Assoc Prof Elaine Ho: Caregiving and migration

Assoc Prof Ho, whose research addresses how citizenship is changing as a result of multi-directional migration flows in the Asia-Pacific, is now extending her focus to transnational ageing and care in the region

Singapore, despite being a young city-state, is already facing the societal effects of a rapidly ageing population. Government statistics show that the proportion of residents aged at least 65 years grew from 7 per cent in 2000 to 13 per cent in 2017.

Immigration has the potential to offset the consequences of population ageing by contributing to the workforce in essential services; however, many advanced economies are facing the twin challenges of an ageing population and public hostility towards immigration. While this may seem perilous, experts think the time is ripe to fire up the conversation surrounding this conundrum. 

Immigration is commonly perceived to be a key culprit taking away good jobs that could be filled by locals, and hence, it is often deemed undesirable. It also creates concerns that a country — especially in a land-scarce city-state like Singapore — will become more crowded and less liveable. But is this really the case?

NUS Geography Associate Professor Elaine Ho offered her views. “Confronted with an ageing population along with slower population growth, it is crucial that researchers and practitioners of ageing reconsider their emphasis on the proximate care networks of older people by incorporating closer attention to the increasingly global and transnational contexts of ageing and aged care,” she said.

“For example, instead of asking if we really need foreign domestic workers (FDWs) to take care of our elderly citizens, the question should be how do we empower FDWs to adequately take care of our elderly, and attract more FDWs to work in Singapore in the face of rising competition (for their demand) in the region?” she added. 

As Singaporeans we have to be more self-reflective; we need to accept diversity and encourage other narratives to evolve, so as to continue the ‘Singapore Story’.

Assoc Prof Ho, who is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at NUS, would understand the situation well. After all, she has built an illustrious career based on exploring how citizenship is changing as a result of multi-directional migration flows in the Asia-Pacific. 

She is the author of “Citizens in Motion: Emigration, Immigration and Re-migration Across China's Borders”. Through the monograph, Assoc Prof Ho deftly brings various migration experiences and national contexts under the same analytical framework to create a rich portrait of the diversity of contemporary Chinese migration processes, hence offering alternative approaches to studying migration, migrant experience, and citizenship, to set the stage for future scholarship.

One of her current projects looks at care circulations with a focus on how transnational relations, ageing and care ethics (TRACE) extend across national borders. She and her team study how global care circulations mediate experiences of ageing and what this means for transnational relations and care ethics. This focus on ageing and care is particularly crucial, not only given the care needs of ageing Singaporeans, but also because an increasing number of older adults are moving overseas to provide care or to receive care. 

Notably, TRACE focuses on Singapore as a hub where the logistics of care mediate migration inflows and outflows, and sets Singapore in international comparative perspective with Australia, which experiences similar care-mediated migration trends.

The interplay of ageing and migration

Increasingly, migrant workers are being employed to care for older people. This trend is taking place in European countries and in North America. In the UK, social care providers have turned to recruitment within and outside the European Union as a means of filling their vacancies for care workers.

Assoc Prof Ho noted that in order to maintain Singapore’s global reputation as a city-state that is welcoming of foreigners, we must build a social and cultural landscape that supports difference, and recognises that in some cases, these differences may give rise to feelings of inequality within the community. A 2012 government white paper projected that the number of FDWs in Singapore will increase to 300,000 by 2030, with a significant number of them providing caregiving duties to our young and elderly. It is therefore important that issues such as caregiving duties be addressed holistically, including the training of domestic workers, their welfare and living conditions.

To that end, Assoc Prof Ho and her team conduct ‘go-along’ interviews — that is, physically following pairs of FDWs and their charges to observe the interactions (from a distance to minimise stiltedness), and to explore both the expectations and needs of the elderly and the FDW as caregiver. 

“Our study highlights caregiver burden in FDWs and suggests potential interventions, such as empowering FDWs with condition-specific caregiving skills, providing language training opportunities, and supporting particular FDW groups with more emotional and practical help,” she explained.