According to the 2001 census, at least 35 percent of Malaysian immigrants to Australia were Christians. This is a highly disproportionate figure in view of the fact that Christians form only 9 percent of the Malaysian population.
This is, of course, part of the wider problem of the emigration of many skilled professionals from the Third World to the West. The resulting brain drain of some of the best and brightest, and the consequent damage to the economy and society, is a well-established fact.
The damage is also felt at the church level. Most of us can easily draw up a long list of people who were or could have been playing key roles in the Church in Malaysia, who have left the country over the last 30 years. For those who are seriously contemplating emigration, the issue is often a sensitive one.
At the same time, the issue is not a neutral issue but one that is at its very heart, moral. Therefore, despite its sensitivity, it needs to be discussed openly, objectively and frankly. What are the reasons why some Malaysians would consider emigrating?
The attraction of the West
The first reason is the general attraction of living in the more prosperous Western world, as all who have experienced living in the West would know. Higher standards of living, greater efficiency of the system, amenities of a wealthier society such as social security and better healthcare, and greater opportunities for jobs and children’s education, are all part of the package that exerts an irresistible pull to the West.
Lack of professional fulfilment
Some who are highly intelligent and motivated find that there is no way to achieve professional fulfilment in Malaysia. Where can a theoretical chemist, a nuclear physicist, a brilliant pianist and the like, find a happy niche to pursue his or her career here?
Racial and religious factors
The National Economic Policy (NEP) has left many non-Bumiputras feeling that they do not belong in this country. The resurgence of Islam in the 1970s, and its continuation into the present, has aggravated this sense of alienation for those who are neither Bumiputras nor Muslims. “Why stay when we will always be treated as pendatangs and will never be allowed to fully claim our rights as citizens of the land?” so the argument goes.
Erosion of confidence
There has also been a growing loss of confidence in the ability and integrity of the government. The many financial scandals, rampant corruption at all levels of society and the government’s seeming failure to deal with it, increase in money politics and the struggle for power that led to this, plus rising crime rate, cause many to fear for the future.
How Some Christians Justify Emigration
While the above factors may be good reasons that have led many to consider emigration, they may not be sufficient reasons in themselves. Many recognise that these reasons arise out of putting as our top priorities our own comfort, security, careers and families, something which, in the final analysis, is rather centred on oneself. Not all would agree with this but most Christians would. The result is that amongst those who have emigrated or who are considering emigration, there is often a feeling of guilt which they rationalise away with the following arguments:
“We can serve God anywhere!”
This is the most common argument put forward by those emigrating. On the surface, it seems a strong argument but problems appear upon closer examination. It depends on what we mean by “serve.” In the general sense of “service,” it is true that we can serve God anywhere. But in Scripture, “service” is linked to need and calling.
Consider the example of Paul. He was happily settled in Tarsus when Barnabas pulled him away to help meet the evangelistic and teaching needs of the church in Antioch (Acts 11:25–26). Later, when it became evident that there was a desperate need for workers to evangelise the wider Gentile Graeco-Roman world, Paul and Barnabas responded to that need (Acts 13:2–3).
However, the question of “need” in itself does not constitute the command to go. There has to be a “call” from God as both passages indicate. The truth is that there are always needs everywhere, but we cannot humanly respond to every need.
The Christian thereby functions on the basis of two principles: “Where or which are the greater needs?” and “Is God calling me to meet that particular need?”
Applying the first principle to the question of emigration, we immediately recognise that both spiritually and socio-economically, the needs are far greater in the Third World than in the West. As regards the second principle of “calling,” I must confess that I know of very few people who justify their emigration in terms of God calling them to specific work abroad.
On the other hand, God in his sovereign wisdom caused us to be born in Malaysia, and surely it is because this is where God has called us to serve him. Recognition of this simple truth would mean that we stay unless he calls us out to another place, like Abraham, or to another area of service, like Paul.
The fact that emigration invariably means moving to greener pastures of the West and never to poorer and spiritually needier countries belies the argument that “we can serve God anywhere.”
The Bible allows emigration
It is not certain what people mean when they claim that the Bible allows for emigration. While it is true that Abraham emigrated from Ur, it was in response to God’s call (Genesis 11:2–12:1). It was not a case of moving from insecurity to greater security; rather it was exactly the opposite.
There is in fact a passage in Scriptures which specifically discourages ‘emigration’, if it may be put that way: Jeremiah 29:5–7. It was at a time after the Babylonians had deported a large number of Israelites as punishment for rebellion.
Many of the Israelite exiles in Babylon were unhappy in a foreign land where they had little citizenship rights, and would have emigrated back to Judah given the first chance.
But God asked them to “build houses…plant gardens…marry and have sons and daughters…seek the welfare of the city to which I carried you…pray to the Lord for it…”
Properly understood, this passage enshrines the fundamental principle, that we must learn to trust God’s sovereignty in history, and where he has placed us, there we are to remain to pray for and seek the welfare of the land. If this were the case, then it would be most unwise to claim that “the Bible allows for emigration.”
What about the prospects of persecution?
In the history of the church, emigration as a result of persecution has often appeared to be the proper course of action to take. But do these historical facts necessarily justify the emigration movement involving Malaysian Christians today?
One can hardly describe the present situation in terms of persecution. Despite certain restrictions by the government, freedom of religion is still enshrined in our nation’s Constitution.
And we should certainly pray and work through all lawful means to help create a social climate in this nation so that the forces of extremism seeking to remove such constitutional safeguards would be held in check or removed altogether.
It has to be admitted that the pressure towards increased Islamisation will continue. Many are fearful and for some, the fear is too overwhelming for them to consider staying on.
Factors to be Considered
A question of need
All of the above reasons are valid. But the question is whether they constitute a sufficient cause for leaving. I have suggested that they do not because from the Christian point of view, leaving for these reasons only solves the problems for myself, and perhaps, my family. It does not solve the problem for the nation, the Malaysian Church, and in particular, for those who are too poor and unqualified to have the means to leave.
It will mean that in the face of genuine spiritual and socio-economic needs, which are far greater than those in the West, we turn our backs and walk away like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan.
By leaving, we leave the country and the Malaysian church in a state of even greater need than before because often, it is precisely those who leave who have the training, resources and ability to alleviate the needs of the country and the Church. If this is so, then emigration cannot be a viable option for the Christian.
As for the question, “What about my children’s future?” the answer is two-fold. First, those who can afford to emigrate usually are rich enough to give their children an overseas education anyway if necessary, and thereby to give them a sufficient start in adult life.
Secondly, and more pertinently, surely just as we are called to trust God for our own security, we are called to do the same for our children. We must dare to trust him and take seriously His Word, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things (all that we truly need) will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
God’s sovereign wisdom and his calling for us
Christians must learn to believe that God is all-wise and that He has a definite purpose for us in placing us in Malaysia in this day and age. It is our responsibility to seek His will concerning this purpose and ask Him for grace and strength to fulfil it. Thus, ultimately, the question is not whether to emigrate or not to emigrate. Rather, it is: What is God’s will or calling for us, and what is our commitment to Him and His will?
The Christian life is built upon an eternal covenant between God and us, which involves God committing Himself to us, and we, in response to His initiative, grace and love, committing ourselves in return to Him. Many of us, however, seem not to have grasped this point, that the Christian life does involve a definite commitment to God and to His will for our lives.
We still think of Christianity in the way many non-Christians think of their religions. God is like Santa Claus, and if we are good, we can expect God to bless us with comfort, health and wealth. And we often forget what our commitment to Christ requires of us in terms of obedience, self-denial and sacrifice.
The outcome is that we often end up walking the path of least resistance in life, spiritually and emotionally, and many justify emigrating after praying, “If you give me the visa, I will take it that it is your will for me to go.”
We forget that such oversimplistic approach to guidance will justify the emigration of almost all our Christian professionals. But is that God’s call? I am not saying that God does not call some of us to emigrate. But such calling appears to be the exception rather than the rule.
Settling in the West is no final solution
Settling in the West does not necessarily provide an escape from all the problems we hope to leave behind. Which country is safe these days? Is racism in the United Kingdom or Australia less ugly than its counterpart here? How would you like your children ogling at nude bodies making love on the TV screen and growing up desensitised to sexual immorality?
In the light of these questions, we must ask: “Is the West safer and more secure than here?” Western civilisation is on the decline, and the influence of the Church in the West has also been marginalised in an increasingly pluralistic post-Christian society. The ‘war on terror’ has also made Western countries vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
As such, despite its superficial attractions, all is not well with the West. Those seriously contemplating emigration should first take a good look at where they are thinking of going. Otherwise, they may find themselves jumping out of the frying pan into the fire! The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith (Romans 1:16)
Most of the time, we allow the negative circumstances around us to determine the course of action we take in life. Often, we fail to begin with God, with who He is – the Lord of history – and of what He can do through His people who trust Him.
The gospel is indeed the power of God unto salvation to those who believe, as Paul wrote. And this is not just in the narrow sense; God’s salvation will necessarily have socio-economic and political implications for the nation as well.
We need to take our eyes off the negative circumstances around us and recognise that if this is where God has called us to be, then He will also make available to us His power, to proclaim His gospel of salvation, to build His church and to transform the society in which we live into something better. We need grace sufficient to grasp afresh such a vision of God.
If this is the vision that we need, what concrete shape will it take? Dr. Isabelo Magalit, a respected Christian leader in the Philippines once wrote an article entitled, “I have a dream.”
In it, he spoke of seeing, coming out from the Christian student world of this present generation in East Asia, men and women who truly know God and His Word and whose lives are fully yielded to Him.
From amongst such men and women, he sees many going into full-time ministry as pastors, evangelists and theologians, labouring to build God’s church in East Asia. Others amongst them would enter the professional fields such as law, business, engineering, politics and government, and journalism, and from within these professions exert a positive and powerful Christian influence in our society in Asia, and turn it towards a more righteous and just and godly direction.
Then he sees Christian homes springing up all over the region shining with the glory and beauty of the gospel in the dark world around them. Finally, he spoke of the pouring forth of the next wave of overseas missionaries from Asia into all the world. Towards the end of Dr. Magalit’s paper, he said, “Share my dream. Take your place in it. Stand up and be counted for Jesus.”
This is the sort of vision we all need to recapture today.
HWA YUNG is Bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia. This article in its current form first appeared in the Kairos publication, “Emerging Church Issues” (October 2006). It is excerpted and updated by Kairos Research Centre from the original publication, “Christian Thinking on Emigration” published by Graduate Christian Fellowship in 1987.