Overview of “Plugging the Brain Drain” Project in Five Minutes or Less

Objective: To investigate the factors influencing the decision of a Malaysian studying overseas whether to come home or not.

Goal: To identify, categorize and explain the most important factors in this complex decision-making process. Also, to suggest changes for this country to encourage other overseas Malaysians to return.

Conducting Research:

I created an online survey targeted at overseas Malaysians and publicized it via personal contacts and an events page on Facebook.

The survey asked for demographic information such as the respondent’s age, gender, ethnicity, country studied abroad; and then progressed to scalar questions about the respondent’s opinions of various aspects of Malaysia, such as its political situation, its economic situation, safety, education and human rights. For the sake of statistical analysis and comparison, these abstract factors were rated on a scale of one to ten, with one being not important at all and ten being most important. The survey also asked respondents to rate from a scale of one to five how important each of the following factors were to their decision whether to return or not: job prospects, religion, family ties and moral duty.

Finally, it asked for the respondent’s opinion of whether young people coming home would make a difference to the country or not. At the end, there was a comments section for respondents to express their aspirations for Malaysia in their own words.

I received over 840 responses in two weeks, over 400 from the first three days. An estimated 3,000 people were invited to the event on Facebook and many others learned about it from other online sources. Besides being a testament to the incredible potential of online social networking, I was able to garner public interest, including from an international journalist, in the subject. Many respondents requested to be informed about the results.

Analysis and Results:

In total, I collected 841 responses. 90% were between the ages of 18 and 27, 84% were Chinese (25% of Malaysian population), 45% were male, 32% were students and 62% were residing outside Malaysia. The overrepresentation of Chinese in the survey respondents is one major weakness of the survey, however it also fits as a large proportion of overseas Malaysian students are Chinese.

To find out significant trends in opinion and what factors influenced a person’s decision whether to return to Malaysia or not, I ran statistical regressions.

Only three independent factors proved statistically significant in the survey respondents’ ‘desire to return to Malaysia’, which were perception of whether returnees can make a difference, job prospects and moral duty towards the country. This was surprising as other factors that I guessed would prove important such as the economic, political and social conditions of Malaysia were not statistically significant. The significant factors were a mix of the pragmatic and the philosophical. An increase of one point in importance of job prospect corresponded to a decrease in desire to come home. On the other hand, a higher rating on moral duty and making a difference corresponded to an increased desire to return to the country.

Two other interesting finds that informed my research were the factors overseas Malaysians found important in judging Malaysia’s future, and their beliefs whether or not returnees can make a difference in this country.

How the respondents perceived Malaysia’s future corresponded with the highest statistical significance possible to their gender, ethnicity, rating of the economy, and rating of education. In particular, I found that both experiences based on personal attributes (gender, ethnicity, family ties) as well as general perceptions of how the nation is progressing (economy, politics, education) play into one’s decision whether to return home. Men and Chinese tended to rate Malaysia’s future lower on average. Higher ratings on the economy, education, the political situation, safety, human rights and inter-racial harmony  corresponded with a more optimistic view of Malaysia’s future. Those who said family was important in their decision to return home, as well as those who believed that returnees would make a difference to the country, tended to rate the future more optimistically.

In general, this data confirmed many of the hypotheses I had about what affects a Malaysian’s perception of the country’s direction.

In addition, the higher a respondent rated the political situation, education, moral duty, future of the country and family, the more likely he or she was to believe that returnees could make a difference to the country. While the political situation and education are important practical factors, it was evident that moral and familial concerns also played a role in their decision. The more important job prospects were to the respondent, the less they believed that returnees could make a difference. Also, younger respondents tended to be more idealistic.

Many respondents also talked about why or why they would not want to return to Malaysia. Some felt that their economic opportunities and quality of life were better abroad, while others saw Malaysia as a developing nation that they could contribute to. Some felt more at home abroad while others still felt Malaysia is home. The same factors were mentioned in many cases both for and against coming back, so to some extent it depended on the individual’s preferences.


While it remains a personal decision whether one should return to one’s home country or not after studying and working abroad, better social conditions, working opportunities and political security will tip the scale for many who are waiting for the country to improve before they throw their lot in.


9 Responses to Summary

  1. Kam says:

    you need to get hold of JPA, MARA, MSD etc – and conduct surveys on their students (sponsored) mailing list. you ll be surprised how the data will change tremendously. 🙂

    • evelynswwong says:

      Kam: That would be tremendously interesting. Do you know how I could do that? I think there may be some privacy issues involved though.

      • khadijah says:

        I could potentially put you in touch with MSD in Chicago or my former alumni. I am a former MARA student and currently living in the US, I know many other former MARA/JPA students. Already out of school so I don’t know any current students.

  2. Pingback: TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read) | pluggingthebraindran

  3. Reza B says:

    Hi there! Interesting summary. Will you be releasing the entire dataset of respondents for further study? Full names omitted for privacy purposes of course! Would be incredibly interesting to do more data slicing n dicing in my humble opinion.

    • evelynswwong says:

      Hi Reza, as I promised full confidentiality to the respondents, I don’t think I will be releasing the dataset as there is still a lot of confidential information within. If you do know of any parties that wish to do more research and are interested in collaborating, email me at Thanks!

  4. eina says:

    What WON’T change their mind is setting up these “Talent” agencies that will offer specific incentives to lure them home.
    Obviously these people are smart, otherwise the agencies wouldn’t be trying to get them back to Malaysia. Because they are smart, they understand that a dangled carrot, once obtained, doesn’t last very long. When it is finished the returnee is still faced with all the usual problems that caused them to flee in the first place – lack of transparency, corruption, poor future for their children & spouses, lack of government will to fix problems, etc.
    The ONLY solution is to change the whole system, not just offer a couple of incentives like a duty free car import, etc.

  5. Izuan says:

    Dear Evelyn,

    Your summary of findings fit my hypothesis on Malaysian brain drain situation.

    But do you have excel pivot which shows the result of you findings, appreciate if you would able to share with me? If possible.

    In addition to that, you may also contribute your findings in newspaper and etc. I trust, most of minister would want to know your findings. One of higher education minister (Saifuddin Abdullah) once, quoted in his status to identify the reasons of braind drain.

  6. III says:

    overall, a most interesting study indeed. I will be recommending this to my friends.

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