Recently, on a trip to the United States, I paid a visit to a secondary school friend of mine from Kuala Lumpur who now works and lives in Washington DC. He shall remain unnamed as I think he would prefer that.
Of course, he and I are the same age (37 years old this year, and proud of it!) and for the sake of context, I would like to let everyone know that he is a Chinese Malaysian.
He left Malaysia right after the SPM examination to further his studies in the US. As soon as he graduated, he found a job as an engineer and has been there ever since.
As we chatted over coffee, I asked him why he never came back to Malaysia to look for a job. The way he responded was as if it was the most obvious and logical choice not to come back.
His parents had a small shop and they slogged to send him and his siblings overseas for their tertiary education so they would have a good opportunity to build their careers.
His sister went to university in New Zealand and decided to head back to Malaysia as soon as she graduated to get a job in the IT industry. And she found a job quite easily.
The challenge was to balance her income with the cost of living in Malaysia. Even after a few years, she still couldn’t afford to buy a home or a car. And so she moved back to New Zealand where she could have more spending power.
His brother also went to New Zealand to attend university, and being the more academically talented one in the family, managed to get a scholarship so the father didn’t have to slog.
But he was a little bit too critical about Malaysian politics and social issues that his scholarship was eventually taken away. His father ended up paying for his education and he decided to stay on in New Zealand.
My friend, after seeing all this happen, knew that the natural choice was for him to also stay away from his home country because it just seemed obvious that there were more opportunities in the US.
And after 15 years living, studying and working in the US, he is now earning upwards of US$700,000 a year as a consultant in an engineering firm. And he has plans to start his own firm in the near future.
I can safely say that among many of our peers who never left Malaysia and stayed to work and build our careers at home, he probably has the most financial and spending power.
I asked my Chinese Malaysian friend if, at this point in his life, he would consider coming back to Malaysia. He calmly said no. Why? Because he doesn’t know if he would have the same quality of life.
What would it take for him to come back to Malaysia? How worth it would it be for him to give up what he has in a foreign land to come back to his home country?
The family factor wouldn’t be it because he and his siblings come home to visit pretty regularly. And in between, his parents fly out to either New Zealand or the US to visit them.
And the Malaysian weather is definitely not a pull factor because he can’t stand the tropical heat any more. Apparently, whenever he comes home for visits: “I just sweat bucket loads!”
So I asked him another question. Since he has a green card and has already been living in the US for more than a decade (and is married to an American), is he thinking about being a US citizen and giving up his Malaysian passport?
His answer to this one is as obvious and natural as for the first question. Of course not, because at the heart of the matter, Malaysia is still his home country, and there is no doubt about that.