PETALING JAYA – When Ng Keng Hooi was appointed Hong Kong-based AIA Group Ltd’s chief executive officer, he made history by becoming the first Malaysian to helm a global financial services firm.
His appointment brings to mind the hundreds of thousands of Malaysians working abroad, of which according to the World Bank in a report from 2011, a third have some form of tertiary education.
The total number of those born in Malaysia but who have moved overseas over the decades has risen to well above 1 million. Some have become citizens of other countries while others continue to hold on to their Malaysian passports.
Because of their skills and knowledge base, Malaysia-born migrants usually can be found in the professions and some have even made it as entrepreneurs, founding companies listed in foreign bourses.
Malaysian entrepreneurs can be found all over the world, one of them being Datuk Seri Ivan Teh, the founder of London-listed Fusionex International plc, which specializes in big data and analytics.
He has businesses around the world and has worked in the United States and Britain. Teh firmly believes that the grass can be green anywhere as long as the business landscape and supporting infrastructure “is well-taken care off”.
He said entrepreneurs from anywhere who were willing to work hard and learn, especially if they set up their businesses in other countries, can make it.
“Main thing is willing to learn, and learn quickly, willing to take chances that even if they fall, they pick themselves up,” Teh said.
He does see an increasing trend of Malaysian entrepreneurs returning to the country, and that has also been matched by fewer Malaysians moving abroad compared to five years ago. The Asean growth story plays a role, with returning Malaysians hoping to clinch opportunities in Malaysia’s Asean hub role.
But Teh admits that younger Malaysians may find the work culture more attractive in the developed economies. He said younger Malaysians might find themselves disconnected from the workplace where traditional Asian values based on seniority still prevail.
Chan Jiaheng and Adelene Teh, property developers who both studied in Melbourne, Australia, also said that its how people handle opportunities that make the grass greener.
“I think it’s a misconception that the grass is greener on the other side, there are pros and cons of being over there or here, its really how you handle the opportunities and what you do with them. That’s what we believe in,” Adelene said.
For both, as with many Malaysians who studied abroad, it was a natural transition finding an opportunity in Australia.
They said that they would certainly explore opportunities in Malaysia if it came knocking. “Malaysia is a market we’re comfortable with because we grew up here and so if we’ve the resources and the investors, then we’ll jump into it,” Chan said.
Datuk Seri Cheah Cheng Hye, Hong Kong-based Value Partners Group Ltd chairman and co-chief investment officer, firmly believes that Malaysia has one of the region’s best talent pools.
“Malaysians are some of the best talent I have come across, we hire them based on a commercial decision because they’re educated and bright, and very flexible and resilient,” he said.
Cheah, a former Star journalist, left Malaysia in the 1970s to become a journalist in Hong Kong before helping to found one of Asia’s largest independent asset management firms.
Although he left the country decades ago, Cheah has been looking for opportunities back in Malaysia. Value Partners opened an office in Singapore two years ago.
“Young people in my time had few career opportunities so we had to move overseas if we want to make it,” he noted.
Cheah said government policies supporting an environment creating opportunities and jobs would convince the young and skilled to stay.
“They must believe in an expanding future and not a static future,” he said.