By Dr. Helmy Haja Mydin. First published in New Straits Times on 30 December 2014.
AS a new year approaches, it is traditional to scrutinise the preceding 12 months. It is natural for us to reflect on significant events in our lives. On a personal note, the most momentous event was my move back to Malaysia after many years abroad.
I will not dwell on the minutiae of life in the United Kingdom, but up to a couple of years ago, the commonest question I was asked during each trip home was: “When are you returning?”, or a variant of the same theme.
It is both telling and bemusing that ever since I set foot back in Malaysia, I get asked a different question every other day — “Why have you returned home?” The question is usually asked in tandem with an expression of bewilderment and disbelief.
This reaction is unsurprising, as such a move runs contrary to the pattern of Malaysia’s brain drain. World Bank data indicate that while the global number of migrants rose 2.4 times between 1960 and 2005, the Malaysian diaspora showed a 155-fold increase over the similar period.
It creates a catch-22 situation, whereby the lack of necessary human capital holds back the country’s ability to develop economically, which in turn is a primary concern among many of those seeking emigration.
However, you will also hear many declaring that Malaysia is both beautiful and blessed, with bountiful resources, friendly people (except when they’re stuck in traffic. The traffic!) and a relative lack of natural disasters.
My parents reiterated these points to me when I first left more than a decade ago, and the truism of this statement has not been diminished today — even if it does take greater efforts to appreciate these positive aspects.
I must admit that I have been fortunate — relocation and readjustment has been made relatively painless (except for the traffic. The traffic!) not only due to family support but the welcome and backing of my colleagues.
My previous mentors may have given me the opportunity to experience the cutting edge of medical technology in a developed economy, but it is my current colleagues who have humbled me with their dedication and ability to achieve so much more with relatively less resources.
I have no doubt that I would earn more if I had remained abroad, but that does not automatically equate to a better quality of life. I hold on to the cliche of better food and closer ties to family and friends, but I am far from alone in thinking that there are great opportunities to be actively involved in society and to help shape a country that is undergoing a period of significant transformation.
It is an understatement to say that our country has changed a lot since I left in the late 1990s. The political landscape will not have been recognisable back then but, more importantly, the propagation and democratisation of online information has brought about a generation that is more in tune with the needs of society.
For every comment opining that women are best kept at home, there are voices equally as loud celebrating the current and future need of strong female leaders in both politics and civil society.
For every statement belittling the role of non-Malays in our country, there are voices rising in defence from both sides of the political aisle. It is an open secret that our challenges are not limited to the economy — the issue of racial intolerance is rearing its ugly head again, alongside a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and a clampdown on critical thinking.
I do believe that the days of being a silent majority are coming to an end — before long, each and every one of us, including the overseas-based armchair critics and the local champagne socialists, will have to actively participate and make our voices heard, lest the country slowly withers and fades into global irrelevance.
I am genuinely happy to be back (except for the traffic. The traffic!) and I sincerely believe that the best days of our nation are still ahead of us. Here’s to us, and an even better 2015.
Dr. Helmy Haja Mydin is an Associate of IDEAS