Hold the Phone! Are Malaysian Canadians Dialling Home?

By Sara Nabila Harris

During the global telecommunications boom in the 1990s, Malaysian Canadian immigration stories like mine were relatively common. My Canadian father, working for a Canadian telecoms company, met my mother while working in Kuala Lumpur on a Malaysian telecoms project, and they decided to settle down in Canada. Although living in Malaysia had its promises, my father, born and bred in Ottawa, wanted my sister and I to benefit from a Canadian education.

After graduating from a Communications programme at Carleton University, I was surprised to find more communications jobs in Kuala Lumpur than in Ottawa. My decision to reconnect with old family ties and work in the bustling Asian metropolis was a no-brainer at the time—and I had the experience of a lifetime! Having grown up in Ottawa, my ‘Canadian-ness’ seemed to demark me from fellow Malaysians. While I felt able to call both countries home, I wondered if other Malaysian Canadians felt similarly.

In Malaysia, I rarely met other Canadians, and wondered what had changed. Why were there fewer Canadians in Malaysia these days? What could I learn from the ‘telecoms boom’ of which my parents’ generation spoke so fondly? Why do Malaysians consider immigrating to Canada? And what opportunities does Malaysia offer to Canadians today? 


Countless Canadian families, including Canadian Malaysian families, were negatively affected by budget cuts and job losses during the telecoms crash in the 2000s. During the previous boom, partnerships such as the one between Telekom Malaysia and Canada’s Nortel Networks Corporation thrived and evolved to deliver network infrastructure and communications services to Malaysians in Malaysia. Likewise, there followed a surge in telecom, high-tech, and dotcom companies seeking cheaper labour who gained from the educated Malaysian workforce and their strong command of the English language.

Canada’s 2001 Census before the telecoms crash recorded 20,420 first-generation Malaysian Canadians, while the 2016 Census recorded only 16,920 people self-identifying as Malaysian Canadian. With the telecoms crash leaving over half a million people jobless globally and breaking bankruptcy records in Canada, opportunities for Malaysians working for Canadian telecoms companies (and for Canadians working in Malaysia) declined with slow recovery to date.

The boom of the 1990s engineered progress and successful business relationships, such as the partnership between Nortel and Telekom Malaysia. Although the global bust of the early 2000s deprived many of jobs and opportunities, several conditions that made Malaysian-Canadian cooperation such a success in the 90s could still exist and provide major benefits to present-day business ventures.

Why Malaysians Move to Canada

Most Malaysian immigrants find Canadian culture familiar and transition effortlessly despite common hurdles—including finding Canadian jobs in their fields. Although minorities searching for religious freedom and seeking LGBTQ+ rights have grabbed headlines and sought refuge in Canada, most Malaysian migrants simply move for education, jobs, and family reunions.

The Malaysian Embassy, the Malaysian Association of Canada, and several Malaysian student associations across Canadian universities organize events and offer community-building support to Malaysians in Canada. 

Similar to my own, several Malaysian Canadian parents think that one of the biggest advantages to living in Canada is education. They value Canada’s critical thinking approach over the traditional rote-memorization commonly practiced in Malaysian schools.

Malaysia does not recognize dual citizenship as stipulated under Article 24 (1) in the Constitution of Malaysia and those who choose to become citizens of other countries must renounce their Malaysian status. Without any major economic or social gains to becoming Canadian, many Malaysian Canadians live in Canada as permanent residents, sometimes indefinitely, to maintain their Malaysian citizenship.

Globally Educated Malaysians

Similar to other Asian cultures, Malaysians prioritize a world-class education. Although Malaysian Universities are sought after internationally, high-achieving local students in science, math, engineering, medicine, etc. are encouraged to seek the best post-secondary programmes, often overseas. Many students are offered government-funded scholarships from initiatives like Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA) and Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA), as well as numerous private and bank scholarships to support their education locally and abroad. Canadian universities maintain exchange and study programs with Malaysia and offer incentives like the Canada-ASEAN Scholarships and Educational Exchanges for Development (SEED) to welcome and support Malaysian students. It is estimated that almost 80,000 Malaysians have studied in Canada since the 1950s, with over 1,300 studying in Canada in 2015 alone.

Recent data from CBIE’s International Student Survey found that 51% of international students in Canada intended to immigrate to Canada after their studies. While some Malaysian students and immigrants find jobs in their fields in Canada, the job search here is more challenging than in Malaysia: the few who find Canadian jobs immigrate. However, the majority of Malaysians feel a responsibility to serve within their country and anticipate returning to Malaysia after their studies. Malaysian employers often seem to offer more lucrative career opportunities in Malaysia, with their eyes set on attracting internationally educated Malaysians and those who may have lived and worked abroad.

Friendly Nations

Canada and Malaysia, both members of The Commonwealth of Nations, enjoy a long history of friendly relations. Canada was one of the first countries to recognize Malaysia’s independence in 1957. Since 1977, Canada has been a formal Dialogue Partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Malaysia was a founding member. Cooperation in international organizations such as the United Nations, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and the World Trade Organization further enhance the relationship between both countries. In 2016, Malaysia was Canada’s third largest bilateral merchandise trading partner in the ASEAN region. In 2017, Canada exported over CAD $718 million to Malaysia with top Canadian exports including fertilizers, soybeans, canola oil, electrical machinery and equipment, machinery and mechanical appliances, railway cars, and wheat. Whereas Canada’s merchandise imports from Malaysia were valued at almost CAD $2.8 billion, consisting mostly of electronic machinery and equipment, printing machinery, technical and precision instruments, and rubber.

A Stronger Malaysian Economy?  

The third largest economy in Southeast Asia, Malaysia’s high labour productivity is due to a high density of knowledge-based industries such as biopharmaceuticals, information and communications technology, chemicals, and entertainment, as well as the adoption of cutting-edge manufacturing and digital technologies.

The World Bank’s October 2018 Navigating Uncertainty report projected Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) at 4.9% in 2018, 4.7% in 2019, and 4.6% in 2020. In 2018, the government’s cancellations of major infrastructure projects eased export growth while lowering public investment. Chief Economist of the East Asia and Pacific Region of the World Bank, Sudhir Shetty, explains that Malaysia’s slower pace of growth is a worthwhile trade-off in favour of stability in the long run.

The 10th strongest economy in the world, Trading Economics projects Canada’s 1.9% GDP annual growth rate in 2018 to drop to 1.5% in 2020. Whilst maintaining a spot among the top 10 largest growing economies, Malaysia’s labour productivity in the third quarter of 2018 rose 2.9%, whereas the labour productivity of Canadian businesses increased by only 0.3% in the same quarter. Although Canada has a stronger and more stable economy, Malaysia is projected to stabilise and grow more than twice the rate of Canada’s in the not-so-distant future.

More Malaysian or Canadian?

With Malaysia’s economy stabilizing quickly, the country’s growing middle class offers a more attractive market for Canadian exporters, especially in fertilizers, soybeans, canola oil, electrical machinery and equipment, machinery and mechanical appliances, railway cars, and wheat.

Whether it is in telecommunications or any other knowledge-based industry, Malaysia’s workforce includes Canadian-educated talent that local companies and organizations are leveraging. Canadian companies looking to expand into Asia also ought to gain from this educated workforce with its strong command of English.

Although most Malaysians in Canada may not have a lot of Canadian experience, they have obtained a good post-secondary education and are as qualified as other Canadians. Unable to find desirable Canadian opportunities in their field, many Malaysians return to Malaysia.

My Two Worlds

Despite the telecoms bust, there could be a benefit to remembering the progress models and positivity of the 1990s. Malaysian Canadians like myself are fortunate to grow ties to two beautiful and prosperous countries. Nevertheless, with few jobs for skilled Malaysians in Canada, returning to Malaysia also presents an attractive alternative. I am optimistic, however, that no matter where I choose to live, both worlds are my oyster.  

Sara Nabila Harris is a freelance content creator with specialties in research writing and video production in Ottawa and Kuala Lumpur. She is the former head writer at GOASEAN, and has also been featured in MalindoMag.

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