Published on People Move

Connecting the Diasporas in Singapore

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(In observance of the International Migrants Day, Dec 18)

While diasporas by country of origin are typically bundled together in broadly held conceptions, they are not monolithic, and are separated by numerous other characteristics, including socioeconomic status.  I was privileged to participate in the South Asia Diaspora Convention 2013 (SADC) that took place in Singapore on November 20-21, 2013, and the stark contrast with the riots that occurred in the Little India district of the city state just a few weeks later, serves as a reminder of these chasms.  Strengthening the connections between varied diasporas, and continuing integration efforts that enable all to build a stake in society, will be essential to realizing shared aspirations.

The SADC was an exceptional event organized by the Institute of South Asian Studies of the National University of Singapore, attracting over 60 speakers and about 1,500 attendees from politics, business, academia, international organizations, civil society, and media, as well as the literary and performing arts.  The discussions were wide-ranging and multi-faceted, emphasizing the extraordinary opportunities across the South Asia region, and show-casing the vast intellectual, entrepreneurial and financial resources that the large South Asian diaspora has to offer (indeed, bringing together many of the most successful and dynamic beneficiaries from the region of the movement of labor, capital, and goods and services). Participants also noted the importance of inclusion and designing policies that enable migrants to build stakes in their country of origin and their country of current residence.

On one evening, I visited Little India for a delightful dinner in a restaurant with outdoor seating on the bustling sidewalk, where I was swept away by the vibrancy overflowing from every shop, street vendor and group of passers-by.  I was filled with bright optimism about all that is possible for the migrants coming from all over South Asia, for those left behind in the countries of origin in South Asia, and for the countries of destination. 

Learning of the riots in Little India that occurred on December 8, 2013, the first in more than four decades, was shocking and saddening.  The traffic accident that preceded the violence was awful, with a migrant being killed after being struck by a bus.  But that it could spark a riot with migrants setting an ambulance and police vehicles on fire, as well as obstructing government first responders on the scene, suggests that there are simmering resentments among the estimated 2.3 million migrants in Singapore (out of a total population of 5.3 million).  Most have reaped great benefits from moving to Singapore, with second or third generation diaspora members reaching the highest levels of government, business, academia, and arts.  But others are frustrated by a sense of exclusion and limited options, even while helping fuel the economic dynamism of their chosen country of destination. 

The incident should not be treated as a tempest in a chai pot, but rather serve as a call for building bridges across the apparent socioeconomic divisions, which will require concerted efforts by all stakeholders.  Diaspora members, and forums like the SADC, have a special role to play in helping connect the dots on what happened and chart a path forward.


Christian Eigen-Zucchi

Senior Economist, Development Prospects Group, World Bank

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