Education the main reason Malaysians emigrate overseas

THE 15-day Lunar New Year celebration for the Chinese has just ended. It culminated with Chap Goh Meh on Thursday, an evening which we again witnessed the letting off of firecrackers and fireworks to signal the end of the celebration just as we did at the dawn of the new year.

Despite this normal celebratory tone of loudness synonymous with the Chinese New Year, I’m not sure whether Malaysian Chinese have much to look forward to in the Year of the Rabbit. For many, it will likely be just another year of struggle to make ends meet like many of their fellow citizens.

For one, there are few signs that the Asian economy will improve significantly. For many of us, it will be business as usual.

Today, let’s take a closer look at the Chinese in Malaysia, their dwindling numbers and examine why many of them have migrated overseas.

A study by the Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI) revealed that the sharp reduction of Chinese as a population ratio is contrary to natural growth patterns and an anomaly due to institutionalised discrimination.

No greater love have parents shown than to lay down their life savings for their children to study overseas and emigrate. Between March 2008 and August 2009, some 50,000 students sailed from our shores, Deputy Foreign Minister A Kohilan Pillay told Parliament last year. A writer in a national newspaper speculated that many would not return and that “… some even admitted that they had already applied for their PR visas”.

They are among 304,358 persons registered with Malaysia’s representative offices abroad over the past two months. A review of statistics will help us to interpret this unique Made-in-Malaysia export of roughly 17,000 units of human capital on average a month. Among the ethnic groups in Malaysia, the Chinese are the largest outflow and also experiencing the biggest change in demography.

It is true that education is the main reason Malaysian Chinese emigrate overseas. Many of my classmates who went overseas to further their studies abroad 35 years ago never returned home. They married, worked and settled down in their chosen countries. In turn, their children were also educated there.

There was no pressing reason for them to return to their land of birth as they felt that conditions were more conducive for them and their children overseas, especially if they are Chinese.

In the 80s, the Chinese had a negative net migration rate of minus 10.6 per cent.

“Between 1980 and 1991, the (Chinese) migration deficit was estimated at 391,801 persons as against a national increase of 777,339 persons,” statistician Tey Nai Peng found in his study.

The Chinese annual growth rate also showed a consistent drop, recording only 53 per cent between 1990 and 2000 during a period when the national population grew 123 per cent.

Tey said in his paper ‘Causes and consequences of demographic change in the Chinese community in Malaysia’ that “the fertility of the Chinese declined from 4.6 children to 2.5 children between 1970 and 1997”. Comparatively, total fertility rate for Malays in 1987 remained a high 4.51.

It is no longer true that Penang is a Chinese majority state. In 2010, Malays in Penang are projected to be 670,128 persons — outnumbering Chinese at 658,661. Between 1991 and 2000, Penang had an average annual growth rate of 1.8 per cent but Penang Chinese only 0.7 per cent.

Perak has significant numbers of Chinese but still, Chinese registered a negative growth of minus 1 per cent from 1991 to 2000, whereas the average annual rate of Perak population growth was a positive 0.4 per cent.

The Department of Statistics records that in the 1990s, Chinese fell in number in Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis too. In Melaka, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, Chinese were practically stagnant.

In Sabah, Chinese were 23 per cent of the population in 1960 but shrunk to 10.1 per cent in 2000. “In contrast, recent immigrants and refugees, with a population of 614,824 persons in 2000, form close to a quarter of the total population, or more than twice the size of the long-settled Chinese community,” writes Danny Wong Tze-Ken in his paper ‘The Chinese population in Sabah’.

By 2000, Chinese were mainly concentrated in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. The Klang Valley accounted for 38 per cent of all Chinese in the peninsula. Nine out of 10 Chinese today are found in urban areas, concentrated in the major cities.

It is conspicuous that among the younger age cohorts, the Chinese are an even smaller proportion of the national average. On the other hand, among the elderly (60 years and above), Chinese constitute 5.4 per cent of the population, as against the national average of 5 per cent.

Among the ethnic groups in Malaysia, Chinese have the highest proportion of elderly. “It is found that most of the ‘clients’ in nursing homes are the Chinese,” observes researcher Philip Poi Jun Hua in his essay ‘Ageing among the Chinese in Malaysia: Some trends and issues’.

This situation affecting the Chinese community, with parents either in nursing homes or ‘home alone’ in Malaysia whilst the children are abroad has ironically come about due to education as a main contributing factor.

“The Chinese community places great emphasis on education but the escalation in the cost of acquiring an education might have compelled young couples to limit their family size,” surmises Tey. Because educated Chinese women are in the workforce as well as limiting themselves to only one or two children, Chinese couples have more money to spend on each child’s education.

This is in a way a lose-lose scenario because the couple would then tend to overprotect the single offspring — do recall China’s one-child policy’s outcome of producing Little Emperors — and the well-educated child is more likely to emigrate.

“‘All my friends plan to leave Malaysia,’ a private student in the offshore campus of a premier Australian university in KL declared to me,” writes CPI researcher Helen Ang.

What Ang heard is probably true of most college students and graduates in the country. All of us are painfully aware of the real situation in the country.

It is sad that many young Malaysians, particularly non-Bumiputeras, do not really feel patriotic to the country. This is principally due to the flaws in our education system or the subtle racial discrimination.

We must make serious efforts to correct the situation — the sooner the better.

(Comments can reach the writer via [email protected])

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