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.

Pakistani Diasporas: Culture, Conflict and Change

Published by Oxford University Press: Karachi

Edited by Virinder S. Kalra (2009)

Introduction by Virinder S. Kalra (p. 1-14)

According to Talbot and Thandi (2004), twelve million people were displaced during the Partition process and this remains the largest migration in modern history. The broad implications of Partition are still being explored, but it is possible to speculate that this initial mass upheaval left a psycho-social sense of dislocation that makes subsequent migration easier. (p. 1)

While this may be true and useful in explaining migration out of Pakistan post-Partition, colonial migration from the Punjab and NWFP pre-dated the Partition. And what about provinces that were not directly affected by Partition migration – the NWFP, Balochistan, Kashmir. How do we account for out-migration from these places?

In crude terms, the argument follows that in a situation of capitalist expansion, people, considered as labour, move from areas of excess to those of demand…

Though Dr Ballard has written a great deal on migration from South Asia, his major contribution to the debate on labour migration from Pakistan has been to highlight the fact that there is a concentration of emigration from certain parts of the Indian sub-continent and these areas cannot necessarily be defined as those with the greatest excess of labour or of the highest levels of poverty. (p. 3)

We will explore Dr Ballard’s article in the next blog post.

Though this is a general piece with an overview of migration by Pakistanis to Australia, one of the central arguments made by Malik relates to the critical role of gender in the formation of identity in the diasporic context. It is the control of women’s bodies and their expectation to perform certain gender roles that are at the heart of the maintenance of Pakistani identity for migrant communities. (p. 6-7)

Yes, I knew I was on the right track when I decided to explore gender within my thesis. Something unique about the Singapore context though is that the spouses of Pakistani migrants were local or localised, so how did that affect the household? These mixed marriages did not always allow these migrant husbands to maintain patriarchal hegemony in their households.

Critical to any understanding of diaspora formation is the way in which identities, often taken for granted and assumed static, become challenged and thrown into flux. Hyphenated forms of identification, as in the case of British-Pakistanis or British-Muslims, often push towards the emphasis of certain aspects of identity and the neglect of others. Fore fronting British in these hyphenated identities may indicate may indicate some primary identification to the former and less to the latter…

One of the key changes in identity politics that has occured in the Pakistani (and broadly South Asian) diasporic context has been a shift from national to religious identifications. (p. 8-9)

What about Singaporean-Pakistanis? From my research, a large number of children were born to Pakistani migrants in Singapore during the 1940s and 1950s. While their fathers may see themselves primarily as Pakistanis in Singapore, their children grew up arguably with new sets of identities. To an extent, some aspect of Pakistani culture and identity would have been inherited, but as children growing up in a developing Singapore, they would be able to see themselves as Singaporean-Pakistanis. And what about the all-encompassing Malay-Muslim identity some related to? Could they then be described as Malay-Pakistani? Could there be more than one hyphen? Truthfully, my interviewees probably see themselves as Singaporean-Malay-Muslim-Pakistani (in any of those order.) And again, going back to what was cited on page 8, do any of these identities take precedence over another? Pigeon-holing individuals and their experiences into a set of two identities, held tenuously by a hyphen seems a tad bit harsh, don’t you think?

And I think there is something to that. There was one person I approached, who seemed rather integrated into the Malay-Muslim community and even arguably among the Arab-Muslim community, but when I spoke to him, he had so much to offer – names of his father’s peers, where they were from, where they worked, the communities they lived in. It was astounding. And this was a common theme I gathered doing my interviews – that there is this much experience and memories suppressed because there is no relevant outlet since there is hardly a Singaporean-Pakistani community in Singapore. And because there is no Singaporean-Pakistani community in Singapore, Singaporeans of Pakistani arguably see themselves part of the larger Singaporean-Muslim or Malay-Muslim community.

A History of Pashtun Migration 1775 – 2006 (Robert Nichols)

Robert Nichols is a Professor of Historical Studies at Stockton University (New Jersey). His research covers the history of South Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in the early modern, colonial, and post-colonial periods. These interests include political, economic, social, and cultural interactions across communities as well as interregional connections between areas of the Indian Ocean world. This book was a result of his tireless archival research in places that included India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

One of the main arguments of Nichols is outlined in Chapter 1:

Typically, Pashtun history has been framed and studied by issues of territory, language, culture, and political interaction in specific regions and eras. This volume argues that the history of Pashtun migration has been one of the neglected themes required to fully understand the history of Pashtun communities as well as greater narratives of the Mughal empire, British India, Pakistan, and the postcolonial world. (p.2)

Recall the idea of diaspora that we discussed in the earlier posts, we understand what Nichols is saying is that studying Pashtuns who have migrated out of traditional Pashtun lands (Afghanistan and Peshawar) is equally important as studying traditional Pashtun societies – in understanding Pashtun history.

What you won’t find in this book however is a detailed discussion on the origins of the Pashtun people, names of tribesmen who migrated across the world or insight into Pashtun culture – if you are looking for such information, it may be worthwhile to look elsewhere. Years ago when I picked up this book for the first time, I too have hoped that there would be insight into Pashtun migration to Southeast Asia. However the focus is largely on the movement of Pashtuns (primarily from the Peshawar valley) to:

  1. North India (Rohilkhand region – namely the cities of Bareilly and Rampur) in the 18th century.
  2. The princely state of Hyderabad in South India in the 19th century.
  3. British colonies (primarily Australia) in the 20th century.
  4. Urban centres of Pakistan (namely Karacahi) after 1947.
  5. The Gulf States from the 1970s till 2006.

It provides for an interesting read, but often the weight of the details tend to weigh down the overall pace of reading. Often there are case studies of detailed records and the ensuing discussion may seem repetitive.

How does information from this book tie into my research?

As mentioned, I had hoped that there would be insight into the migration of Pashtuns to Southeast Asia during the colonial period – the time frame which my research is focused on. During the colonial period, Pakistani migrants (migrants from present-day Pakistan) arrived primarily from the the Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The NWFP itself was once part of the Afghan Durrani Empire until the 1820s when the Sikh Empire annexed the region in a series of Afghan-Sikh wars. (The Afghan capital was in Kabul while the Sikh capital was Lahore.) Thereafter, in a series of conflicts between the Sikh Empire and the British in the 1840s (dubbed the Anglo-Sikh Wars) in which the British were victorious – this region came under the British as the province of Punjab.It was not until 1901 that the NWFP was carved out of the Punjab and formed its own province. The NWFP consisted of the administrative districts of Peshawar (the capital of the province), Kohat, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and Hazara. It is understandable then that Pashtuns will naturally be found in the NWFP.

Although not all migrants from the NWFP are Pashtuns (or Pathans as they were referred to by the British), the term Pathan sometimes was used to refer collectively to migrants from the NWFP in the way that the term Punjabi is and was used to refer collectively to migrants from the Punjab. Nichols alludes that migrants from the NWFP who were not ethnically Pathans gained from this loose usage of the term ‘Pathan’.

….Others were recruited for colonial police forces in Malaya, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Southeast Asia locations… Police for overseas posts were enlisted from South Asian ‘martial races’, especially the Sikhs, but also Pashtuns, now called ‘Pathans’. But again hard identities broke down over distances. As in the eighteenth century when recruits of various backgrounds often assumed the Rohilla identity associated with military service, so many aspiring police in the Malay states claimed a Pashtun heritage. One observer, discussing the Pashtun company of the police force of the Selangor Malay state, noted that the company was ‘composed chiefly of so-called Pathans, who were really no more Pathan than I am, coming from the southern Peshawar district.’ (p.130)

So this rebranding of identity (not merely just Pathan) is something I will definitely discuss in my thesis.

Throughout the Chapters in the book, what is repeatedly discussed is the adaptability of Pashtun migrants in their new societies. And I think this is really interesting for a few reasons. Pashtuns pride themselves in their adherence to tradition, culture and language (Pashto) yet these studies have shown that throughout history Pashtun communities are highly adaptive and often assimilate into their host societies – that what remains is often a hint of Pashtun genealogy (eg. through stories passed down over the generations). The problem with this is that these migrant Pashtun communities may consider themselves Pashtun, but traditional Pashtun societies will not. As a case in point, I recall an interviewee of Pashtun descent who was chided by her uncle (when she visited her ancestral village years after her parents had passed on) for not being able to speak Pashto.

Anyway, here are some excerpts that I noted down while reading the book. It explains the context of Pashtun (or even NFWP) migration to the British colonies and the subsequent process of assimilation that took place:

After 1775 and throughout the nineteenth century, Pashtuns circulating in northern India, from both urban and rural settings, began moving increasingly in British imperial spheres. (p.2-3)

Taking [marrying local] women hinted at a vision for permanent occupation of territory and settlement. (p.27)

After 1858, developing colonial policies from prisoner transportation to contract labour exportation, increasingly integrated the society of South Asia into imperial political economies operating on a global scale. Pashtun found roles in locations across the Indian Ocean and beyond as plantation workers, transporters, policemen, and soldiers. Much of this migration was permanent as distance and expense limited return options… (p.107)

Finally, two works that seem to be informative for those interested specifically in Pashtun migration during the British imperial period include Gabor Korvin’s ‘Afghan and South-Asian pioneers of Australia (1830-1930) in the Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society and Thomas Metcalf’s Imperial Connections, India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920.

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)


Barely a week after writing about a wedding, I hardly expected that I would be writing about a funeral. If there is any indication that this research is urgent, it is the reminder that since I began my Masters research, two of my interviewees have passed away. Both were first generation migrants from Pakistan who arrived and settled in Singapore in the middle of last century.

I attended the funeral to pay my respects to the family of the deceased, who have been extremely warm and helpful since I first contacted them in May this year.

I suppose since it was a weekday morning, most of the people who attended the funeral were family, close relatives and elderly within the community. I had the opportunity to see a small crowd of elderly Pakistani men and women – most of whom were in their 60s and 70s, and some of whom I never knew were living in Singapore, let alone met or talked to. I met about four individuals who I had talked to in the course of this research, three of which were not related to the family but had known the daughter and son-in-law of the deceased. I wasn’t of course completely surprised to see them, as after all, like weddings, funerals too are events in which members of a community are bound to attend.

The funeral was managed by a local Imam who specialises in funeral arrangements, so there was nothing different or unfamiliar about attending it. The only difference I felt of course was when listening to the elderly folk talk to one another – they did so Hindko and Urdu. I followed to Masjid Pusara Aman where the solat Jenazah was held. In my car there was Uncle M and his nephew I. (I met Uncle M sometime before I started my Masters as he had gone for Umrah with my in-laws, and have been in regular contact with him.) The conversations we had during the 30 minute car ride was mostly centred around our visits to Pakistan as his nephew listened intently, having yet to make the visit. Our shared experiences of visiting Pakistan – having to take wudhu’ for subuh in freezing cold water, experiencing electricity shortages, discussing the cuisines – was definitely something that bonded us despite him being my senior by over 20 years. It helped of course that Uncle M’s father was from Mansehra, so I know very much what he was talking about since I have been there three times.


The Jenazah prayers were held here at the Pusara Aman Mosque. Photo: Internet

After the solat Jenazah at the mosque, the Jenazah was brought to the Pusara Abadi Muslim cemetery for burial.

When I was there, a friendly old man standing next to me asked if I was related to the family. He asked because he thought I “looked very Pakistani.”

May Allah swt bless the late Sakhawat Jan and her family.

Kenji (Fort Minor)


Mike Shinoda, of Linkin Park and Fort Minor fame. Photo: Internet

I always liked this quote from Mike Shinoda, having seen it on (of all places I admit) Wikipedia. There’s so much truth in it you can relate to as a member of a diasporic community – that you exists in both spatial and non-spatial locations.

Shinoda has a mixed ancestry – Japanese from his paternal side, and German-English on his maternal side. Some sources say that he is a third-generation Japanese American (while others say that his father is a third-generation Japanese American.) Mike Shinoda released the song “Kenji” on his Fort Minor album The Rising Tied, giving us a glimpse of not only his family’s struggle in the United States during WWII but also of some 100,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated (imprisoned) in over 60 internment camps. There is no doubt that the War in the Pacific (namely the attack on Pearl Habour) and the subsequent Japanese Internment was a “watershed moment” (to borrow a phrase from one of my research advisors) and became etched in the narrative of the Japanese diaspora in the United States of America.

My father came from Japan in 1905
He was 15 when he immigrated from Japan
He worked until he was able to buy respect and build a store

Let me tell you the story in the form of a dream,
I don’t know why I have to tell it but I know what it means,
Close your eyes, just picture the scene,
As I paint it for you, it was World War II,
When this man named Kenji woke up,
Ken was not a soldier,
He was just a man with a family who owned a store in LA,
That day, he crawled out of bed like he always did,
Bacon and eggs with wife and kids,
He lived on the second floor of a little store he ran,
He moved to LA from Japan,
They called him ‘Immigrant,’
In Japanese, he’d say he was called “Issei,”
That meant ‘First Generation In The United States,’
When everybody was afraid of the Germans, afraid of the Japs,
But most of all afraid of a homeland attack,
And that morning when Ken went out on the doormat,
His world went black ’cause,
Right there; front page news,
Three weeks before 1942,
“Pearl Harbour’s Been Bombed And The Japs Are Comin’,”
Pictures of soldiers dyin’ and runnin’,
Ken knew what it would lead to,
Just like he guessed, the President said,
“The evil Japanese in our home country will be locked away,”
They gave Ken, a couple of days,
To get his whole life packed in two bags,
Just two bags, couldn’t even pack his clothes,
Some folks didn’t even have a suitcase, to pack anything in,
So two trash bags is all they gave them,
When the kids asked mom “Where are we goin’?”
Nobody even knew what to say to them,
Ken didn’t wanna lie, he said “The US is lookin’ for spies,
So we have to live in a place called Manzanar,
Where a lot of Japanese people are,”
Stop it don’t look at the gunmen,
You don’t wanna get the soldiers wonderin’,
If you gonna run or not,
‘Cause if you run then you might get shot,
Other than that try not to think about it,
Try not to worry ’bout it; bein’ so crowded,
Someday we’ll get out, someday, someday.

As soon as war broke out
The F.B.I. came and they just come to the house and
“You have to come”
“All the Japanese have to go”
They took Mr. Ni
People didn’t understand
Why did they have to take him?
Because he’s an innocent laborer

So now they’re in a town with soldiers surroundin’ them,
Every day, every night look down at them,
From watch towers up on the wall,
Ken couldn’t really hate them at all;
They were just doin’ their job and,
He wasn’t gonna make any problems,
He had a little garden with vegetables and fruits that,
He gave to the troops in a basket his wife made,
But in the back of his mind, he wanted his families life saved,
Prisoners of war in their own damn country,
What for?
Time passed in the prison town,
He wondered if they would live it down, if and when they were free,
The only way out was joinin’ the army,
And supposedly, some men went out for the army, signed on,
And ended up flyin’ to Japan with a bomb,
That 15 kilotonne blast, put an end to the war pretty fast,
Two cities were blown to bits; the end of the war came quick,
Ken got out, big hopes of a normal life, with his kids and his wife,
But, when they got back to their home,
What they saw made them feel so alone,
These people had trashed every room,
Smashed in the windows and bashed in the doors,
Written on the walls and the floor,
“Japs not welcome anymore.”
And Kenji dropped both of his bags at his sides and just stood outside,
He, looked at his wife without words to say,
She looked back at him wiping tears away,
And, said “Someday we’ll be OK, someday,”
Now the names have been changed, but the story’s true,
My family was locked up back in ’42,
My family was there it was dark and damp,
And they called it an internment camp

When we first got back from camp… uh
It was… pretty… pretty bad

I, I remember my husband said
“Are we gonna stay ’til last?”
Then my husband died before they close the camp.