Numbers matter, don’t they?

By Koh Sin Yee

We know that Malaysians are leaving  and the country  is suffering a brain drain (usually defined as emigration of those with tertiary degrees). In the 2007 Asia Barometer survey, 16.7% of 1,000 Malaysian respondents said they have a family member or relative living in another country.

We also know that Malaysians have a strong sense of emotional belonging and affiliation to Malaysia. In the 2005 World Values Survey, 69.2% of 1,201 Malaysian respondents  said they are very proud of being Malaysian. This is also consistently found in the 2007 Asia Barometer survey, where 61.2% of 1,000 respondents indicate the same.

So is the strong emotional attachment enough to bring  substantial numbers home? That is a question for our times. But first,  the numbers.

Selected Statistics


  • Estimated number of Malaysian diaspora (Malaysian-born migrants): 1 million (year 2010) (The World Bank, 2011)
  • Estimated number of Malaysian brain drain (tertiary-educated Malaysian born migrants, aged 25+): 335,000 (year 2010) (The World Bank, 2011)

Estimated Malaysian diaspora and brain drain (25+), 2010

Source: The World Bank (2011: 140)

Distributions in top 10 destination countries (year 2010 estimation by The World Bank)

  1. Singapore                            : 385,979
  2. Australia                              : 101,522
  3. Brunei                                   : 76,567
  4. United Kingdom               : 65,498
  5. United States                    : 61,160
  6. Canada                                 : 24,063
  7. India                                      : 18,179
  8. Hong Kong                          : 16,123
  9. New Zealand                     : 15,995
  10. China                                     : 9,226


Durations of stays in selected OECD countries based on year 2000 census (OECD)

  • Tendency to stay for longer durations (more than 10 years), both overall and amongst the tertiary-educated

Durations of stays of all Malaysian-born migrants in selected OECD countries


Source: OECD (2012)


Durations of stays of tertiary-educated Malaysian-born migrants in selected OECD countries

Source: OECD (2012)

Top 3 employment sectors of tertiary-educated Malaysian-born migrants in selected OECD countries based on year 2000 census (OECD)

Source: OECD (2012)

Students’ migration

  • For the past decade, Malaysia has risen up the global rank for outbound mobile students (defined as “students from a given country studying abroad”). In 2010, there were 54,600 outbound mobile students originating from Malaysia.

Note: Country codes based on ISO 3166

Source: UIS (2012)

  • Popular destinations have been Australia, United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand and Canada.

Source: UIS (2012)

  • However, the top 10 destination countries for 2008 include countries such as the Russian Federation, Indonesia, Japan, Ukraine, Ireland, Taiwan and Germany.

Source: Derived by comparison to data from UIS (2012) and Ministry of Education, ROC (Taiwan)


  • Talent Corporation’s Returning Expert Programme (REP) has attracted 680 returnees in the year 2011 (Lee, 2012).

So what?

Just looking at the numbers, it appears that people who leave greatly outnumber people who left. However, we don’t know much about people who constantly come and go, or people who return on their own accord without accessing incentive programmes such as the REP.

The global economic landscape is changing rapidly. At the same time, attitudes towards immigration in destination countries are also changing. While previously an overseas education followed by work experience there was desirable and relatively feasible, this is becoming increasingly difficult. Comparatively, Asia (and Malaysia) presents opportunities for those who see the possibilities.

For overseas Malaysians who have established their lives elsewhere, it is naïve to think that a strong sense of emotional belonging to Malaysia (whatever that means to them) will compel them to uproot and return. Life is not only about numbers, dollars and cents. It is also about uncertainties, unexpected events, changing circumstances (marriage, children, health) and a personal journey of discovery.

Will overseas Malaysians return? Perhaps – if a return presents a suitable solution satisfying all or most of their competing requirements. Perhaps not – if a return is not a viable and sustainable option for them (and their family).

Koh Sin Yee is a doctoral researcher in Human Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She blogs about her thesis on tertiary-educated Malaysians in London, Singapore and returnees to Kuala Lumpur and would love any suggestions and comments.

3 comments on “Numbers matter, don’t they?

  1. Pingback: Article at « Mobile Malaysians

  2. Pingback: Publications « Sin Yee Koh

  3. Pingback: Chicken feet with Koh Sin Yee | onebrainblog

Leave a Reply