Migration for a future

Two NUS Arts and Social Sciences researchers launched books centring on migration at a joint book launch on 7 May

Cultural anthropology and human geography came together on 7 May when Associate Professor Elaine Ho from NUS Geography and Assistant Professor Sidharthan Maunaguru from NUS South Asian Studies and NUS Sociology each launched a book centring on migration. The joint launch was co-organised by the Singapore Research Nexus and the Migration Research Cluster, both housed in NUS Arts and Social Sciences

NUS Arts and Social Sciences Vice-Dean (Research) Professor Lionel Wee commented that both books provide important interventions into the scholarly understanding of migration which is a hotly contested topic and one that is closely connected to citizenship.

“It is when migration intersects with citizenship that emotions tend to run high. There are those who feel humans have the basic right to move where they want to, especially if they have a need to escape persecution or even climate change. There are also those who believe humans have the right to protect their territories from encroachment by others, especially where the lack of protection can mean a drain on finite resources or an erosion of cultural values… The emotional nature of debates and discussions about migration make it especially urgent that we have access to careful conceptual and empirical studies,” he elaborated.

Assoc Prof Ho’s book, Citizens in Motion: Emigration, Immigration, and Re-migration Across China’s Borders, details her decade-long field research in China, investigating the migration flows that connect the country to Canada, Singapore and Myanmar. Through participant observations, semi-structured interviews, analysis of news reports and other textual and visual sources, the book takes Chinese migration as the starting point to understand the complex patterns of migration that shape territorial belong, memory and identity, as well as the differentiated domains of belonging and stakeholdership in both the source and destination countries.

Narrowing in on the Singapore context, Assoc Prof Ho said, “Juxtaposing immigration and emigration trends in a migration site highlights that there are dual concerns over the loyalty of overseas Singaporeans as well as new immigrants. The belonging of these different groups is very much anchored on the periodisation of migration, when one or one's ancestors came. For the emigrant, absence during the present seems to be compensated by territorial presence in the past — you used to be here and we expect you to return to Singapore in the future. But for the new immigrant, membership to the national community is always elusive because of their absence in the past. They were not here previously and cannot be compensated or recuperated in the present.”

It is when migration intersects with citizenship that emotions tend to run high…The emotional nature of debates and discussions about migration make it especially urgent that we have access to careful conceptual and empirical studies.

As for Asst Prof Maunaguru who wrote Marrying for a Future: Transnational Sri Lankan Tamil Marriages in the Shadow of War, he said he was interested in the lives of people coping with suffering, fear and loss. “How do people live in the time of mass migration and war which is full of uncertainty? Transnational marriage within this context is actually also a journey full of uncertainty so the two kinds of uncertainty were coming together… The instability and uncertainty were key roles at the time to how marriage became a place to relive their lives,” he said.

Set against the backdrop of the three-decade-long civil war between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil militants, the book looked at the mass migration of many individuals and families, mainly to India, Canada, England and continental Europe, to escape the violence. Asst Prof Maunaguru argued that the social institution of marriage became a critical means of building alliances between dispersed segments of Tamil communities, allowing scattered groups to reunite across national borders. Focusing on elements like transnational marriage arrangements, marriage brokers and photographers who facilitate the processes, visual documents such as wedding photos, transit places where the actual marriage ritual takes place as well as laws and court cases, he investigated how Sri Lankan Tamils rebuilt and shaped their fragmented lives and communities.

Commenting on what the books have in common, Assoc Prof Ho said, “Both books, even though one is from anthropology and one from social geography, talk about how the past matters for the future, how migrants through their intentionality are actually strategising for the future... trying to leverage on these citizenship-making projects in order to optimise their own futures, whether it's the national future, family projects or individual aspirations.”

Citizens in Motion is published by Stanford University Press, and Marrying for a Future is published by Washington University Press. Both books can be purchased online.