Religion, Gender and Identity Construction amongst Pakistanis in Australia

Nadeem Malik, “Religion, Gender and Identity Construction amongst Pakistanis in Australia” in Pakistani Diasporas: Culture, Conflict and Change (2009), Oxford University Press: Karachi.

Australia – Pakistan: Historical Links

According to the other view forwarded by Syed Atiq ul Hassan, the history of Pakistani migrants can be divided into three phases. The first phase (1860-1930) is the one in which the British (and later the newly ‘federated’ Australia) brought cameleers from areas (Sindh, North West Frontier Province, Balochistan), that became Pakistan after 1947. The second phase started after the Second World War. In this phase, it was mostly students and professionals who came to Australia under the Commonwealth Scholarships and the Colombo plan. And the third phase started from 1973 when the White Australia Policy was abandoned and professionals were able to migrate under a points scheme (Syed 2003). (p.167)

… The cameleers that came in the first phase are represented in most written records, according to Syed, as Afghans (Syed 2003). The reason for this, he argues, may be because the majority of them came from the Northern Frontier, close to what is now the Pakistan/Afghan border. Amongst them were also those Afghans who were settled in the areas, which are now part of Pakistan. According to Syed, around three thousand people came to Australia from the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent between 1860 and 1930, the majority from present-day Pakistan. (p. 167-168)

… if we follow Syed’s argument, that most cameleers who are popularly known as Afghans in Australia, were from the areas that became Pakistan after the partition of [the] Indian subcontinent, the question arises whether we should consider a number of Australian born Afghans as Pakistanis as well. (p. 169)

The Afghan Cameleers have always fascinated me since a friend first introduced me to them. I have been to Australia numerous times, and what’s nice is that they are indeed recognised for their contributions to Australia. The above-mentioned Syed describes them as ‘pioneers in the development of the Australian infrastructure.’ They were also responsible (to an extent) for bringing Islam to Australia.

One of the themes discussed in this chapter is the construction of identity. And something we must bear in mind is that identity is constructed with different reference points. What do I mean by this? Take for example, if someone migrated from Pakistan to Singapore in the late 1990s, he will easily identify as Pakistani because the national identity of Pakistan had been around for over five decades. But if someone migrated from the Punjab – specifically the part of that became Indian Punjab – in 1940, and his family had to move west to Lahore, what does that make him? Similarly, I have had people refer to themselves as Afghans or as having Afghan ancestry when their forefathers came from the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. So really, in that sense, identity is fluid and it is constructed with different reference points.

Identity Construction

There are many sites of identity construction for the Pakistani diaspora in Australia. However, three stand out as the most important to both external sources of differencing and internal self-identifying: Islamic religion, patriarchal family traditions, and the gender relations that are so often implicated in religious and family matters. (p. 169)

What about the sites of identity construction for the Pakistani diaspora in Singapore? In my research thus far, the three that stand out are: (1) ancestry and heritage (2) language (3) culture. I will be discussing them in my thesis.

Family Traditions and Identity

…based on Berry’s formulation of a two pronged strategy of ‘cultural maintenance’ and ‘contact participation’ of diasporic communities, it is observed that Pakistani women are mostly supposed to adopt the former strategy and men the latter. Women are usually expected to maintain the cultural traditions within the family and men to establish contact with the wider society. (p. 173)

From interviews, I find that what happened in Singapore is somewhat the reverse. Migrant mend tend to socialise within their male migrant communities – with some interaction with locals at the mosque or as colleagues. It is their wives who interact with the wider society – primarily the neighbours. This is true for both Pakistani and non-Pakistani wives.

With regards to religion,

As mentioned elsewhere, most Pakistanis are not orthodox Muslims and do not engage in the ritual practices of Islam. In most cases, this is even true for those women who accept the traditional gender roles. Religion is usually rediscovered by men as part of a diasporic revanchism [revanchism = a policy of seeking to retaliate, especially to recover lost territory] that involves maintenance of patriarchal family values and gender hierarchy. It is commonly observed that Pakistanis at times become more religious abroad than they were in their own country. Men advocate religion within their families to justify gender roles. While this might be true in their country of origin as well, advocating religion and justifying patriarchal family traditions through religion becomes even more important in a western society. (p. 174)

The unique thing about Singapore and Malaya (as compared to the UK and other parts of the western world) is that there are Muslims in the host society. The pressure to be in an endogamous marriage is lesser, as long as there is a potential spouse from the same religion. The effects of such mixed marriages will be explored in my thesis as well.

On the whole, it can be argued that the process of identity formation lies in-between the needs to relate to the new culture whilst maintaining the actual or newly perceived patriarchal family traditions… the families in which both men and women have integrated well into the wider society have to face community pressure. They are seen as westernized and away from their own culture… Such families are therefore at times isolated from their own community. They have more interactions and relations with Australians than Pakistanis. Community pressure, therefore, also impacts upon the integration process of identity formation of individual immigrant families… (p. 176)




Kinship Obligations, Gender and the Life Course

Kaveri Harriss and Alison Shaw, “Kinship Obligations, Gender and the Life Course: Re-Writing Migration from Pakistan to Britain” in Pakistani Diasporas: Culture, Conflict and Change (2009), Oxford University Press: Karachi.

Male Labour Migration

From men’s narratives it would be easy to imagine it would be easy to imagine migration as a harmonious collective decision, as indeed the household migration theories of the early 1980s assumed… Significantly, too, these decisions were often made without regard to the views of the women of the ghar and wider family – particularly wives, but mothers and other female relatives – who would also have to endure the emotional turmoil of separation and subject their households to upheaval due to the absence of the migrant. (p. 111)

Generally speaking, we don’t think much about the emotions behind a migrant forefather’s migrations – and one reason for this is because it is hardly discussed. In reality, there is much that is suppressed. Imagine simply – for many migrants, there never was a chance for them to see their parents again after leaving their homes. Off-hand, I can recall at least three stories in which mothers of migrants suffered emotional and psychological trauma after their sons left. The fact that migration stories are often one-way (told by the migrant from his perspective) there is a lot that remains unsaid. Additionally, I believe there is a gender expectation for men not to talk about separation and emotions. All the migrant males I spoke to never talked about how they felt leaving, and even when subtly probed, they never revealed their sadness. In comparison, women  interviewees tend to be more open in their feelings of being uprooted and resettled.

With regards to chain migration and the changing idea of biraderi,

Men’s opportunities for migration were thus shaped by their gendered roles as producers, and by their access to migration networks. Male networks, mostly consisting of male kin or friends from the home village or town, formed the bedrock of early migration and settlement, providing the information and contacts needed for travel, accommodation, employment and starting up business… Within male networks, the ideology of biraderi that motivated flows of mutual aid and reciprocity between ‘brothers’ enabled chain migration to develop, giving rise to the patterns of local kinship that characterise most Pakistani settlements in Britain today… Indeed, the important of fictive kin has prompted a semantic shift in the notion of the biraderi in the context of migration to Britain. British Pakistanis sometims talk of biraderi to refer to those people who come from their home place, regardless of their clan, caste group or notions of blood. (p. 112)

And the reason why few women migrated from Pakistan,

The ideology of purdah or female seclusion means that Pakistani women have been less involved in labour migration than women from other parts of South Asia, such as Kerala and Sri Lanka (Ballard 2004; Mooney 2006). Female labour migration is constrained by Pakistani women’s limited public roles in education and outside employment, and a relative lack of access to migration networks. (p. 113)

Family Reunion

After being sufficiently ‘set’, pioneer male labour migrants generally marry or call over their wives and children. This represents a shift in orientation towards Britain as a place of temporary residence, where they would work and earn money for their families back home, to one in which they are sufficiently rooted to settle. (p. 114)


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.