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.

Global Diasporas: An Introduction (Robin Cohen)

Rather serendipitously, my supervisor handed me Robin Cohen’s Global Diasporas: An Introduction earlier this week and I have been at it since, through late nights and early mornings. I had been meaning to read it sooner rather than later as I think of how to frame my research within the area of Diaspora Studies. I started my research just lookiing at ethnic identity, but soon realised that I cannot talk about ethnic identity without addressing the issue of diaspora.

I had been introduced to the term diaspora some while ago when I started reading and engaging about the Hadrami diaspora. I always thought of it as the dispersal of people from an origin Point A across different parts of the world. But apparently – according to Cohen – that’s only part of the story.


Photo: Internet

The origin of the word diaspora is explained by Cohen in his Preface to the Second Edition (the first edition of the book was published in 1997):

Looking meditatively (or was that vegetatively?) at the garden out of my window, I suddenly thought how migration scholars were increasingly using gardening terms like ‘uprooting’, ‘scattering’, ‘transplanting’ and the then newly-fashionable word ‘hybridity’. My interest mounted when I found that ‘diaspora’ was derived from the Greek work speiro (‘to sow’ or‘to disperse’). (p.xiv)

That extract explains the cover of the Second Edition. Yet, prior to reading this book, I didn’t really think that there was more to a diaspora than just a dispersal. Cohen presents nine common features of a diaspora in Chapter 1:

1. Dispersal from an original homeland, often traumatically, to two or more foreign regions;

2. alternatively or additionally, 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, including its location, history, suffering and achievements;

4. an idealization of the real or imagined ancestral home and a collective commitment to its maintenance, restoration, safety and prosperity, even to its creation;

5. the frequent development of a return movement to the homeland that gains collective approbation even if many in the group are satisfied with only a vicarious relationship or intermittent visits to the homeland;

6. a strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long time and based on a sense of distinctiveness, a common history, the transmission of a common cultural and religious heritage and the belief in a common fate;

7. a troubled relationship with host societies, suggesting a lack of acceptance or the possibility that another calamity might befall the group;

8. a sense of empathy and co-responsibility with co-ethnic members in other countries of settlement even where home has become more vestigial; and

9. the possibility of a distinctive creative, enriching life in host countries with a tolerance for pluralism. (p.17)

I think most of us would have thought of diaspora in terms of point nos. 1 and 2, perhaps even no. 8. But what about the homeland (point nos. 3 and 4)? With regards to those who have roots in Singapore since the colonial days, do Singaporeans Pakistanis think of Pakistan as their homeland? (Do they think of it at all? Do they even think of themselves as Pakistani to begin with?) Given the negative image of the country and concerns about safety, I doubt that Singaporean Pakistanis would consider returning to Pakistan (point no. 5) This was fairly common in the 1950s – 1970s where second generation Pakistanis would spend months back home, often because their fathers (who were Policemen) were granted paid leave every five years to return home. But what about now?

My research shows that points no. 6 and 7 possibly feature in the community (see what I just did there? Community – in the sense of a shared identity, however imagined.) But it is worth noting that the early Pakistanis, like other Muslim migrant communities – namely the Indians and Arabs commonly married into the larger Malay society as well as adopted Malay language and customs to some degree. In that sense, they came in contact with an ‘open’ (accepting) receiving community.

So this brings us the question – Is there a Pakistani diaspora in Singapore?

Because judging by Cohen’s definition, then it is contestable. Furthermore, Cohen discusses the concept of creolization vis-a-vis diaspora:

However, as is clear from Safran’s comments about political participation and the growth of exogamy, many in the diaspora have adapted to a form of dual consciousness – poised between virtual Zionism on the one hand and interculturality or creolization on the other. (p.15)

Nearly all the powerful nation-states, especially in Europe, established their own diasporas abroad to further their imperial plans. The Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German, French and British colonists fanned out to most parts of the world and established imperial and quasi-imperial diasporas. ‘Quasi’, because in a number of instances, localization or creolization occurred, with the new settlers marrying into the local community or turning against their homelands. (p.69)

Thus, whatever the sophistication and complexity of the black Atlantic thesis, at root it is a historical simplification, which cannot fully explain the process of indigenization and creolization in the Caribbean. (p.138)

Perhaps this is where I introduce the book I will likely be reading next:


Photo: Internet

Yup, there is an entire book on creolization.

But just based on the three extracts from Global Diasporas, then we can tease that creolization has close connections to interculturality, localization and indigenization.

So to summarise and conclude this post, I bring forth another question: Is the Pakistani identity in Singapore a diasporic or creole identity?

A Community of Memory


A community of memory – Masjid Ahmad Ibrahim volunteers. Photo: Author (original photo by Masjid Ahmad Ibrahim)

In the most general sense, a community is a group of people with something in common. The Oral History Association pamphlet Using Oral History in Community History Projects offers a more detailed definition: “The term community encompasses nearly every kind of human group conceivable, from a family to political, cultural, occupational, or religious organizations whose membership is far-flung. Whatever its size or constituency, a community consists of individuals bound together by a sense of shared identity.” (p.28)

Extracted from Introduction to Community Oral History (Quinlan, MacKay & Sommer, 2013).

A community of memory is one whose sense of shared identity is connected to a “common knowledge base” or a common life experience, such as (pictured above) a group of volunteers in a particular organisation or maybe members of an ethnic community with a shared sense of origin and experience.

One of the questions that I seek to answer in my research is this: To what extent is there a Pakistani community in Singapore?

Review: A Life Beyond Boundaries (Benedict Anderson)


Photo: Internet

I really enjoyed reading Benedict Anderson’s memoirs in A Life Beyond Boundaries. What I enjoyed the most was actually the simplicity of the language and the ease in which the narrative moves along. (I took a peek into Imagined Communities. No such luck in that one..) Anderson explained how the began the task of writing his memoirs for a Japanese audience and so was aware to make it simple enough to be translated accurately, and I think he did well in that aspect. Throughout the book however, I felt a tinge of sadness to know that he had passed away just the year before. It would have been quite something to have met or at least communicated with the person who was actually banned by a neighbouring political regime.

But more than that, reading Boundaries, I became aware (why didn’t I think about it before?) that there is a tradition of passing down knowledge in modern scholarship which is not unlike traditional (Islamic) scholarship. Anderson takes time to introduce the individuals and ideas who have shaped him and his ideas with the same effort introduce the reader to the individuals who he had worked with in his lifetime. In that sense, I feel Boundaries is actually a great starting point for any individual serious about going deep into Southeast Asian studies – namely in Indonesia, Thailand (which Anderson calls “Siam”) and The Philippines. There are numerous references to the political events that shaped the late colonial and post-colonial histories of these countries as well as references to readings and writers which undoubtedly will provide a useful launch-pad for future.

The title is indeed apt. Anderson discusses commonalities across academic disciplines and between Southeast Asian countries, going beyond the restrictive boundaries set by politicians and academics themselves. It is poetic that the main theme of his memoirs reflect his vibrant life – from growing up to China and Ireland, to studying in the UK and then in the United States, before doing his fieldwork in Southeast Asia.

Here I present three more quote-worthy extracts from A Life Beyond Boundaries that undoubtedly resonated with me:

On fieldwork and its intrinsic benefits:

I began to realize something fundamental about fieldwork: that it is useless to concentrate exclusively on one’s ‘research project’. One has to be endlessly curious about everything, sharpen one’s eyes and ears, and take notes about anything. This is the great blessing of this kind of work. The experience of strangeness makes all your senses much more sensitive than normal, and your attachment to comparison grows deeper. This is why fieldwork is also so useful when you return home. You will have developed habits of observation and comparison that encourage or force you to start noticing that your own culture is just as strange – provided you look carefully, ceaselessly compare, and keep your anthropological distance. (p.102)

…In the process, I came to realize that nothing is better for a scholar than being blessed with such deep and enduring attachments, which are often much more valuable than lonely library research. (p.107)

On the constraints of modern research:

In political science, students are supposed to come up with a hypothesis to be confirmed or disconfirmed within the coming year. This time limit is a bad idea, since it is too short to attempt anything rather difficult. The demand for a hypothesis is often a bad idea too, because it implies from the start that only two general answers are possible: yes or no. Scale is always a problem. If a student says he wants to study sexual ideology and practice in the Meiji period, he will usually be told something like this: ‘Stick to sexual ideology, find an interesting decade, and confine yourself to Tokyo. Otherwise you will never finish and get a job.’ This kind of advice is not unreasonable, given the real financial and market constraints, but it is not likely to encourage bold or ambitious work.

The ideal way to start interesting research, at least in my view, is to depart from a problem or question to which you do not know the answer. Then you have to decide on the kind of intellectual tools (discourse analysis, theory of nationalism, surveys, etc.) that may or may not be a help to you… Often you also need luck. Finally, you need time for your ideas to cohere and develop. (p.154)

A Life Beyond Boundaries (Benedict Anderson)


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This line from Benedict Anderson’s autobiography – A Life Beyond Boundaries – somehow resonated with me, the literature part of me at least. It gives that much depth of character to individuals who create works of art and expression. I think about the stories I’ve listened to while talking to interviewees – you know, stories too are a form of expression – and reflect upon the complexity of their characters. It’s just something I tend to do. I don’t need to I suppose, but it gives life to these stories they share.

I picked up A Life Beyond Boundaries by chance actually while looking for Imagined Communities by the same writer. A course-mate had recommended me to look at Imagined Communities for my research as it discusses the idea of solidarity without actually being a spatial community (one that actually meets). Anderson posits it as one of the main thrusts behind nationalism. While I wait to get my hands on Imagined Communities, I’m reading A Life Beyond Boundaries, and it is proving to be a wonderful read. It gives profound insight into the life and character of Anderson while at the same time discussing some of his scholarly ideas, without too much scholarly jargon in the mix. It actually seems a pretty fluid and entertaining read.