More On Diasporas

We’ve talked about the movement of early Pakistanis to Singapore in context of diaspora studies. What I’ll do in this post is to highlight extracts which resonated with me as I read them in Cohen’s Global Diasporas. So really, this post is a consolidation of all the important discussions in the book, as much as it is an extension of the discussion in the previous post.

The Expanded Concept of Diaspora

In short, it is difficult to decide where to draw the line. However, social scientists do have at least four important tools to help in this task:

1  We can distinguish between emic and etic claims (the participants’ view versus the observers’ view) and discuss how these claims map onto the history and social structure of the group concerned.

2 We can add a time dimension looking at how a putative social formation, in the case of a diaspora, comes into being, how it develops in various countries of settlement and how it changes in response to subsequent events in hostlands and homelands.

3 We can list the most important features that seem to apply (or partly apply) to some, most or all of the cases we consider are part of the phenomenon we are investigating.

4 Finally, we can create a typology, classifying phenomena and their subtypes using the measures of consistency, objectivity, pattern recognition and dimensionality with a view to evolving an agreed and controlled vocabulary. In social science, Weber’s ‘ideal types’ (explained briefly below and then in Chapter 9) is a widely used method, which I also adopt. (p.5)

I suppose this criteria was set out to differentiate between real diasporas and abstract diasporas. A few examples were given, but I shall provide my own example of an ‘abstract’ diaspora. Diaspora deals a lot with ethnicity and ethnic origins. An ‘abstract’ diaspora talks about a diaspora of ideology. So this criteria is one that helps in delineating the definition of diaspora in academic studies. I think nos. 1 and 2 are the most pertinent in our case. What do the diasporic people say about themselves? If they think they are a diaspora but hardly feature as one, does that negate their views? Additionally, time is important in framing a diaspora. When do migrants transition to a diaspora? Are communities of migrants considered a diaspora if they don’t plant roots in the destination country? (Again, a metaphor of planting..) Are foreign construction workers from Bangladesh – who work maybe 10 years in Singapore before returning home – considered a diaspora?

Chapter 4: Labour and Imperial Diaspora

The answer, or at least part of it seems to be given in Chapter 4 in discussing labour diaspora:

Clearly, it would be stretching the term to suggest that all groups who migrate internationally in search of work evolve into a diaspora. Where, essentially, we are talking of individual, family or small group migration for the purposes of settlement, a diasporic consciousness may not develop, particularly if the immigrants concerned both intend to assimilate and are readily accepted. If, however, among overseas workers there is evidence over time of (a) a strong retention of group ties sustained over an extended period (in respect of language, religion, endogamy and cultural norms); (b) a myth of and connection to a homeland; and (c) significant levels of social exclusion in the destination societies, a labour diaspora can be said to exist. (p.61)

What was also interesting in the extract above is the mention of being ‘readily accepted’. Were the early Pakistani migrants readily accepted by the larger Malay society? I had this conversation with my Prof the other day, and he mentioned that historically, Malay society is an ‘open’ or ‘readily accepting’ society – one that will likely accept an outsider into the society, given that he or she is a Muslim, learns the language and practices the culture. (He quoted a research by Judith Nagata in which she found that besides the Malays, the Catalans were another rare example of an ‘open’ society.) Although we may point to the fact that many Muslims of Indian and Pakistani origin in Singapore today have been ‘Malaynised’ over a few generations, do we immediately conclude that their assimilation is a result of being in contact with an accepting society like the Malays? It still begs the questions of how and why the assimilation took place. Furthermore, it is worth questioning just how accepting the larger Malay society was towards these immigrant races.

Chapter 5: Trade and Business Diaspora

Allied to trade diasporas and imperial diasporas (discussed in my previous chapter) was an intermediate type, which might be described as an ‘auxiliary diaspora’, a term related to Tinker’s ‘imperial auxiliaries’ or ‘auxiliary minorities’.* Auxiliary diasporas profited from colonial expansion but were composed of ethnically different camp followers of military conquests or minorities permitted to provide retail shops by the colonial regimes. Often the small numbers representing the imperial power meant that local hostility was directed instead to the more visible and often more numerous auxiliaries, who were seen to be ‘foreigners’ allied to the colonial administration. Chinese traders in the European colonies of Southeast Asia, the Lebanese in the Caribbean and West Africa, and the Indians in East Africa, all had some features of an auxiliary diaspora, but the autonomous expansion of their own trading networks also impelled their arrival in the European colonies. Not all auxiliaries were traders. Take the case of the Sikhs, whom various British colonial administrations deployed in the military.** The presence of such auxiliary minorities was later to have important consequences as nationalist movements sought to homogenize their populations – forcing the auxiliaries to choose between local citizenship, repatriation, or rescue by the former metropolitan power. (p.84)

*I would prefer to confine the idea of an auxiliary diaspora to an emigrant group, or part of an emigrant group, which more definitely became intermediaries. Thus, I would suggest that whereas Indian traders were the auxiliary part of the South Asian diaspora, Indian plantation workers were not. (p.189)

**I exclude the Gurkhas who invariably returned to Nepal. They were nonetheless invaluable servants of the British Crown, having served in the colonial armies since 1815. Over a quarter of a million served in the two world wars. (p.189)

In the case of Singapore and Malaya, the early (Pakistani) migrants from the Punjab and Hazara can definitely be characterised as an ‘auxiliary diaspora’. Like the Sikhs who were mentioned above, they too served in the military and in the Police forces, which were crucial to the colonial administration maintaining law and order. As for those who chose to engage in trade, there were those who profited by providing services to the British. These include tailors, general contractors and transport providers who bidded for contracts to offer these services. There were of course others who came and started small businesses or stalls as pedlars, who were not affiliated to the British. Nevertheless, they still can be seen to profit from the expansion of Singapore as a British colony.

The story of these Hokkien trading communities can be used to make apparent one important distinction between trade and imperial diasporas. The former were not state-sponsored and state-backed, the latter were. (P.85)

…However, the Chinese traders had ambivalent attitudes both to the colonial powers and to their places of settlement. They were not thus ‘auxiliaries’ in a strict sense. Rather, they were loyal to thriving entrepôts and profitable arrangements, not caring over much whether the British, French, Portuguese, Malays, Dutch or Indians were in charge of the political superstructure.

The lack of commitment to local political life in the places to which the Chinese migrated was linked to the practice of sojourning rather than settling. (p.86)

There is a distinction between sojourning and settling. And this definitely will feature in my research and thesis. So were there any early Pakistani migrants who featured in politics? Well, maybe not successfully nor enduring manner. Here is an interesting bit of trivia – one well-respected Pakistani gentleman was set to contest in the April 1949 Municipal Elections (South Ward) under the banner of the Labour Party. However, he did not turn up on nomination day because “he was too sick to get up from his bed on that day” and did not manage to present the papers required for nomination (Sick, Missed Nomination; The Straits Times,  9 March 1949).

Prior to the 1968 General Elections (the first Parliamentary Elections after Singapore’s independence in 1965), there were two kinds of elections: The Municipal Commission Elections (later renamed the City Council Elections) and the Legislative Council Elections (later renamed the Legislative Assembly Elections). Indians and Indian Muslims were seemingly central to these electoral processes, especially in the late 1940s and early 1950s, under the banner of the Labour Party and the Progressive Party or as independent candidates. The Labour Party (which produced Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock) for example was co-founded by an Indian Muslim unionist by the name of Mirza Abdul Majid (M.A. Majid) in 1948. These elections produced  Commissioners, Councillors and Assemblymen of  Indian Muslim background. However, interests in political representation seem to have dramatically withered since then.

Chapter 8: Mobilizing Diasporas in a Global Age

As has been demonstrated throughout this work, diasporas are in a continuous state of formation and reformation. Their situation can change, often dramatically, in response to tumultuous events and more subtle changes in religious epicentres, homelands and hostlands. Migrants can be dispersed to one, some or many destinations. They can settle in some places, move on, or regroup. New waves of migration from an original homeland can transform the predominant character of the diaspora concerned. (p.141)

The Pakistani diaspora to colonial Singapore tapered off in the 1960s and with the British withdrawal in 1971, many Pakistanis returned home while others accepted UK citizenship. A newer wave of migrants from Pakistan started arriving in Singapore from the 1970s. To my understanding, most of them were professionals, migrating from urban centres of Pakistan including Islamabad and Karachi. So how did their arrival and presence further affect or shape the identities of local-born Pakistanis?

Do recent Pakistani migrants in Singapore form a different diaspora? Or perhaps in this day and age where instantaneous communication (such as social media and face-to-face chats) exist – strengthening ties with relatives from Pakistan – can they be considered transnationals instead? In differentiating the two terms, Cohen notes:

…a labour diaspora is normally a transitional type… Low status jobs also go to labour migrants who circulate or oscillate between their home countries and their places of work abroad. These rotating workers are better considered as transnationals, rather than a labour diaspora, for they are not permanently dispersed. (p.163-164)

In all, let us recap Cohen’s criteria of diaspora which he had summarised as strands of a (metaphorical) diasporic rope:

1. dispersal from an original homeland, often traumatically;
2. alternatively, the expansion from a homeland in search of work, in pursuit of trade or to further colonial ambitions;
3. a collective memory and myth about the homeland;
4. an idealization of the supposed ancestral home;
5. a return movement or at least a continuing connection;
6. a strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long time;
7. a troubled relationship with host societies;
8. a sense of co-responsibility with co-ethnic members in other countries; and
9. the possibility of a distinctive creative, enriching life in tolerant host countries.


On a final note, it is worth noting that immigrant populations “may or may not become diasporas. Return, assimilation or the further fragmentation of such populations are just as likely outcomes as the emergence and development of a diasporic identity.” From early analyses of my interviews, I believe there may just be evidence to show that the collective identity of Singaporean Pakistanis have suffered as a result of all three.


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