Friday, September 15, 2006

Migratory birds, Imaginary homelands

The question of immigrants and immigration was recently a hot topic in Singapore. The island state needs immigrants to supplant its declining population.

Japan is another example but it can't take a recourse like Singapore. Singapore is unique in the region. Like the United States, it is a multicultural society, built with the blood and sweat of immigrants.

In our time, when the world's economies are integrating globally, we are seeing immigration happening on a large scale all over the world.

People are crossing borders in hordes, legally or illegally. Educated youths, generally holders of a Master's degree in business administration, engineers or computer experts from poor countries, and even semi-skilled workers are emigrating to richer countries.

And the rich countries welcome them with open arms for their skills.

But there are also some unpleasant, unwelcome guests.

The British are worried, for example, about workers from Eastern Europe inundating their labour markets. America had to put up a fence and recruit troops to patrol its border with Mexico. Spain's Canary Island is awash with illegal immigrants from Africa.

The core question remains: Why do people immigrate?

The question has vexed me for a long time. Even as a child in a nondescript village in India, I would wonder about this.

Then, my imagination was bound within the territories of my country, India. I would see fellow village folk, short of work, going off to Kolkata and Delhi to work in the mills. Others went to faraway Punjab to work for rich farmers benefiting from a green revolution in India in the 1970s.

Economics was the only reason that could explain this flight of able hands from my village to the big cities or richer places. Places from where village folk could send money to feed the hungry mouths at home.

Years later, I went to Delhi to pursue higher studies. But what did I see? Many of my better-off friends, born and brought up in metros such as Delhi, wanted to go to the United Kingdom, the US or Australia.

After getting their degrees, some went away to the rich countries as foreign students, never to return to India. Universities were their entry points to the workforce of those rich countries.

Later, when I joined the Delhi workforce, I saw many colleagues migrate to Western countries. They never returned.

People from villages and small towns who went to the big cities such as Delhi or Mumbai considered them good enough to find success in, and their parents felt proud of their children's achievements. After all, to find a toehold in a metro within a country of 1 billion people was no mean achievement for most of us.

What about those who seemingly had no complaints; why did they need to migrate?

I guess they had different parameters for success. For many from South India, for example, it became almost a competitive trend to send their sons and daughters to the US or Europe, either to work or study.

THEN I came to Singapore, and found to my dismay that some Singaporeans were also leaving their country.

Why? Over the centuries, this age-old question has vexed many hearts and souls, not just mine.

Let me take you to Russia, to 1869. To the fictional world set by Nobel Prize-winner novelist J M Coetzee in The Master of Petersburg.

The novel's protagonist, an old Dostoevsky (yes, the famous Russian novelist) is summoned from Germany to St Petersburg by the sudden death of his stepson, Pavel. He visits the place where Pavel lodged and muses about his stepson's desire to go to France.

In a discussion with the landlady, the ageing novelist comments: "When you are young, you are impatient with everything around you. You are impatient with your motherland because your motherland seems old and stale to you.

"You want new sights, new ideas. You think that in France or Germany or England, you will find the future that your own country is too dull to provide you with."

Perhaps, now, I vaguely know the reason why people migrate.

Migration appears to be basically a question of survival. But it is not that simple.

On another level, it is also a matter of aspiration. The desire to achieve or to prove something.

There may be hundreds of reasons but one thing is for sure: It is not about money and comfort all the time.

Published in Today, dt Sep 13, 2006.


Zafar Anjum said...

Letter from Christopher Bousigues published in Today (dt. Sep 15) in repsonse to my piece. I reproduce it here:

"The hope of going back never dies

Friday • September 15, 2006

Letter from Christopher Bousigues

AFTER reading Zafar Anjum's comment piece, "Why do migratory 'birds' roost elsewhere?" (Sept 13), I'd like to share my views.

When the home environment is unfavourable, it is understandable why people would want to go overseas and secure themselves a better future. The question is, when your home country offers you the right conditions, why do you still go? I think there are many answers to that.

I left my home country about 12 years ago. I didn't need to. I left with the ambition of pursuing my studies and having some international work experience before going back home, hopefully securing myself a better position.

Today, I have that education (two degrees and an MBA) and I've had the most wonderful experience working and living in 15 countries over six years.

Often, I ask myself why I am still away from home. Should I still be hoping to find the right job in Singapore after I decided to move here last year? My Singaporean girlfriend and her five-year-old son, whose smile brightens my days, are surely the biggest reason why I'm still here. Will I go home with them? When will be the right time? In a not too distant future, I hope.

To answer my own question, I think that when people leave their 'nest' or home country, they are full of ambition, full of dreams, fearless. When living overseas, they experience good and bad moments, all of which make life memorable, and they meet people who eventually change their life.

That hope of going back never dies, but suddenly one is not alone any more. One has responsibilities and one has to find the right compromise for himself and the one he loves."


sami khan said...

Zafar, nice piece of writing. Being an expatriate worker for last 6 years, I can understand the pain of loosing the sight and affection of near and dear ones. The ambition to do more and to achieve more is the self perpetuating force. Money has never been so big factor for any theorists of motivation except few like Taylor. The attractiveness of the goal and the belief in you push you towards any end. Vroom also endorses that...doing more at work or standing hours together in Chanakyapuri for a US visa, all we do to get something we think is imporatant and achievable. But our yardstick of success or achievement in this consumeristic world changes with the time. You get so regulraly influenced by external factors you forget what you are doing...starting with having a good meal to a decent quality life to owning cars and houses to share bonds to world can go upto touring other planet also like Fatma. The search for happiness is unending but the happiness lies within you. Be nice to others, be dutiful and honest with a sense of pride and justice...look inside and care for your family( I mean larger Indian family) and the NEST you have left and your parents and relatives...make them happy thru your efforts in a small way. You live anywhere (even on moon) you will be happy. Don't let DUNIYA enter inside you rather sail with Duniya with an ease. Like a sailor don't let water inside the boat otherwise it will capsize...but he uses it as a medium otherwise he cann't move. SO MOVE with a medium but don't let it be your goal, goal is something else, to prepare yourself for the final jouney.