TOM PEPINSKY: Great. Welcome, everybody. My name is Tom Pepinsky. And I am the director of the Southeast Asia program. And I teach in the government department here at Cornell. I'm on leave at the moment so Thanks to Andrew Willford for stepping in in my stead in the moment.
We are here to welcome our distinguished guest, Professor Brenda Yeoh to deliver the 12th Frank H. Golay Memorial Lecture. I'll start with a word of thanks to Thamora and to James, and to everybody in the SEAP office staff for their excellent, tireless hard work to bring this together. Thanks to the Einaudi Center Migrations Initiative for their support and their sponsorship, and to Professor Andrew Willford for his leadership as I take a little break for my sabbatical semester.
The Frank H. Golay Memorial Lecture is the Southeast Asia Program's most distinguished lecture series. It was established in 1993 in honor of Professor Golay by his widow Clara. Frank was an economist and an active SEAP faculty member with broad regional interests but a special focus on the Philippines. Although his primary concern was economic issues-- he was an economist-- he was also vitally engaged with area-wide and multidisciplinary developments about Southeast Asia as a region and in the global context.
What brings us here today though is more than just the Memorial Lecture series. We are here to learn from one of the most prolific and impactful scholars of Southeast Asia anywhere in the world. Professor Brenda Yeoh is the Raffles Professor of Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore where she is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and the research leader of the Asian Migration Cluster at the Asia Research Institute. She earned her PhD in geography from Oxford and has built an impressive scholarly career, I believe all in US. Is that right?
Her research interests are wide-ranging, and she has published extensively, including her first book, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, which for me was special because it was kind of an introduction to the region and big themes for me. Her expertise lies specifically in the issues of migration, citizenship, identity, care work, and cultural politics within Southeast Asia and around the world.
I have to say this. Your piece "Immigration and Its Discontents, the Challenges of Highly Skilled Migration and Globalizing Singapore" is one that I routinely assign for my class called Politics and Markets, which is normally kind of a dry, technical, economic, political economy class. And it's always a crowd pleaser. It's the one that gets them the most excited. And it's provocative work like that has led us to invite her to give the Golay lecture this year.
Professor Yeoh is also a leader, having served as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at US, a distinguished service responsibility I'm sure. She's on many advisory boards for journals in the fields of geography, sociology, migration, and other fields. And she has also played a fairly important role in Singaporean civil society as well.
She was recently elected a corresponding fellow of the British Academy and, in 2021, was awarded with the international Vautrin Lud Prize, which is sometimes known as the Nobel Prize of Geography. Professor Yeoh and her work embody the spirit of Professor Golay and of the Golay lecture. Please join me in welcoming her to Cornell. Professor Yeoh.
BRENDA YEOH: Thank you. Thank you so much for that very generous introduction. I mean it's a real pleasure. And I'm very, very grateful to be here in person to give this very special lecture, the Golay lecture, the 12th one in the series. And I looked at the list. And the people who've come before are people that I admire greatly.
So surprisingly, this is the first time I've been able to spend extended time in Cornell despite having many friends and colleagues who have been here connected to the university and to the Southeast Asia program in particular. So not having spent much time here, I still feel a certain familiarity with this place because it's always mentioned by my colleagues. Yeah.
So the pandemic has taught us all over again to, in a sense, appreciate the privileges of travel and the joys of experiencing new places. So it is with that in mind that I'm here even though border crossings and travel have become very difficult and unpredictable at times. So I'm truly grateful to be here in person even though everyone tells me that I've brought the cold weather. And so that's a bit of a shame but I get to experience Cornell in all its coldness and with the snowflakes falling around.
So my talk today is essentially about being a temporary migrant and doing family across space and time, so something that I think most of us have experienced at different phases of our life course. So my own family migration history actually began at birth. I was conceived in Penang but came out in Singapore because my father traveled down to Singapore to seek work. And on securing a job as a policeman, he then brought my pregnant mother with him. So I emerged a few months later on Singapore soil and became Singaporean from day one, from birth. That was because this was the time when Singapore and Malaysia was still one country for a very brief moment in time.
So I'm Singaporean from birth but of Malaysian parents. And with separation of the two, of Singapore and Malaysia, and before my parents attain a permanent residency and Singapore citizenship, which they did after several years, there was a time when life was pretty hard as a migrant family. We moved from rental room to rental room.
My dad's job got us a place in police quarters. And I spent a large part of my childhood in the Gurkha camp. So there were many wonderful memories. So these are the paradoxes of nation state formation in post-colonial Southeast Asia. And like many that I know of in Southeast Asia, our migration histories reflect the so-called accidents of history and the arbitrariness of national borders that separate insiders from outsiders.
Well, enough about my own migration story. The talk today is focused more broadly on contemporary times which is, again, in the last few decades a renewed a time of renewed migrations and increased mobilities until, of course, the pandemic. Yes. So I have organized the talk in five sections. So let me begin with saying a little bit about the temporary migration regime. So OK.
So in Southeast Asia, large scale labor migration started around the 1970s, first of all to the Gulf and then internally within the region. This was a time when Southeast Asian nation states were still in the process of nation building. So nation building projects in Southeast Asia are quite different from the European tradition that's very much based on homogeneity and common heritage over a long period of time. Southeast Asian nation building was very compressed. It was also quite different from the North American and Australasian settler colonies kind of model, which featured versions of multiculturalism that privileged white subjects at the core of the nation.
So in a nutshell, Southeast Asian post-colonial nation states built their nationhood from an already existing plurality that's, in a sense, rooted in the migrations and diasporas of colonial times. And people from Singapore that's often known as a child of diaspora. I mean people from India, from China, from the Malay Archipelago basically made their lives, like my father, in Singapore.
So this is a particular moment in history when nation states were, in a sense, gearing up. And many nation states in Asia wielded citizenship as a legal instrument of exclusion that very sharply separates citizens as insiders and from those that deemed outsiders or even aliens in many cases. So the dominant migration regime that in a sense developed during this time was one of temporary migration.
So apart from a rather privileged pathway for highly skilled migrants to gain permanent residency and citizenship, most Asian receiving nation states [? rolled ?] out settlement family, reunification, and long term integration, including the acquisition of citizenship for those who are considered less skilled, particularly the low wage workers.
So why is this so? This is a way of minimizing the challenges to the very fragile imaginary of the nation state in the making. So it's by rendering migrants as transient sojourners whose place in society is to labor. so they sell their labor and, in a sense, allowed to be in the nation state for that reason. But they make no claims on the receiving nation state.
So in short, the idea is that they are here to-- they are allowed to labor but not to stay. And of course, this also serves the purposes of [? descending ?] states, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, that also encourage temporariness and eventual return of their citizen-sojourners in order to secure remittance flows which are very resilient even in the face of the pandemic, homeward investments as well as transnational linkages. So this then, in a sense, produces a temporary migration regime where the classic features of enforced transience and permanent temporariness can be seen in its clarity.
So we know that migration pathways across the world are narrowing. So that's seen in any part of the world today. But it's important to remember that temporary migration has been the mainstay of transnational labor circulation in Asia from the very start. So contract-based migrant workers and their families from Southeast Asia have to contend with permanent temporariness that is not accidental but institutionalized as a fundamental principle of labor circulation under the temporary migration regime.
So some of the characteristics that we see that temporary migration is predicated upon includes enforced transience in the receiving states, remittance dependency in sending states, and the prevalent discourse of the triple win migration and development kind of hubris. So there's also, in Southeast Asia, a feminization of migration, largely because of the gender segmented global economy where the demand is for care, health care, care workers, domestic workers, these feminized occupations.
The temporary migration regime is also predicated on commercial brokerage. In fact, one could say that migration governance is often outsourced to the migration industry to facilitate the movement of people in order for profit. So we see in Asia the expanding space of commercial brokerage. So all this, of course, means that there is increased precarity and limited access to social rights and protection for migrant workers. And many of them are either totally or partially excluded from the labor laws in host countries.
So I then move on to a second part of the talk to bring up two conceptual frameworks that have been important in my thinking about the impact of temporary migration on family life. And this is a global householding and the transnational family. So I'll go through this briefly.
We all, in a sense, have this imaginary in our heads that families are conceived as nuclear units. They live together. And in Southeast Asia, of course, eating out of the same pot is a mark of familyhood. Right. And families abounded within the nation state.
So as this quote says, I mean transnational families are often seen to be a temporary phenomenon. They are supposed to, in a sense, disappear with time with family reunification in host countries where this is seen to be the preferred outcome for family members. But of course, this is not going to happen in a predominantly temporary migration regime.
So under this kind of regime, it then means that those of us who are interested in studying Asian migrations need to pay attention to taken for granted objects of study like the family and the household, because these are basic units of production and social production. These have to be rethought in terms of new patterns of spatiality and temporalities.
So just to illustrate, this is a popular sort of sitcom in Singapore called Under One Roof. And that's the way that families are usually understood. But that is not the case with the transnationalizing of families in South East Asia.
So I want to, in a sense, refer to these two frameworks. Let me go through each of them quickly. So in terms of global householding, this is a concept that developed by Michael Douglas about 15 years ago based largely on Asian case studies. And global householding emphasizes the links between migration, household reproduction, and the reproduction of society in general in an age of globalization.
So it, in a sense, tells us about how the formation and sustenance of households are now increasingly reliant on transnational migration of people as well as transactions across international borders. So you see in this Straits Times article, she's like family, I mean referring to the migrant domestic worker, the live-in worker, who, in a sense, is the primary caregiver of the older man. And this discourse of being family despite many other things happening in this family is a very prevalent one.
So in [INAUDIBLE], I coined this phrase liberal familialism to explain the situation where the care is still kept within the family but is outsourced to someone who is, in a sense, brought into the family. So as she says, the cost of purchasing care labor is borne by the family but the filial piety that's supposed to be performed by the children of, say, this older woman is outsourced to others who are migrants, basically, who are brought from across international borders.
So this is a picture of Indonesian domestic worker watching a television drama with her older Singaporean employer. And I've always wondered what kind of television drama they might be watching given that she probably only understands Indonesian and she probably only understands Mandarin.
And whenever I show this picture, my students will always say, of course, it's Korean drama. I mean that crosses all boundaries. You don't need to understand language. Right. And in a sense, this is a very typical image in many homes where eldercare in particular has been shifted to the shoulders of live-in migrant domestic workers in countries and places like Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and so forth.
So a second example of global householding that's on the rise in Asia concerns cross-border marriages. And if you look at all the statistics, I mean this is an increasing phenomenon within Asia because it's sort of analogous to the practice of middle class families who recruit migrant domestic workers for householding purposes as we saw to look after the elderly, to do childcare, to perform housework. For working class families without the financial means to, in a sense, pay for migrant labor to be brought into the family, they then draw on the unpaid labor by recruiting foreign brides. Right.
So I've done several projects on this topic and interviewed the men and women who are involved in marriage migration. And the Singapore men would tell me how much difficulty they have in the Singaporean marriage market because they are largely from the lower socioeconomic classes, people who may not have a stable income.
They find it very difficult to secure a bride in the Singaporean market so they feel positionally left behind by local women's education as well as participation in the workforce. So they then seek to fill the care deficit in their households through international marriage with women from the less developed parts of Southeast Asia. So in Singapore, amongst Singaporean Chinese men, the brides that they will be matched with largely come from many countries-- Philippines, Indonesia, but primarily Vietnam.
So these are women who are seen to be-- they are largely rural women, largely seen to be more traditional, more willing to take on procreational and caring roles. And the subtext is that Singaporean women are no longer willing to do that. So yeah. So in that sense, this phenomenon is predicated on certain gendered ideologies of what rural women in Southeast Asia are keen to do, as you see in that particular-- the shopfront of a marriage consultancy, a marriage agency, that does Vietnamese wives.
It says there that-- you probably can't read, but in different languages it says a Vietnam wife is keen to do household chores and is willing to take care of parents wholeheartedly. So it is this idea, again, that the Singapore women are abandoning their wifely roles and you have to, in a sense, resort to more traditional women out there to fill this particular care gap.
So in many Asian cities and places like Singapore, Taipei, Korea, and so forth, there has been a quite steep increase in international marriages. And in Singapore, international marriages between a citizen and a foreign partner now accounts for one in three marriages. So it is a [? size ?] that the bulk of these marriages will be between working class men and rural women from around the region. So this is yet another example of global householding that is practiced by those in a sense who will not be able to afford by purchasing the labor of migrant domestic workers.
So turning now to the notion of the transnational family, which I will spend the rest of the talk on, this refers to the notion that family continues to share strong bonds of collective welfare and unity even though the core members are distributed across national borders. Right. And the emphasis here is how members maintain a feeling of collective welfare and a sense of familyhood over the life course and across national borders.
So this is a picture that we took where you can see in this transnational family the mother is looking after the child but she's not doing it alone because there are two computers you can see, so other members of the family located somewhere else are also participating in the daily rhythm of the household through the interface of the computer screens. So in this formulation of the transnational family, family membership is now a matter of choice and negotiable in some ways. Right.
So members could choose to maintain these emotional and material bonds of varying degrees of intensity with certain family members. They could be very invested in sustaining these ties or they could be choosing to opt out of these transnational ties with other family members. So the transnational family idea, in a sense, leads us to the notion of family politics across time and space.
This is a book cover produced in the 1980s. So in a sense, this kind of phenomenon has been with Southeast Asia for several decades. Right. And we see developing countries in Southeast Asia increasingly promoting overseas labor migration, including the migration of women as breadwinners as a development strategy to address local issues of poverty, unemployment, and so forth as well as to grow foreign exchange through the remittances that the migrants send back.
So this increasing feminization of breadwinning migration is, as I mentioned, a response to the growing care deficit in the global economy and in the gender segmented demand for domestic and care labor. So it's important. I think the point I want to make here is that it's important to give focus to what's happening in the family because they are the all important link between the macro and micro factors that are shaping socioeconomic change in Southeast Asia.
They absorb process and act on opportunities and threats that are posed by major changes, major structural changes in Southeast Asia. So we have ongoing projects to look at the transnational family in a time of pandemic. We haven't got our heads around that as much yet so I won't be able to present much of that. But you can see how, in a sense, a pandemic and closed borders disrupts the everyday rhythms of the transnational family.
So the next part of the talk-- why is it four? It should be three. But anyway, I got my numbers wrong. --is the main part that I want to focus on. It sort of is based on ongoing work so it's a bit rawer than I want it to be. And I want to focus on how transnational families engage in social reproduction using a critical temporalities lens.
So as we already said, whilst notions of spatial separation are central to the idea of the transnational family, I just want to, in this part of the talk, bring attention to time and temporality as equally productive lenses to look at the transnational family in a regime of temporary migration.
So yeah. So why is time is as important as space? Well, under a temporary migration regime, transnational family life is not just about living across spatially inscribed borders but is also very significantly shaped by the structuring of time within the prevailing migration regime. And I would like to speak to three different social constructions of time and temporality to illustrate my point. So it gets a bit rough but let's see how we get on.
So the first concept of time-- social construction of time-- is looking at time as control, as borders and temporal control. So we know that borders stimulate mobilities. Without borders there will not be transnational mobility. But at the same time, borders are also tools, temporal tools, of controlling and managing mobility. So in terms of migration governance and border regulation, time can be mobilized as a form of discipline and control which then, in turn, structures migration and family life.
So this quote basically-- I won't read it-- but basically it talks about being temporary. This idea of temporariness is a mode of governmental disciplining that affects migrants' everyday lives and their labor market opportunities by creating workplace vulnerabilities. But I want to go beyond just looking at workplace vulnerabilities to also think about the transnational family life of the migrants.
So in the case of migrant domestic workers that I've, in a sense, introduced already, they operate under a regime of permanent temporariness. It's a highly managed system of two year work permits for easy repatriation. And that introduces a sense of precarity and uncertainty in the life course for these domestic workers.
So they're admitted into the nation state as disposable labor without any kind of pathway towards permanent residency. And as part of the cycle of migration, they also then absorb the high risk that comes with temporary migration, the risks of repatriation. And in terms of the enforced transience to, in a sense, prevent migrant domestic workers from sinking roots into Singapore society, family formation is circumscribed.
They're not allowed to bring dependents. They are prohibited from marrying Singaporean citizens and permanent residents. And they would be repatriated if found to be pregnant. So these very draconian principles basically is a way of circumscribing family formation and enforcing transience.
So in that sense, family life for the migrant domestic worker is one that's very strongly conditioned by these rhythms dictated by the work contract and employment conditions. There are daily and weekly rhythm of family time is shaped by uneven access to communication technologies. So it's very much dependent on your employment circumstances.
In most cases, they will be allowed access to a phone but, in some cases, the phone could also be kept aside when they are at work during the work week. So that means that the rhythm of transnational family life is very much dictated by their employment conditions. So because their time is structured by work contracts of two years with no break in between, it then means that home visits to reengage the family physically would be a time for in between the two year contracts.
So you can see how, in a sense, temporal control asserts very important consequences for transnational family life. So not just that but I also want to speak to the fact that migrant domestic workers coming to Singapore on the basis of what's called debt finance migration. So their movement into Singapore under the temporary migration regime is financed by debts, by indebtedness basically. So in a sense, they borrow against their own future.
So a prospective migrant woman in, say, Indonesia or Philippines would be able to migrate supposedly without cost because the cost is borne by the commercial broker. But she then, in a sense, pays off for this debt through salary deductions that could range from six months to nine months once she's employed in Singapore. So this is what's called the fly now, pay later scheme, which allows for debt to be circulated but with the debt in a sense falling quite squarely on the shoulders of the migrant worker in the end.
So there are consequences for this form of debt financed migration because migrants then accept long hours or work exploitative conditions because they are in a hurry to pay off their debts and to gain the ability to send remittances home before facing the risks of repatriation. So in that sense, indebtedness and their remittance obligations can prolong their migration timelines and family separations.
So we found in the research that most migrant domestic workers that we spoke to, they usually migrate with the idea that they will only be working for one contract or at most two. And then they hope to reap the benefits of migration and then return and be reunited with their families. But most of them don't find this to be a pathway that is viable. Many who in the end are able to reap the gains of migration have to work for many contracts so it extends your migration timeline and prolongs the family separation. That's the point I'm trying to make with this kind of debt financed temporary migration regime.
A second construction of time that I think is important in thinking about transnational family life is digital time and mediated intimacies because temporary migrants have to negotiate online and offline family ties. And this is often a double-edged sword. So with the increase-- with every app and smartphone improvement, the possibilities of being online and even always on communication has become a norm and sometimes an expectation.
So scholars in this field has observed that the fact of communicating may be seen as just as important as the content. So it doesn't matter whether the communication is banal, and everyday, and not very consequential. But to be always communicating through these digital means becomes a mark of the familial ties. So these kinds of prosaic exchanges between family members across physical space becomes an act of recognition and affirmation in relaying [? while ?] these words generates a strong sense of shared space and time that overlooked, even if only temporarily, the realities of geographical distance and time.
So this is a second way in which the temporal becomes important in the doing of transnational families. But of course, it's important, as other scholars have said, not to romanticize the role of communication technologies for doing family because, as with non-mediated practices, acts of mediated communication can also have very complex consequences which are both positive, negative, the whole spectrum, basically. And it very much depends on factors including the relationships themselves.
So sometimes it's just this juncture between imagined proximity, this always on communication, and physical separation that could generate new sources of conflict. And there's always this unfulfilled expectation that the other party will always be present. There's also a moralized subtext when the other party disengages or tries to create social distance. So these then become issues that could weaken already unstable relationships.
So there's a whole field of scholarship that looks at this aspect of communication technologies and transnational families. But what I want to look at is, well, this is the sort of raw part of it is to look at the way that transnational families negotiate two different scales of time, institutional time and family times. So migrants have to negotiate institutional time scales of migration alongside significant biographic events or family time such as marriage, birth of children, anniversaries, birthdays, and so forth.
These critical life events, including forming relationships, reproduction, child rearing, aging, and even death, have to be reconfigured in migration timelines. And at the same time, they also become important cues for when migrants in a sense have to return home to almost repair the family timeline. So temporary migration regimes can prolong liminal times as family separation, can slow down or put on hold family plans, and create uncertainty in families trying to plan their futures.
So there are two ideas that I want to, in a sense, speak about in this vein in the way that families negotiate institutional and family times. The first has to do with how the temporary migration regime temporally structures family life course by producing seriality in migration. So as I said, many of these migrant workers go not for just one contract or two contracts. It's a series of contracts.
And we wanted to explain why this is so, why is there seriality in migration as a time concept. So if we take Osman's idea of seriality, this is understood in terms of the multiple international migrations over a person's life course, that one migration episode stimulates the next. So temporary migration that's interspersed with family times in between the migration episodes is often driven and sometimes prolonged indefinitely by a moving spiral of material needs and wants.
So in the interviews that we have conducted with transnational families, often the initial reason for migrating has already subsided but the migrant is still not home because other priorities and pressing needs take center stage and become the drivers for further migration. So to the extent that the remittances become the primary, if not the only regular source of financial support that sustains a family life course, and in through the life course, aspirations also gradually expand upwards, and soon migrant women's, the mothers' absence from the family becomes accepted as part of the greater good of the family.
So in short, serial migration is powerfully driven by the human capacity to aspire. But this has to be understood in terms of aspirations in a context where aspiring is [? written ?] with deep precarity. So Silvey and Parrenas's work that comes to a very dismal conclusion. It depicts serial migration amongst domestic workers from the Middle East in terms of precarity chains that are shaped by indebtedness, insecure employment, few rights, and limited occupational and financial mobility. And it's a sort of chain that persists and deepens across the migration lifecycle and over the life course.
So I just wanted to bring a little bit more of the migrants' voice in these issues to turn to just one short case study of Nurul and her daughter Aditratna and their story. So Nurul basically migrated against her husband's wishes. We asked her why she wanted to migrate. She basically pointed to the family's low economic condition she says.
So her migration journey that started when Aditratna was two years old, spanned 17 years and took her to Sumatra, then to Abu Dhabi, and then Hong Kong. Her husband has carried on working in Indonesia but as a casual laborer. The local construction business he was involved in was not a source of regular income. So it was Nurul's remittances that sent, without fail, every three to four months that sustained the family.
So Nurul would come home after each contract but would then return again and again each time the money ran out. So apart from supporting the children's education as they grew up, so these life course kind of events that require money, the remittances were also used to build a house, well, to buy land, build a house, then a motorcycle, then a hand phone for the older child, and so on and so forth. So this went on until Aditratna is now, when we interviewed her, 19 years old and a university undergraduate.
So we ask Nurul, is this the life that she intended? She says no. When she first migrated, it was basically for a contract or two with the intention of coming home. But with the needs being becoming pressing and the wants spiraling, she says that she had no choice.
She says that Aditratna, she hates her because I often left her. So it's not just the first leaving when the child was two years old but constantly after every two or three years. So Aditratna pleaded that, please don't go, Mom, but was told by Nurul that she needed to be away so that Aditratna could remain in school.
So when Nurul finally came home two years ago from the point that we interviewed her, Aditratna has already completed high school, based on largely the mother's remittances, and came home because Aditratna begged for a sibling to ease her loneliness. So she came home. A younger brother was produced, large age gap between the two children. But Aditratna when we interviewed her said that she's very happy that she has a baby brother but also lamented that the family's economic conditions has reverted to premigration levels.
And they are no longer able to, in a sense, to support themselves without the remittances so she works as a tuition teacher. But that's only enough for personal needs. Family has to rely on the grandparents for rice. And there's actually another family member, the maternal aunt, who is now in a sense working as a domestic worker in Hong Kong that sustains Aditratna's university fees and the family in general. So this is kind of an example of the dynamics that goes on within the family that leads to serial migration.
I now want to turn to a second concept of relay migration because this illustrates a different sense of time. And this time, I want to look at generational time, how, in a sense, social reproduction doesn't just happen across the life course but crosses into the next generation. So relay migration is about the cycle of migration where parents who have worked as migrants return and are replaced by their children so as a family survival strategy or as a way of economic diversification within the family. So this has been called different names including intergenerational chain labor migration by Kim. And I bring this up because while serial migration promises to consider the social reproduction of the family across the life course, relay migration may help us to give attention to how reproducing a family continues or changes course across two generations. So I think the big question for me, looking at Southeast Asian migration, is will this continue into the next generation? Is there a cultural migration that is going to persist across generations?
So again, I turn to a quick story, this time of Iran and Shirot. So Iran, who is Indonesian, left behind husband. He has been farming land that's been accumulated through his serial migrant wife's remittances. So the wife is working in Saudi Arabia for many years. And she has been working there since the older child, Shirot, who's 19 years old when we interviewed him in a training center-- he was waiting to migrate to Korea at that point.
So when Shirot was two years old, his mother left and has been since an overseas migrant. So of course, the same cycle. She returns every two years for about six months but the migration cycle goes on. The family also has a younger child with a disability that they have actually supported through to college.
So when we talked to Shirot, he said he's made up his mind to migrate. So his migrant mother was totally against it, many misgivings, didn't want her children to repeat her life. But he was very keen to seek work abroad. And had [? done ?] many things, all the practical steps to get the information without consulting the parents in order to, as he says, to do the research and gathered information about migrating to different places-- Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea. I compared them myself. And he's decided that he will migrate to Korea. And when we interviewed him, he was actually in a training center undergoing training in order to shape his migration opportunities.
He says men need to work overseas for their future and for the purpose of accumulating capital more so than women. The women may earn hundreds of thousands of rupees and even 1 million if they work locally as a pharmacist or a teacher. That is adequate for women but not for men. He wants to find money, big money. And why does he want this money? He wants to fund his own education after working abroad. So he has dreams of continuing education but only after he's able to earn his own money to fund his own education. He was very keen not to burden his parents. So while his mother has said I will contribute to your higher education, stay and not receive a higher education because that's mother's dreams, he refused. He wanted to be independent. And very interestingly, he insisted on migrating because that will allow his migrant mother to return home to retire and enjoy OH.
So I've only shared one case study but, in the cases that we've been looking at, we notice two trends in relay migration, one to do with success and emulation and the other to do sacrifice and recuperation. So for the first, so when the parental migration has been seen to be visibly successful, the family project has, in a sense, advanced, the children tend to want to carry on with migration. They accept the migration baton with a view of emulating their parents' success formula. And this is often the case with the support of the parents preparing the way as well.
On the other hand, like Shirot, when parental migration is associated with sacrifice, particularly maternal sacrifice, and maybe not so successful and seen to be injurious to the migrant, the children tend to think about recuperating their mothers. They contemplate embarking on relay migration as a means of bringing their parents, and particularly the mother, back so that the breadwinning mother could, in a sense, be reunited in the safe haven of the family.
So we're still exploring this issue. But our initial thoughts in this particular project is to think about young men's reaction to parental migration in terms of emulation and recuperation, largely in line with the idea in many parts of Southeast Asia that men need to, in a sense, migrate and an independent income. For the Indonesian women that we've interviewed have grew up and left behind families of migrant parents, many of them are choosing instead to stay, so they talk about not repeating the sufferings that they see of their migrant parents. They talk about building local careers rather than migrating. And the idiom of enough was a recurring one, enough migration. We have enough locally without migration. And this is, in some ways, a rational response to the social risks which migration has confronted the family.
So we interviewed these women when they are on the cusp of adulthood. They are usually 18, 19, or 20. So whether this will be the case was something that we were hoping to explore in a third wave of interviews but then the pandemic struck. And we were not able to return to the field. So yeah.
So I'm not sure whether the window has slipped away. But there is this question as to whether young women who say that enough migration, I'm not going to repeat my parents' sort of cycle of migration, I'm going to build a life locally, will have the opportunities to do so. And given the way that the pandemic has affected social economic conditions, we see this fading away quite rapidly. So this leads to my conclusion.
And as I said, I mean the last part is a little bit rough but I think the point I want to try to make is that transnational families under temporary migration regime, they represent a new family form that is borne out of the inequalities of the global economy. And in a sense, they are reproduced through this transnational division of labor that is both spatial and temporal. So the temporary migration regime is very much predicated on the organization of spatial and temporal control.
At the same time, temporalities are experienced and negotiated within the inner workings of the transnational family. I've spoken quite a bit about enforced transience because this is a salient condition that has far reaching consequences for doing family across borders. In a different paper, we were, in a sense, exploring what alternatives are there to temporary migration. But that's a different story.
So in summary for transnational families, they need to transcend the temporal [? lacks ?] between the here and the there. So when they do succeed, and of course, they do succeed sometimes, they create synchronous times. And in Shanthi Robertson's terms, this phrase, they simultaneously create historic trails of the past, synchronize different time zones in the present, and express shared imaginaries of the future. So a hopeful picture.
But when they fail to, in a sense, transcend and closse the gap between the here and the there, the temporal gap, transnational family life may lead to a sense of disjuncture, precarity, and the ongoingness of liminal times. And unfortunately, our current research in looking at transnational families in a time of pandemic suggests that the latter is going to be the more pronounced trend in Southeast Asia. So with that, I thank you for your attention. Yeah.
Let me check to see about how much more time do we have for questions. A half hour? Great. So would you like me to field questions for you?
BRENDA YEOH: Sure.
BRENDA YEOH: Yeah. Yeah.
TOM PEPINSKY: You're also welcome to--
BRENDA YEOH: I'll just grab a pen and paper, in case.
AUDIENCE: --it's on that last very sad point. [INAUDIBLE]
For example, outpatient [INAUDIBLE] has led to higher suicide rates on [INAUDIBLE] and argues that that's a direct result of this sense of injurious migration. [INAUDIBLE] is psychological trauma is unfortunately [INAUDIBLE] suicide. So do these vulnerable transitions around [? serial ?] migration [INAUDIBLE] other forms of migration [INAUDIBLE]. Have there been any epidemiological studies or ethnographic studies about depression and suicide?
BRENDA YEOH: That's a very good question, and with, of course, many complexities in it. I guess I'll try to make three points. And so one is, not so much looking at the transnational family, but looking at migrants in the time of pandemic, and I've done some work on what happens to temporary migrants in Singapore, where largely, the construction workers are housed in dormitories.
And during the time of pandemic, they became the epicenter of the coronavirus in Singapore, because they are cleared off their enclaves, paradoxically, and kept contained within these dormitories. And that, of course, led to the spread of the virus. And at the height of the pandemic, 90% of the cases were amongst migrant workers-- largely, male, South Asian construction workers.
So this sense of separation-- so this is back to the temporary migration regime. I mean, you are, in a sense, away for such a long period from home. The sense of isolation without being able to connect to your family and to outsiders, to be able to send remittances home-- that became a very difficult point and was not-- we didn't have many--
In fact, I think there was only one death amongst my-- I'm not trying to minimize-- even one is bad, but one death out of-- in Singapore, amongst migrant workers living in dormitories. And that's largely because they are all healthy, economically active, young men who, in a sense, didn't suffer that badly.
But the other consequences of depression, of suicides-- that took more lives than the virus itself. So in that sense, that's a partial answer. I mean, not so much the left-behind family, but the situation of temporary migration, looking at the migrants who are, in a sense, stuck behind the host country's borders and not able to go home.
And similar stories about the live-in domestic workers-- not done that much research there, but we know that during the time of the pandemic, live-in domestic workers have it very hard, because everyone is at home. Your workload increases, and you're also not encouraged going out of the house, so you are, in a sense, working 24/7 within the households.
Because this kind of work is very difficult to draw a line, a spatiotemporal line, between work time and time off. That's still my first. Second point I want to make is that the usual concerns about temporary migration and left-behind families has to do with the welfare of the children.
So there's been many studies, none of them conclusive, because I guess it's such a complex manner-- complex as to whether children growing up in transnational families will be able to benefit from better educational returns, food security, and so forth. So that is the kind of research that's been conducted. We have been carrying on--
So I mentioned that we weren't able to go to the field in the Philippines and Indonesia because of the pandemic. So we decided to interview the migrant domestic workers in Singapore instead about their concerns and food security issues relating to their families back home. So it is quite obvious that those who are able to generate remittances were able to help their families a lot more than the other families. They talk about neighbors and so forth in need.
And we know that remittances, even though they dipped slightly at the height of the pandemic, has already recovered. So migrants basically sending back remittances to their home countries have been a mainstay of all of socioeconomic life. So in that sense, yeah.
I mean, I guess that leads to the third point, which is that-- are there ways of improving the temporary migration system, so that it will have less debilitating consequences for families? I think that's the line that I want to, in a sense, push the research. I mean, ideally, we can do away temporary migration, but that's not going to be a realistic measure.
So in the current work that we're trying to do-- is to argue for the fact that temporary migrants are now, as we see around the world, essential workers. Because the whole construction industry in Singapore basically collapsed when temporary migrants are no longer able to come into the country, and the wheels of the economy, basically, will only sort of revert back with migrant labor inputs.
But at the same time, is this an opportunity for arguing for better conditions, less precarity-- is, I think, a window. I had a discussion with some people. Some people say that the window has already closed. We are back to before.
But I would like to remain hopeful, because I did see, during the pandemic, conditions improving for the workers, in terms of their-- because they were in short supply, they were able to argue for a higher pay and better terms. So is that temporary, or is that going to be part of the new system? I don't know. Yeah.
TOM PEPINSKY: Everybody, hands up real high, so I can see them. So we're going to [INAUDIBLE], and we'll go to [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: Yeah, thank you. It's a really wonderful talk and so clearly articulated. And I guess I'm wondering, how do you account for the temporariness of this transnational Southeast Asian regime? Because it seems like, in the last 200 years, most migration has been permanent to the US, Europe, whatever, even Asia to the US or Asia.
Within other parts of Asia, it's always been permanent, or at least, the whole family is moving. So like, what makes this regime sort of unique, I guess, in that bigger picture?
BRENDA YEOH: So to that question, I would say that it's actually not unique to Asia anymore. I was in Canada, I mean, just before this, and learned so much about the-- Canada is often held as a model for permanent residency and settlement, but scholars there tell me that that's also on the decrease, and it's temporary migration that's on the increase.
And so as I mentioned in the beginning, migration started at a time when nation-states were very fragile. So it is, in a sense, I guess, a political and economic move to make migrants temporary by keeping citizenship as bounded as possible. And I guess the unfortunate thing is that there has not been a return to the more permanent forms of migration, except for the highly skilled, the talent migrants.
So maybe to be cynical, it's just a question of globalization and the fact that people are now, in a sense, valued for their skills and for their economic value, rather than as migrants who are add to society in a more multifaceted way. Right?
So in Singapore, for example, they are temporary, because the idea is that they come in to sell their labor. They are paid a wage. So you speak to people. They will say, well, they are paid a wage that's more than what they can earn at home.
So I mean, that's the usual counter. And that's from the sending government's side. We do not want brain drain. I mean, these workers need to come home, because it's a situation where the worker, basically-- we shouldn't lose the worker to the host country.
So there are all these factors, including the very prevalent migration and development discourse that, in a sense, suggest, as we see in the statistics, that temporary migrations are on the rise across the world. So it's not unique to Asia, although it is very, very prevalent in Asia.
TOM PEPINSKY: So we'll do [? Angus, ?] and then-- get your hands nice and high so we can see. Angus, please.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. I'm curious about two things. First, religion, religious convictions-- in the minds of the would-be migrants, do they play into this? And how so?
Ideas about this life, the next life, after life, next generation? It seems that ought to have some place in this for the migrants. I'm curious about what you have found about that.
The other thing is I have a question about-- at one point, on one side, you mentioned voluntary-- women's voluntary migration as breadwinners, or to seek an economic future for themselves as something that is starting now. I had just been reading recently about how that started late-19th century, early-20th century, and how there are many women migrating across this region for their own sake and by themselves.
And yet, I was wondering how that squared with the picture we've had of human trafficking. You read, [INAUDIBLE], sold for [? silver. ?] [? Silver ?] was bought in China, and force-shipped to Singapore to be there as a house slave. So he couldn't have been alone. I wonder if you have some perspective on the ratio, or how to think about this concept of voluntary-involuntary, especially when it comes to [INAUDIBLE].
BRENDA YEOH: Very sort of important question. I mean, I'll try to remember the three points I want to make. One is, religion, clearly, is very important in a migrant's experience, both as a source of sustenance, but also in terms of civil society-- I mean, putting together resources.
And we see that in action, particularly during the pandemic, with various religious groups coming out to offer a different way of what might be called a more ethical relationship with migrant labor. So not just religious groups, but other civil society groups as well, but that is one effect.
At the same time, I mean, I've also seen and interviewed people who would say that their religion provides a sustenance and, in a sense, increases their tolerance to exploitative conditions. So it can, in a sense, cut both ways.
The second point I want to make is female migration-- something that only started in the last few decades-- definitely no. We know that in the 19th century, migrants were already on the move in different ways. And in Singapore, for example, the earlier domestic labor tends to be the [? black ?] and [? white ?] [? ammas, ?] the Malaysian servant girl that comes across Singapore to work.
And when these sources dried up, so to speak, the government then put in place this temporary migrant migration regime to bring in domestic workers, first from the Philippines, and then Indonesia, and now, increasingly, Myanmar. So it certainly has its roots in history. I guess I would say that this time around, the difference is that it's highly commercially brokered.
And that leads to my sort of segue into your third question-- is this human trafficking? I would say, no. And I don't believe that the discourse of human trafficking is going to help in better conditions for these women who are economic migrants.
Certainly, there is a sense of-- this question, as to whether it's voluntary or forced, is, of course, neither one or the other. There are elements of it. I think the key to understanding this has to do with the indebtedness that is very much part of the system.
So I would go as far as to say that I don't think of this in terms of modern slavery. I do think of this in terms of its parallels to debt bondage. Right? So I mean-- and I see sort of elements of that.
I mean, at the same time-- I mean, maybe I'm just trying to be hopeful. I have interviewed women who, in a sense, despite having to, in a sense, undertake this kind of precarious migration for many, many years, found that it has, in a sense, improved their circumstances, much more so than, say, their non-migrant counterparts.
So the cost and gains of migration, I think, are very delicately balanced. Very difficult to come up with a definitive statement. But I think the question as to whether there is a pathway to migrate out of poverty is an important one.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] talk a little bit about the societies that develop between communities of migrant workers, and whether-- and the relationship between that and maybe a kind of analog to the extended family that the woman gets, let's say. I mean, the classic example [INAUDIBLE] domestic workers in Hong Kong and the kind of society that [INAUDIBLE] And the role that kind of society plays in making up for some of the loss of that home, and I guess, for the [INAUDIBLE].
BRENDA YEOH: Right. Definitely, I mean, the social networks that migrants form amongst themselves, with their coethnics, their conationals, is a very important aspect of their life in host society. So let me deal with that first. And the-- which is why, I mean, when civil society in Singapore wanted to advocate for workers, the first thing that came to mind was to advocate for a day off.
So remember, if you are a domestic worker, you work 24/7. In the past, it used to be up to about-- what, 12 years ago, I mean, it was not guaranteed, your day off. So the opportunities for migrant sociality is diminished.
But now, it's mandatory to have a day off. I mean, it's always been the case in Hong Kong-- there is a day off, because they are under an employment act, so it's a bit different than Singapore and Malaysia. But migrant sociality is very important, because it's a source of information, is a way in which women with issues and difficulties can get recourse.
It's also definitely a very important means of empowerment, and so in that sense, substituting for their family networks back home. For that reason, it's sometimes seen to-- it's sometimes frowned upon, which is why it was so difficult to argue for a day off for migrant workers. Because employers would say, if you let them out, they will then, in a sense, become less easy to control-- so back to this question of temporal control, right?
So that's a short answer to that part of it. Whether family ties survive intact is another major question. And as a qualitative researcher, I can't cite new statistics, but it's quite clear that in the data that we have-- and we follow about 50 families in the Philippines and 50 families in Indonesia over the course of the last decade or so-- that's what I'm basing my remarks on.
The incidences of divorce or family breakdown happen quite a lot. I mean, so I won't say that migration leads to family dissolution. That will not be the right kind of-- that's one of the, sort of, issues often brought up in countries against women's migration. But certainly, it does complicate family life quite a bit. Yeah.
TOM PEPINSKY: [INAUDIBLE]
So we'll go to you in the glasses. And then, we'll [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much. I was wondering if you could say more about this debt bondage and how that impacts [INAUDIBLE].
BRENDA YEOH: [INAUDIBLE] And it's different for men and women, so it's going to be a bit hard to make it simple. So for domestic workers, the idea is, there's a whole chain of agents, right? I mean, say, the Singapore placement agent, the Indonesian agent-- and the Indonesian agent usually have tentacles all the way down to the village.
So for women-- because it's not usual for women to be migrating. So usually, the agent is someone who knows the village well, could even be a teacher, or somebody who's respected, becomes the sponsor. And what often happens is that the sponsor will offer what's called shopping money to the family to release their daughters or their wives.
So this shopping money is often welcome, because-- in times of emergency and so forth. But it's actually not shopping money, because the woman then basically have to pay for it when she basically starts her work in Singapore. And that's through salary deductions of, say, 6 to 9 months.
So for 6 to 9 months of a two-year contract, all she gets is, like, $10, which then increases her precarity and her, in a sense, bondage, because of the debt. So that happens for women. For men, they are not offered money upfront, and they have to pay for the cost of their migration.
So debts happen through borrowing from friends, families-- you know, families will sell their land in order to finance the migration journey of their son to different parts of the world in the hope that this will then recoup money for the family. So it's a different system, simplifying it, but in both cases, indebtedness then becomes a very important control mechanism, as well as one that lengthens the migration timeline. Yeah.
TOM PEPINSKY: Well, [INAUDIBLE] one more question before [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: Thank you. This was such a [INAUDIBLE]. I had a question about the last part of your presentation. So I appreciate you thinking in terms of gender and how differently sons and daughters might think about their mother's migration.
And the example of teaching about the social role of mothers-- obviously, [INAUDIBLE]. But I was wondering, since you mentioned the research, both in Indonesia and Malaysia and the [? Philippines. ?] I was wondering how public discourse about migration intervenes on those decisions about the next generation.
Because as far as I know, in Indonesia, a young woman migrating is still not considered a proper thing to do, but in terms of emergency and dispersion, obviously, you do it. Whereas, in the Philippines, at least, the public discourse seems to be more encouraging, so I was wondering whether, from your perspective, that [INAUDIBLE] or not.
BRENDA YEOH: I think you're definitely right. I mean, the culture of migration is far more embedded in the Philippines. For the Philippines, there are also multiple pathways, more so than for Indonesia.
I mean, there are pathways to permanent residency. And you see migrant domestic workers, Filipino workers, who first go to Saudi Arabia, then to Singapore, and then they head on to Canada to become live-in caregivers, and then try to achieve their dream of permanent residency and reuniting their families there. So it's a much more global pathway.
For Indonesia, they are a bit later-comers in this migration trajectory. The women largely go to Saudi Arabia. They may come to Asian cities. But in general, it's a temporary scheme, and they usually end up back home. They return home.
So in terms of the discourse, definitely. I mean, women's migration is still frowned upon-- particularly, mothers' migration. So I've always wondered how mothers could leave their children.
And the answers I get range from, it's OK. I will go back and give birth to the child, look after the child when breastfeeding and so forth. But when a child turns one or one and a half, it's OK to leave, because as long as there's another carer, because the child doesn't know that much yet.
The point that they want to return usually has to do with a child going to school. Then, they say that mother's presence is important, because the education of my child is priorities-- why I'm migrating anyway. So some of them do try to return during that time when-- yeah.
The social discourse is all about how migrating mothers are bad mothers. You know, migration is a cause of divorce and issues to do with family. And then, there's another set of research that were done on left-behind fathers and left-behind men, and how they, in a sense, cope with their wives now becoming the main breadwinners. So that's for a different talk, but that's to do with how they negotiate masculinities and repackage fatherhood.
TOM PEPINSKY: I know there's more questions. And we're unfortunately out of time for a formal presentation, but there is a reception that begins right now, outside. So if you are not outside [INAUDIBLE].
[INAUDIBLE] to stick around and speak to Professor Yeoh, I'm sure we have lots more conversations to have. Before we go, though, let me [INAUDIBLE].
BRENDA YEOH: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Thank you very much for those interesting questions. I mean, there's so much to do, so please come and do research in South East Asia, so.
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Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Raffles Professor of Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore, delivered the 12th Frank H. Golay Memorial Lecture entitled “Transnational Families and the Temporary Migration Regime in Southeast Asia,” on November 15, 2022.