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NEW FACES OF ASEAN PART 2
Southeast Asia: Contemporary Multi-National Nations
By Dr. Pun-Arj Chairatana
Migration, rules and regulations; diasporas; Mainland Chinese
It cannot be denied that temporary, long-term and permanent international migrations of people have become structural components of the development path of most countries in the world. However, migration and the role that migrants play in development are complex and politically sensitive issues. It is very difficult to generalize the specific pattern of migration in all countries; rather it requires at least sub-regional scenarios to exemplify the different conditions and factors that a diaspora may take. However, whatever the form, migration is one of the markers of globalization and it can be a decisive factor in the success of the societies willing to tap into the potential of international migration. The rise of China as a key economic player in the region will be followed by a new cycle of Chinese migrants influx, while increasing regional integration and globalization will expand the boundaries of job markets and produced changes in the institutions and regulations dealing with migration and that will transform most nations in the region into melting pots of various nationalities.
Southeast Asia is characterized by an uneven economic dynamism. There are push and pull factors that affect people’s movement through the region. Contrary to common beliefs, migration is caused not only by lack of development in the countries of origin. Some of the determinants of migration also include wide gaps in wages and productivity of labor, ageing and the uneven distribution in the region of young workers, state policies on immigration, and dramatic improvements in connectivity. There will be an increasing differentiation between different types of migrants, i.e. businessmen, highly-skilled and knowledge workers, students, mid-level entrepreneurs, low-skilled and unskilled workers, etc.
Given the variety of factors affecting international migration and the increasing integration of the region, every country in the region will be at the same time a country of origin and of destination but the type of migrant will be different and the balance between emigrants and immigrants will differ.
As societies move beyond industrial production as the basis for economic growth towards service sector expansion and knowledge-based activities, their labor requirements shifts from low-skill laborers (often provided through internal rural-urban migration) towards high-skilled knowledge workers. This requires professional skilled labors that many countries cannot internally supply, and accelerate such mega-scale migration. However, the need for unskilled labor will remain as will the influx of large numbers of illegal immigrants.
Indonesia will provide household services workers to Malaysia and Singapore but Philippines will continue to play a major role providing household services workers, caregivers and nurses throughout the region. However, nurses will have less of a presence in countries such as Thailand where the government requires that they speak Thai. At the same time, Philippines (as well as Malaysia) will also play an increasing role in the deployment of highly-skilled workers given that enrolment ratios in the country are quite high and, as in the past, their education system is quite flexible and has adapted to the changing regional and international demands.
Similarly Vietnamese skilled/knowledge workers will likely become more prominent in other countries of the region as economic growth spurs knowledge generation and expansion of service sector.
On the other hand, Thailand, in spite of the large population base, may have problems meeting even their own internal needs for a knowledge/high-skilled labor force. This, together with its ageing population, will increase its demand for foreign workers. Bangkok (and to a lesser extent the touristic areas) already attracts professionals from Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia, as well as a large influx of unskilled laborers (mainly construction). This will only increase in the future although it may be hindered by the lack of protection of migrant workers and a fairly protectionist approach to the migration regulatory system.
Singapore has already taken steps to try to compensate for its ageing population with programs to attract businessmen and skilled labor as well as generous scholarships programs for students from mainland China.
Due to the dynamism of the region, other countries may still have some problems in adapting their systems fast enough not only to international needs but even to their own internal requirements. They will probably continue providing low-skilled laborers to neighboring countries (such as Cambodia to Thailand) but their future development may well depend on their ability to attract (and facilitate) the migration of skilled workers from other countries.
A new wave of Chinese migration emerged in the late 1970s with the lifting of the emigration ban. This, together (at least originally) with the use of links with existing Chinese overseas communities, led to a drastic increase in the number of Chinese youth migrating to other countries.
However, there are some significant differences with previous migrations. As mentioned above, migration is not only a reflection of lack of development. In fact, in many case, development in the country of origin is accompanied by an increased migration so this wave has some new type of migrants, i.e. highly mobile business migrants (including investment migrants and commercial representatives), students and visiting academics (mainly to Singapore), contract workers who have to return to China but often overstay, and unskilled labor migrants and farmers (many illegal). Of these, the first two often lead to permanent migration. Another difference is that many of the new migrants target economically developed areas or countries since improved conditions in their place of origin has led them to higher aspirations for themselves and their children.
It is clear that the socio-cultural makeup of the new migrants is very different from that of the Chinese that went overseas during the colonial period (1.0) or from the post Republic of China migration (2.0), particularly in terms of how they view themselves and how they view their relation with China. While 1.0 and 2.0 are very conservative and try to preserve Han culture, the Chinese Diaspora 3.0 is more flexible, fast learner and cultural footloose, have a strong identity but are flexible and blend in local context. At the other end, from the perspective of China, migrant populations are considered part of the nation and overseas Chinese are now seen as key players in knowledge transfer to the country. This will affect particularly business migrants and knowledge workers who will take advantage of increased connectivity to maintain links with their motherland and become “regional citizens”.
As more countries realize that, in a global world, it is not possible to separate development from migration, the management of the process will take center stage in development policies. Section A.5 of the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint already calls for the free flow of skilled labor by facilitating the issuance of visas and employment passes for ASEAN professional and skilled labor. The Association has already agreed on the mutual recognition of a number of professions including several related to medical services, engineering and architecture. The language barrier will present serious problem for certain countries but will have relatively little impact on countries that already relied on foreign skilled workers such as Singapore and Malaysia. However, it will add pressure to countries with less open migration policies such as Thailand.
Furthermore, receiving countries will be forced to review their legislations regulating foreign workers. Bilateral and/or regional agreements will need to be formulated whereby minimum standards of protection are guaranteed with responsibilities shared by countries of origin and of destination. These will include health coverage, education of children of migrants and protection of human rights. This will have a double effect. On one hand it will help reduce the exploitation of workers, particularly household service workers and unskilled laborers. On the other hand, it will make countries more attractive to mobile migrants (such as knowledge workers) for whom “quality of place” is a key factor in deciding where to migrate.
 Stock figures present certain problems since they show the accumulation of past migration flows, but those flows could have occurred a long time ago. However, migration flows are extremely difficult to capture because of the variety of types of flows and channels to migrate and because a large number of migrants actually remain unrecorded.