THERE are no concise figures as to how many Malaysians are now living abroad. Some reports suggest that there are about 200,000 Malaysians living in the United States, 50,000 in Canada, 95,000 in Australia and more than 300,000 in Britain. Add to that the smaller number of Malaysians who are scattered all across the five continents and my guess is that there are more than a million Malaysians living abroad today.
Many have done well for themselves. Among the more well-known overseas Malaysians are Professor Chin See Leang (a world renowned laser specialist at Quebec City’s Laval University), Professor Danny Quah (of the London School of Economics) and Jimmy Choo (fashion designer, London).
Less well-known are the thousands of other Malaysians from the Grand Caymans to Kenya who have distinguished themselves in their adopted lands. They are sportsmen and journalists, film-makers and artists, doctors and dancers, safari operators and fund managers, highly skilled professionals and academics.
Some have even been agents of change. Baltej Singh Dhillon, a Sikh from Malaysia, was instrumental in changing the famed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) uniform to incorporate a turban so that Sikhs could join up.
They are an amazing bunch of people. They never fail to turn up at receptions hosted by our embassies or greet visiting Malaysian leaders. They come dressed in fading and ill-fitting batik shirts or kebayas from their past. They sing the national anthem with gusto and pride and even a tear or two. Many visit Malaysia regularly.
They may have lived abroad for decades but they know in their hearts that they are Malaysian. And they are proud of it! For them, Malaysian is an attitude of heart rather than a nationality.
They reluctantly gave up their Malaysian citizenship because Malaysia does not recognise dual citizenship, and the demands of their new homeland necessitated acquiring its citizenship.
Many in Malaysia consider them traitors who had abandoned their nation; in truth their nation had abandoned them.
They left their homeland for many reasons. Some fled in the aftermath of May 13th, traumatised by the fury of ethnic violence.
Others left with great sadness when they concluded, rightly or wrongly, that their children did not have much of a future in their own country because the tide turned against ‘immigrants.’
Still others were lured abroad by better and more exciting opportunities that the age of globalisation brought. We live in an increasingly borderless world and sometimes to chase your dreams you have to go abroad.
Whatever the reason for leaving, most never stopped serving the land of their birth. They served as goodwill ambassadors, telling and re-telling the story of Malaysia.
And they stood as examples of that dream in that they always thought of themselves as Malaysian first instead of Malay or Chinese or Indian.
They founded associations to promote Malaysia and its culture. They established radio stations (e.g. Toronto’s Radio Kampung Ku) to brag about their country. They opened restaurants featuring the wonderful food of our land. And they established business and professional linkages between their respective adopted homeland and Malaysia. They helped define the image of Malaysia abroad more than our politicians and diplomats.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s vision of 1Malaysia excites them because it rekindles hope in the founding dream of Malaysia, of a nation where all citizens are treated with respect and fairness, where all can expect a reasonable opportunity to find happiness and fulfill their aspirations.
It has been a long time since a prime minister has championed the founding principles of our nation. The naysayers at home may deride the whole 1Malaysia idea but abroad they pray that this time it will see reality.
The government is examining ways to encourage more overseas Malaysian professionals to return home to contribute to the nation’s development with programmes like ‘Brain Gain Malaysia.’
I have no doubt that many overseas Malaysians will answer the call to contribute with their talent and expertise. All they want to know is that they will be welcomed back, treated with dignity and respect, and given equal opportunities to serve their country. They want the assurance that their talent and expertise will matter more than their ethnic or religious background.
I fully endorse the recent comments of our ambassador to the United States, Datuk Seri Dr Jamaluddin Jarjis, that the government should offer some kind of status to overseas Malaysians.
Perhaps the example of India might be instructive. Seeking to connect with its highly influential diaspora, India created in 2004 a special class of citizenship – Overseas Indian Citizenship – just for its diaspora.
Overseas Indian citizens enjoy all the rights of regular Indian citizens except the right to vote, hold elected office or join the public service.
There should be something similar for our diaspora.
Our diaspora represents a huge pool of committed and talented people that have much to contribute to our nation. They too are a part of 1Malaysia and should be welcomed and appreciated.
As our Prime Minister continues to expound and develop his 1Malaysia concept, I hope that our diaspora will not be forgotten.
Diplomatically Speaking, The Star