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NEW FACES OF ASEAN PART 1
The Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia: Driving growth, building virtual nations?
Ma, L. J.C. and Cartier, C. (2003) The Chinese diaspora: space, place, mobility, and identity. Lanham, Maryland; Rowman and Littlefield (Publishers).
Cheung, G. C. K. (2004) Chinese diaspora as a virtual nation: interactive roles between economic and social capital. Political Studies, Vol. 52, pp. 664–684.
A.T.Kearney, Inc. Global Policy Group & Foreign Policy Magazine (2001), “Measuring Globalisation”, Foreign Policy, 122, pp. 56-65.
Krasner, S. D. (1999) Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mak, L. -F. and Kung, I. -C. (1999) ‘The Chinese Diaspora Network: Forms and Practices in Southeast Asia’, PROSEA Occasional Paper No. 26, Academia Sinica, Taiwan, pp. 1–18.
Ohmae, K. (1995) The End of the Nation State: The Rise of Regional Economies. New York: Free Press.
Diaspora; migration; mobility; Singapore; national identity; virtual nation
The word ‘Diaspora’ derives from the Greek verb speiro (to sow) and the preposition dia (over). The ancient Greeks used it to mean migration and colonization (Ma and Cartier, 2004). Although the term originally connoted exodus, oppression, uprootedness, a collective memory of one’s homeland, and a strong desire to return to it one day, today the term is freed from stigma, and refers to groups of people dispersed from their native and ancestral homelands for whatever reason.
This article explores the notion that today’s globalized world has given diasporas unprecedented economic, cultural and political bargaining power, and also, taking Singapore as an example, to argue that the various characteristics of today’s diaspora resemble the necessary conditions of a ‘virtual nation’- signifying an ongoing reconfiguration of power relationships, that erodes the primacy of geography and national frontiers as determinants of economic and political power, in favor of building on shared interests and political, social, economic and cultural alignment.
With today’s mobility of labor, instant global communications, and pervasive access to simple, powerful and secure social networking media, we have witnessed how technology has ended the isolation of Burmese, Hmong, Nepalese, and Chinese political activists scattered throughout the world. Now they are all connected, and from the perspective of any repressive regime— dangerously so. Secondly, we have seen how dissident activists all around the world proceeded to use these media not just to keep in touch with friends and family, but also to circumvent draconian censorship at home. Using new technologies to provide an essential counterweight to regime propaganda, citizens have toppled despots and exposed the systematic oppression of their peoples. As autocratic governments wring their hands at their impotence to control and contain dissemination of “people’s news” from their respective countries to the world, citizens for the first time are able to access global news and critique, and fight their own personal information wars.
Of course, political activism is just one facet of the role of diasporas in shaping life back home. Take Singapore – a nation-state founded on diasporic roots (particularly the Chinese diaspora) as an example. Though Singapore has the highest concentration of ethnic Chinese- 3m, or 75% of its population, Singapore is unique in Southeast Asia in the richness of its ethnic mix— with vibrant, structured communities from countries ranging from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines to the Indian sub-continent. For Singapore, the significance and influence of the diaspora phenomenon has several distinct dimensions, as exemplified below:
The case of Singapore demonstrates the multiple roles and profound social influence of diasporas— extending access to human resources, knowledge, technologies, and markets, and increasingly, in shaping an emerging multicultural identity for the host country.
The multi-dimensional nature of Singapore’s diaspora carries profound lessons for the rest of the Southeast Asian region. For example, Singapore’s other major ethnic diasporas may well exert an uplifting effect in their home countries not just via monthly remittances, but also in terms of exposure to new cultural norms and economic opportunity.
Though hard to measure accurately, the economic power of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia is undoubtedly vast, and by any estimate, comparable to that of individual nation states (Cheung, 2004). The Chinese diaspora is already responsible for a significant proportion of total private sector investment in the developing economies of the region. Cheung and others have characterized the flexing of the considerable economic and political muscle of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia as the emergence of a ‘Virtual Nation’, and certainly, this trend carries implications for regional and national political economies. The core ethos of the virtual nation as an extension of networks leveraging the power of family connections for collective survival and thence to commercial success, is to ‘look after one’s own’, even, perhaps, at the expense of ‘outsiders’, e.g. local communities. Taking this further, we might also assume the virtual nation, as a highly capitalistic organizational structure, to allocate fewer resources to public goods than might its conventional counterpart. Correspondingly, the poor may not benefit from ‘trickledown’ affluence generated by virtual nations, leading to wider income disparities and Gini coefficients.
But with China ramping up its political and economic influence in SE Asia, what will be the roles of these diasporas? It remains to be seen whether they may integrate into the China’s grand geopolitical strategies and aspirations, or perhaps will remain as discrete economic, rather than political entities.