Brain drain in Malaysia

This article highlights the key findings of a survey conducted earlier this year.

Describing the Extent of Migration

Based on the dataset created from my research, I find that there are an estimated 1 million Malaysian-born migrants in the world (migrants of all ages). Looking specifically at those 25 years or older, this number drops to about 844,000. Of these, about 455,000 are high-skilled, that is, that have already completed tertiary education.

Key Findings

200 Malaysian-born migrants were also polled for their opinions and general attitudes towards migration. 70% are not sure if they will return to Malaysia, while 80% of them feel that their professional goals have been met through migration. Another key insight from the survey data: the limited time window during which migrants may return home. Indeed, as migrants stay longer in their host countries, the stronger the social connections they make as they purchase property and start families, and the less likely they are to return home to Malaysia.

In this study, I also find that religious diversity, high GDP/capita adjusted for PPP, distance from home country and English (all destination country characteristics) are significantly associated with the brain drain out of Malaysia. In a separate model specification, I also find that livability, as proxied by the EIU’s Quality of Life index, is also a significant explanatory variable.

Concluding Remarks

Malaysia should build momentum for change by embracing the ebb and flow of high-skilled workers, and compete for the global talent pool. Malaysia lies in the heart of a very economically vibrant region with an awakened China to the north, a rapidly transforming India to the west and resource-rich Australia to the south. Every one of these countries is in need of high-skilled workers. If Malaysia does not enter the market for global talent, whatever remaining stock of high-skilled workers it has may eventually be lost to the world. The entry into such a market is non-trivial, and there is therefore a need for Malaysia to start today to attract talent, one that is highly mobile, and that will become more so as physical and electronic communications links become cheaper and mobility increases, and will therefore be able to more easily vote with their feet.

Malaysia is at a unique moment in its history. For the first time, there is a broad realization that the country must move in a new direction. This is also the sense of many individuals interviewed during the fieldwork phase of this research. One of the senior officials I interviewed in Malaysia summed it up the best, noting that Malaysia has been in a “comfort zone” for too long, and for the first time, “all political parties [from both the ruling coalition and the opposition] agree that it is time for change.”

For further enquiries on the findings, methodology or migration databases used as part of this study, please contact Gregory Foo at

Note: Gregory Foo’s findings are supported by several other studies and surveys, such as one conducted by Evelyn Wong. Gregory Foo also provided inputs into the most recent World Bank study on Malaysia titled Brain Drain.

About Gregory Foo, Guest Contributor