The Political Economy of Migration: Pakistan, Britain, and the Middle East

Roger Ballard, “The Political Economy of Migration: Pakistan, Britain, and the Middle East” (1987) in Pakistani Diasporas: Culture, Conflict and Change (2009), Oxford University Press: Karachi.

Migration and Ethnicity

Migrants (and their children) invariably cherish memories of their historical roots for reasons of psychological security; and the experience of exclusion invariably reinforces that tendency. (p. 23)

When it comes to Pakistani migrants to Singapore and their children, two things can be said. Firstly, while there may be evidence that show migrant indeed “cherish memories of their historical roots”, this sense of nostalgia is not passed on to their children. Secondly, it can be argued that their children do not experience the kind of exclusion described above that forces them to look towards their source of origin. While indeed there were children of migrants who were ostracised by their Malay hosts, acculturation for others were less dramatic – especially for those with Malay mothers. Hence, there is no need for these children to look towards their ancestral or historical roots for psychological security. As a result, it becomes less significant in their lives.

Emigrants and Their Societies of Origin

…emigrants are still expected to fulfil their kinship obligations by extending material support to their families… making regular visits back home… buy more land… build themselves an elaborate new house. This partly reflects a concern for honour and status, and the wish to demonstrate how much success they have achieved overseas; but it also reflects a desire to build up security against the day when they finally return home. (p. 24)

The general sense that I get talking to the children of these migrants is that ties between them and their families back home had been severed. For most of them, they returned only once – and even then after three or four decades after migration, and possibly even upon the insistence of their children or grandchildren who want to know more about their roots; they didn’t purchase land – in fact the opposite was true. The land was either abandoned, or sold off or given to their families. Security it seemed was in Singapore, not back in Pakistan. Therefore, you get this idea that they indeed were looking forward – whether they liked it or not.

Patterns of Emigration from Pakistan

Soon after the Punjab was incorporated into the British Raj in 1849, local men began to sign up as soldiers, especially after Punjabis were classified as a particularly ‘loyal’ and ‘martial’ race following the mutiny of the Bengal Army in 1857…

But men in more localized areas also began to explore other new opportunities. For our purposes, one of the most significant developments came at around the turn of the century, when men from a scatter of villages just inside the Maharaja of Kashmir’s territories began to take work as stokers on merchant ships operating out of Bombay. Just how it was that villagers living so far away from the sea pioneered this niche I have not yet been able to discover, but it was ex-seamen who were the principal pioneers of the contemporary Pakistani settlement in Britain.

As a result at least three quarters of British Pakistanis can trace their origins to an area no more than 20 miles by 30, lying mostly in what is now Azad Kashmir, and particularly focused on Mirpur District. In many Mirpuri villages, expecially those lying close to those from which seasmne were recruited, half or more of the population now lives in Britain.

… In the late 1940s and early 1950s an increasing number of seamen left their ships to take industrial jobs on shore, and soon afterwards began actively to call kinsmen and fellow villagers over to join them; it was thus that a process of chain migration began. (p. 26)

In Singapore’s context, the most significant town of origin was Mansehra. I am able to trace the origins of many Pakistani migrants to the rural areas around Mansehra town, which was located in the (then) Hazara District of the Northwest Frontier Province. There was indeed a process of chain migration where brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews, sons, fathers and other male kinsmen arrived one after another. While the actual origin is still inconclusive, I had theorised that the earliest migrants during the years after the First World War had joined the Police Force. The Police Force allowed for migrants to return home on paid leave every five years or so. And when they did, news on job opportunities would have been shared first-hand. There were at least two cases in which policemen returned back to Singapore with a relative – the first with a cousin, and the second with a nephew.

Marriage Rules and Their Implications

The marriage of cousins (both cross and parallel) is not only permitted, but it is preferred: siblings have the right of first refusal with respect to the marriages of each other’s children… Muslim migrants are members of much more closely-knit kinship networks, within which they usually fins themselves under intense pressure to accept offers of marriage on behalf of their siblings’ children back in Pakistan. And they also know if they refuse, they are likely to be charged with having become so anglicized that they have forgotten their most fundamental duties towards their kin. (p. 29)

I have no conclusive evidence to show that migrants in Singapore who did the same were accused of “having become so Malayised”. But judging from the sentiments of some migrants and returning migrants that I spoke to, there is a tendency to label someone as becoming Malay, and forgetting their roots and responsibilities. Many of the second-generation interviewees that I had mentioned that their fathers had wanted them or a sibling to marry a cousin in Pakistan, but this never materialised.

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