By IAN YEE
About three weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, a few hundred Malaysian students gathered in three different cities around the world to watch a simple online video streamed live from Kuala Lumpur.
It wasn’t a concert, it wasn’t a football game, it wasn’t some big debate between politicians, and it wasn’t a JinnyBoyTV production either – it was a video stream of the Malaysia Forum 2012 annual conference, a global forum discussion about some of the most pressing issues back in Malaysia.
Thanks to the live video stream and the power of social media, Malaysia Forum – a network of Malaysians living abroad, mainly students – was able to engage more than just the people gathered at their four conference venues – two in the United States, and one each in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
Countless others tuned in from around the world to not only hear from the speakers and panellists made up of Malaysian politicians and activists, but also to join in the conversation on topics that ranged from Malaysian culture to democracy.
For those few hours when the forum was online, Malaysian students and young working professionals alike, all over the world, were reconnected with their homeland, reacquainted with the issues it faces, and reunited – though only through a computer screen – with its people.
They discussed openly and passionately on issues such as sexuality, gender biases, foreign labour issues and vernacular schools; at the same time posing tough questions to the speakers, like this one from Singapore to KL, broadcasted over Twitter: “what do you think of gender sequestration of women w/in political parties, e.g. women’s wing? detrimental or no? [sic]”
Malaysia Forum is a simple idea, but one painstakingly executed by student volunteers co-ordinating with one another from across the globe, and one which could yet hold the key to solving some of the problems associated with Malaysia’s brain drain.
The Talent Roadmap 2020, unveiled on Tuesday by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, had identified “Building Networks of Top Talents” – including among the Malaysian diaspora – as one of its three key strategic thrusts in preparing Malaysia to attain developed-nation status.
And that’s exactly what student organisations like Malaysia Forum – and others like the UKEC’s Projek Amanat Negara (more on that later) – tries to achieve, as volunteer organiser and University of Pennsylvania student Daniel Khaw explained: “Although we are overseas, Malaysia is still home and we would like to see a thriving country where we are proud to call home.
“Initiatives such as Malaysia Forum afford students a chance to involve themselves in dialogue that hopefully would play a part in steering the future direction of the country even when abroad.”
Malaysia Forum is a network of Malaysians around the world whose purpose is to regularly engage each other in “civil conversation” on Malaysian issues – and to have a nice big Malaysian meal together every once in a while, of course.
Though the network stays active and organises localised events throughout the year in their various locations, their annual Malaysia Forum conference is its most impressive effort – a forum that takes place simultaenously in cities around the world, all connected via social media and a live video stream.
This year’s conference, for instance, was held from April 6-8 at two locations in the United States – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Ann Arbor, Michigan – as well as in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, where most of the speakers and panelists addressed the “global” audience from.
Malaysia Forum global co-ordinator Lim Su Ann, of Columbia University, New York, explained in an email interview: “Among issues we discussed were democracy, racial unity, education, sexuality and the upcoming general elections.
“Speakers and panelists spoke to a live audience and the events were also broadcasted live on our website, which is the design that our conference takes every year. Each session also has a live Q&A component with the speakers where we take questions from everyone viewing the events live or online.”
But it all started in 2003 with a group of Malaysian students having a small discussion in the Business School cafe of Stanford University, California after hearing a talk on “Education in Malaysia”. Realising that there were so many bright young Malaysian minds studying in the United States, all eager to discuss about Malaysian issues, they decided to form what was first called the “Stanford Malaysia Forum”.
Since then, that tiny forum has grown to include charters in cities like London, Paris, Sydney, New York, Boston and Singapore, all set-up by student volunteers eager to see their compatriots contributing ideas to make Malaysia a better place. In fact, any Malaysian living abroad can start a Malaysia Forum community in their city (details are on their website – www.malaysiaforum.org).
Help from abroad
In 2010, the Malaysian diaspora was conservatively estimated to be at one million, with those with tertiary education making up a third of that number. World Bank senior economist Philip Shellekens also observed that it is the country’s best young talents that are often the first to leave.
While Malaysia Forum does not directly solve Malaysia’s brain drain by actually bringing people back to the country, it does help achieve two things – it keeps Malaysians abroad (and students in particular) connected with issues affecting the country, thus making them more likely to return; and, more importantly, it allows them to continue contributing to the country in terms of ideas and opinions.
After all, the World Bank said in its report on Malaysia’s brain drain that the phenomenon is a wave to be ridden, not a tide to be turned. In this age of globalisation, it would make more sense to engage Malaysians abroad given their more global perspective, rather than to see them returning as the only solution.
John Lee, a Malaysia Forum organiser since he was a freshman at Dartmouth College in 2007, currently working in Washington D.C., said: “I think being overseas tends to heighten our sense that we are Malaysian, and also makes us take more pride in aspects of our identity that we don’t give much thought to back home.
“We’ve also been exposed to other ideas and points of view by living overseas, and Malaysia Forum is a chance to see how we can take these ideas or perspectives and gauge their applicability to a Malaysian context.”
But the problem with Malaysia Forum, some might say, is that it’s all talk, no action.
According to John, however, that’s not the case. It simply appears that way because they want Malaysia Forum to stay non-partisan, so they stick to their cause of engaging Malaysians overseas in discussion, without endorsing any other cause or organisation. Su Ann even says they have turned down donations from certain organisations as they felt it would compromise the neutrality of Malaysia Forum.
Daniel adds: “The forum is a safe place for constructive conversation and dialogue, but it doesn’t end there. The hope is that the participants would leave the forum with something to think about or with a new passion for an issue.
“The participants would then talk with other Malaysians, creating a chain effect where ideas are being spread and conversation is being created. The hope for Malaysia Forum is that people are able to engage in mature discussion about any topic, whether new or old, in a way that would be effective for the growth of the nation.”
Projek Amanat Negara
The United Kingdom and EIRE Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC) organises a similar event called Projek Amanat Negara, an annual conference that takes place in London.
They also organise another conference, the Malaysian Student Leaders Summit (MSLS), which is held in Malaysia for Malaysian students studying both locally and overseas.
“Both were introduced to serve as a platform for speakers from government, opposition and NGO’s to share their views and for students to voice out their opinions,” said UKEC chairman Syawal Hafriz. “Such culture was not so common back in those days (when the conferences were first held), and that was why both initiatives came into the picture.”
The events regularly discuss topics such as politics, the economy, corporate governance, human rights, public policies, religion and student activism.
“Those topics are covered to ensure that students would get a holistic view and are able to understand the bigger picture of the ongoing issues back home,” Syawal added.
Now in it’s ninth year, this year’s Projeck Amanat Negara was themed “Celebrating the Vision 2020 Generation”. Speakers included Umno Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin, Pakatan Rakyat Director of Strategies Rafizi Ramli, AirAsia X chairperson Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and social activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahatir.
The UKEC, however, have also gone a step further to actively attract Malaysian students abroad back to the country, by organising the UKEC-Graduan Career Fair, which brings some of Malaysia’s finest firms and businesses to England where they can recruit Malaysian graduates fresh out of the oven.
Syawal believes Malaysians studying abroad need to stay abreast with what’s going on back home and learn to accept different perspectives while they’re overseas.
“Students should be aware of national issues back home since these are the issues that will have an impact on our lives. There are many differing views on the situation back home thus it is important for us to understand them objectively,” he said.
* Interested in joining a Malaysia Forum community, or to start your own wherever you’re studying? Log on to www.malaysiaforum.org.