Many Chinese Malaysians Abroad are Thinking About Coming Home.

May 17, 2018

Affirmative Action Drove Many Chinese Malaysians Abroad. Now They’re Thinking About Coming Home.

Mahathir Mohamad’s new ruling coalition pledges level field after decades of affirmative action for ethnic Malays

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia– Robert Leong left Malaysia about 40 years ago, first for boarding school in Northern Ireland and then to study medicine in Dublin. He went on to the U.S., where he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works in biotechnology.

Now, political upheaval back home is making it more likely that ethnic Chinese expatriates like Mr. Leong will return to Malaysia, bringing talent and capital back with them.

The electoral collapse of the ethnic-Malay-based party that ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 is raising expectations that the new government will soften or end a decades-old affirmative-action policy that favors the majority Muslim Malay population, often at the expense of ethnic Chinese.

“Would I return? Yes, after allowing time for the new government to settle down and begin implementing reforms,” said Mr. Leong, who is 55 years old. “There is a huge pool of talented and experienced Malaysians living overseas that this new government could tap into.”

Before it was voted out of power last week, the ruling United Malays National Organization gave quotas, handouts and other preferential assistance to Malays to help them catch up with the generally wealthier Chinese. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese Malaysians left the country to seek a fairer hand elsewhere.

Image result for mahathir bin mohamad

The newly elected ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad—who championed affirmative action during his earlier, 22-year stint in the post—has decried the UMNO government’s “narrow racist rhetoric” and promised to level the playing field by providing support for all Malaysians who need it.

It is a sensitive and closely followed issue both here and abroad. The pledge from the Alliance of Hope coalition offers to ensure that “Malaysians of all backgrounds will enjoy a fair share of this country’s wealth.”

Mr. Mahathir suggested on Tuesday that the best way to encourage Malaysia’s diaspora to return is to expand the economy “so there are more opportunities for people to practice as professionals, as well as invest in this country.” Speaking via video link to a Wall Street Journal conference in Tokyo, he dodged questions about whether he would seek to remove racial quotas.

Removing the affirmative-action program could be difficult, with Malays and other indigenous groups making up more than two-thirds of the country’s 32 million people.

Hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed in race riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969. Above, troops patrol streets in the Malaysian capital’s Chinatown.
Hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed in race riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969. Above, troops patrol streets in the Malaysian capital’s Chinatown. Photo: Bettmann Archive/GETTY IMAGES


The pro-Malay policy emerged after 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur in which hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed. The government introduced an affirmative-action system that, among other things, reserves many spots in college for Malays; they also benefit from subsidized housing and equity ownership policies and dominate the public sector. The programs have helped nurture an ethnic-Malay middle class, to the extent that some Malays in Kuala Lumpur and other cities say they no longer need help.

From the start, many Chinese Malaysians, unsure of finding spots in universities or getting scholarships, began sending their children to Australia, the U.K. and America. “That’s how the exodus began,” said Jason Wong, 23. “Anyone could get the money together would send their children overseas to try to get a foothold there.”


Image result for malaysian chinese diaspora


He should know. Mr. Wong aims to return to Australia where he previously studied to pursue a doctoral degree in ecology. If he does, he would add to a brain drain in which 1 million Malaysians left the country as of 2010, according to a World Bank study published a year later, the vast majority of them ethnic Chinese.

“Whenever I read about what happens in Malaysia, I daydream—maybe one day I would visit home and change things,” said Chin Fen Teo, 38, who also lives in the Bay Area. “I wish Malaysia is a country where racial harmony is real, not like the fake posters that are plastered all over to promote tourism,” she said.

Newly installed Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the best way to encourage Malaysia’s diaspora to return is to expand the economy.
Newly installed Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the best way to encourage Malaysia’s diaspora to return is to expand the economy. Photo: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg News


Half of the Chinese Malaysians surveyed last year by researchers from Oxford University said they would leave the country if they could. Malaysia’s Department of Statistics has predicted that the ethnic Chinese population could drop to 20% by 2040, down from 38% at independence and around 23% today, although higher birthrates among Malays is a contributing factor.

Mr. Wong says he would prefer to wait and see how the government tackles the affirmative action system before deciding whether to leave—noting that Mr. Mahathir is still leader of a party that segregates Malay and non-Malay membership.

“As long as his pride stops him from challenging the racial supremacism he engineered decades ago, it will continue drifting around in the Malaysian psyche,” Mr. Wong said. “But if circumstances force him to confront that racism, I suppose I’ll play along.”

Another wild card: Mr. Mahathir, who is 92 years old, has said he plans to hand power in a year or two to former rival Anwar Ibrahim, a longtime advocate of free-market economics, who was released from prison on Wednesday and pardoned for a sodomy conviction he says was politically motivated.

He heads the most avowedly multiracial party in the new coalition. Meanwhile, Mr. Mahathir is focusing his attention on building a case against former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who he accuses of receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., or 1MDB.

Mr. Najib denies any wrongdoing and has been barred from leaving the country. Police searched Mr. Najib’s residence for several hours overnight Wednesday into Thursday for evidence, taking away several boxes of personal items, one of his lawyers told reporters.

The issue of Malay supremacy will likely linger on in rural or semirural areas, where the idea that Malays serve as the bedrock of the nation and deserve preferential treatment has taken a deep hold, said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at the polling company Merdeka Center

“It’s not going to go away,” he said. “The idea of Malay rights will still be a big part of the political landscape.”

Write to James Hookway at

15 thoughts on “Many Chinese Malaysians Abroad are Thinking About Coming Home.

  1. I posted this on my Facebook pages on May 14, 2018 :

    Overseas Malaysians ! If the new regime proves itself after 1 year in power, please consider RETURNING to your homeland. We need your skills and expertise to rebuild our country. (I have little regret over giving up my US Permanent Resident status and Singapore Permanent Resident status to return home in 1996, after 19 years overseas). Meanwhile, please invest your money in Malaysia and help our economy to boom. THANK YOU FOR LISTENING.

    • Yes, freeasian. You can see in Trump’s USA, that immigrants are not welcome (especially non-white ones). No matter how highly educated or highly skilled you are. Immigrants from China are statistically at higher risk of being accused of spying for China and getting into legal trouble.

      The children of Overseas Malaysians who are born and grow up overseas in Western countries such as the USA have significant problems with respect to cultural identity, value differences with their immigrant parents, prejudice and racist discrimination from white society, etc. In return for a higher material standard of living, Overseas Malaysians and their foreign-born kids often have to pay a psycho-social price.

    • P.S. I lived for 17 years in the USA, and studied American society and its race and ethnic relations (historical as well as contemporary), both as a graduate student (post-graduate student) and as a sociology PhD. Was also married to an American for a while. I also know
      Malaysian-born people who have settled in the USA and have problems with their US-born children. So, unlike some know-it-alls who pontificate on this blog, I have a deep understanding of what it is like to be an immigrant in the USA.

    • Agree with coming home to rebuild the nation, but disagree with your opinion about the disadvantages of living in foreign climes. Here in a foreign land, it is so much easier to make a living as a professional. Malaysia can never match even a third of the salary I’m paid here. No, I’m neither in the defence industry, nor am I from China or Russia, that I need to fear to be accused of being a spy! However, I feel an obligation to go home to help rebuild the nation when the time is right. Otherwise, living is good here.

  2. /// he dodged questions about whether he would seek to remove racial quotas. ///

    I am less sanguine about this. As a realist, Mahathir knows it is going to be very difficult to undo the bumi privileges – that’s why he dodged the questions. How do you take away the crutches and opium after decades of uses, abuses and misuses?

    With Najib out of the way, anyone who takes away the entitlements will be voted out at the next election.

    • Correct! Correct! Correct!
      After 3-4 generations of imbibing addictive ‘ketuanan’, there is no way anyone will be able to cold-turkey the indigenous Bumi – especially Octo et al..

      The NEP may morph, but it will still have an implicit racial-religious bias, as per the Constitution. Any arguments?

      The problem with most folks is that they rely more on emotion (Euphoria) than to reason and wisdom. And they consider themselves highly educated. Literate perhaps, but the motivators and salient incentivators are slightly awry.

      They gotta research ‘Addiction’ and rummage thru’ their nucleus accumbens before the understand the magnitude of their blabbering.. Perhaps they are the ones for whom the ‘Placebo Effect’ has greatest utility.

      I would rather give 10 years or two General Elections, before ever asking my kids to decide. After all, where they are is safe, quiet, stable, with excellent social and health safety nets. Besides, their jobs can’t even be replicated in this country for eons to come.

    • Yeah.. and today’s DAP might have to walk the path Gerakan taken. Racial Equality has no representation now. Welayu again. The unfortunate part is the Melayu are really too sweet to fight against and we the Cinapek really not that nice for a few Melayu to fight for.
      There will unlikely be a Melayu Lincoln nor a MLK Jr Cinapek. Tony Pua is too sweet. Welayu 2 again soon …

  3. To level a field, I mean a real field with earth and grass, you either cut some earth from the higher parts to fill in the lower parts or you import new earth from somewhere.

    Either way something or someone has to give because there is a finite amount of earth whether in situ or ex situ.

    So who you think has to give up?

    Even now PERKASA is already complaining that the finance minister designate is an ethnic Chinese.

  4. I’m sorry, but China now is the great dampener to extreme racial tensions in this country. No ketuanan policy would pass the smell test against a backdrop of relentless Chinese (the China variety) influence, be it economical or geopolitical.

    Chinese domestic policy would increasingly influence our domestic policy as well. Couple this with the steady retreat of western influence from this region, and you guys can connect the dots.

    In any case, my duty as a simple Malaysian is to continue to be good to my fellow countrymen and women, and contribute as much to her development as possible.

    I rest my case.

  5. To go back to 2000 will take as many years. And by that time the population, growing at 500,000 a year, would have reached 40 million. That means you have to double up. It can be done and a chance has been given to us. And only integrity can help us achieve what we set out to achieve. Many of the baby -boomers, including me, will not be around by.
    To strive to seek to find and not to yield is the way forward. (With apologies)

  6. C L Familiaris you are right & you are also writing sense. Just come back for
    holiday & enjoy Malaysian cuisine.
    Decisions must not be made during times of EUPHORIA.

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