here is very, as a tax accountant friend says, “oppressive”. One needs to be financially stronger first, otherwise one is here to throw good money away! Yes, we will get some income support and welfare payment, but that is like hoping for free medical treatment when we should not be bleeding in the first place.

To migrate or not to migrate – it is your call. It is your future at stake.

This article was excerpted and adapted from Migrating to Australia, Good Meh???, published by Gerak Budaya to help Malaysians make an informed decision on migrating to Australia. For those who have already made up their minds to migrate, the book also offers tips and success stories from migrants who have made it. Copies can be purchased in bookstores throughout Malaysia.

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