Malaysian Students in the US

This article was published via, written by Ooi Kok Hin.

It is a well written article that gives you a good summary of Malaysian students studying in the United States.

[Ooi Kok Hin is a research analyst in Penang Institute. He graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy, and is also the author of the book, “Aku Kafir, Kau Siapa” , published by DuBook Press.]

Last weekend, together with over 600 Malaysian students, I attended the inaugural Malaysian East Coast Festival 2015 at Pennsylvania State University.

The ECFest, as it was called, is a gathering of Malaysian students in the United States (US) featuring various sports, debates, and band competitions, as well as a dialogue session with the Minister of Youth and Sports, Khairy Jamaluddin, who was on a working trip to the US. As far as my (young) memory is concerned, this event is the first of its kind among Malaysian students in the US.

ECFest 2015

Before we talk about ECFest, I should provide some background regarding the context of Malaysian students here.

I have been here for nearly three years now at the great state of Ohio. The Malaysian student population (not including expatriates) in the US are divided geographically: midwest, east coast, west coast, and the south.

The size of the US makes it harder to congregate the students into one place compared to other countries in Europe, Middle East, and Asia.


We are mostly concentrated in the midwest region because there are big public or state universities in the midwest. The bigger the school, the larger the students intake.

My school, the Ohio State University (also the 2014-2015 NCAA College Football Champion), has 44,000 undergraduate students and over 150 Malaysian students.

Other schools such as Penn State University, University of Michigan, Vanderbilt University, Michigan State University, University of Ilinois Urbana-Champaign, Purdue University, University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, and Indiana University have sizable Malaysian population too.

Malaysians at smaller schools in the east coast like Rutgers, Drexel, Virginia Tech, and Rochester tend to have small population and close ties with each other due to their relatively closer distance.

The east coast Malaysians are in a strategic position because they are close to New York and Washington DC. Many events usually take place in New York or Boston. Datuk Seri Idris Jala, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim have all visited, meeting with students in those places.

Being close to Washington DC is also an advantage because that’s where Education Malaysia and Malaysian Embassy are situated. Thus, it is easier to organize events there.

Students in the west coast and the south are not so organised, but I think they have little to complain about since they get to enjoy all the good weather and national parks.

Starting in 2013, we began to see a concerted effort to bring the students together. Of course, we come to America to learn new things and meet new people.

But that shouldn’t stop us from organizing ourselves into a collective force. I have often envied Malaysian students in the UK and Australia because they have Ukec and Masca respectively.

These two student bodies represent Malaysian students in those countries and are well-known even to ministers. Ukec, for all its somewhat elitist outlook, annually hold the Malaysian Student Leaders Summit (MSLS) in Kuala Lumpur and its alumni include a host of influential figures.

The Malaysian Drive

Malaysian students in the US, meanwhile, have not organised themselves under an umbrella body up until now (or maybe they did but it didn’t last).

There are many illustrious Malaysians who graduated from the US but since we don’t have a common platform that connects all the students, we do not maintain ties or organize gatherings and conferences together.

Current MP for Bayan Baru, Sim Tze Tzin, founded the Malaysia Forum while studying and working part-time in California.

The Malaysia Forum and the annual Midwest Games sports event were the only consistent student-led events in the United States. Well, things are about to change!

A flurry of events that was first planned in 2013, then executed in 2014 and 2015 seems promising.

In late 2013, representatives from Malaysian Students Association in each university overseen by Education Malaysia were called to a meeting.

There were talks of creating a student council and a more cohesive event planning and cooperation between universities and between Education Malaysia and the universities.

Since then, we began to see more events and support provided to the students. The first ever Merdeka Cup was held in Columbus to promote intellectual talents and debate skills.

A leadership training programme, MySoul, was held in Washington DC-Virginia. The students were also arranged to visit the World Bank headquarters and met with the Malaysian representatives at the World Bank.

The first student council was also formed under the banner of East Coast Presidential Council (Epic).

Late last year, the Perdana Scholars Awards was held to give recognition to Malaysian students who have excelled in their studies in the US.

There were 12 categories of awards covering a wide array of achievements and the event was attended by none other than the prime minister himself.

ECFest is the culmination of all these developments. Khairy was the VVIP of the event. It was not easy to get a minister on a working trip to attend the event.

The committee planned months in advance and met Khairy at his office to propose the event.

This student-led event, supported by Education Malaysia and a host of other agencies, is hopefully the beginning of a new chapter in empowering the Malaysian students in the US.

To me, though Khairy was the VVIP, he’s not the highlight of the event (sorry KJ!).

It is the students themselves.

Many drove between five to 14 hours to come to ECFest. Some took a flight all the way from Colorado, Minnesota, and California.

All out of our own expenses.

The organizing committee probably had to juggle academic commitment and fulfill the demands of various sponsors, agencies, university administration, and hundreds of participants.

Credits go to Education Malaysia officers too for believing in the students and supporting their idea to try something that hasn’t been tried previously.


Being the moderator for the dialogue session with Khairy and the adjudicator for the debate competitions, I can say with confidence that we have the talents in here.

The ECFest participants grilled Khairy harder than what the University of Malaya students did to Barack Obama. The debaters displayed more maturity and rationality than what I have seen in real-life parliamentary debates.

There are so many dedicated, smart, and humble individuals. If we can harness those potentials, I believe this group of individuals can do wonders for the country when we are all back home.

From what I gather, this string of events and momentum are going to be continued with the Career Blossom Fair, Malaysian Studies Forum, and Passport DC in the upcoming months. This is certainly a refreshing addition to the all-too-common Malaysian cultural nights, food events, and festival celebrations.

I definitely urge students to join these events. Unless you are doing some ground-breaking research at MIT or intensive study with Amartya Sen or David Harvey, there is really no obstacle for you to participate in at least one of those events.

The best thing about getting involved is that you get to know a lot of awesome people. This is probably one of the most enriching experience during my time in the US.

You can only learn so much from books and classes. Sometimes you need to allow yourself to be inspired by your peers. Learn from and with each other.

Work for something more than grades, organise something for your community, and meet with people who could be the friends that you been looking for. And, there are certain things which you can only learn by doing.

Like debating. You can talk about it all you want, analyze the best possible arguments, and think about the ‘right’ way to debate a topic, but unless you do it, you never felt the full experience.

It’s easy to sit and complain about what’s lacking and what should have been done. It’s easy to criticise the efforts of others while we are sipping coffee and typing anonymous comments.

But it takes a special set of commitment to go one step further and to try to change things. Credits go to all who not only propose an idea, but actually execute it.

When I first arrived to begin my studies here, I had wished that we have a similar body or network like the Malaysian Islamic Study Group (MISG) that caters to all Malaysians – a platform in which we can share our views on important issues and organise something together for the Malaysian community in the United States.

Now that I am near the end of my studies, it looks like a group of people is starting to make that a reality.

I hope the Merdeka Cup, MySoul and ECFest will be continued every year, and that new opportunities and new ideas will always be explored for the benefits of the students.

Thank you and congratulations to all who made these progresses possible. With that, I’m proud to be a Malaysian student in the US. – March 14, 2015.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of

Author: Editor

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