Inaugural Metroplis Asia Conference

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

It gives me great pleasure to be here this morning to address this very distinguished gathering. I hold in very high regard the efforts by Monash University, the Australian Multicultural Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in bringing together this esteemed panel of experts whose submissions at this conference will pave the way for future research into the very important subject of migration, especially migration in Asia.

  1. Migration has been a constant and influential feature of human history. Almost everywhere in the developed and developing world, human migration has supported the process of economic growth. In many parts of the world, a long history of migration has enriched cultures and civilisations and contributed to the evolution of states and societies. A fitting example is the presence of ethnic Chinese and Indians in Malaysia who have been instrumental in creating a heterogeneous, prosperous nation. The same can be said of numerous other countries including Australia.
  2. In today’s interconnected world, migration from, within and into Asia has reached unprecedented levels. Any observer over the last three decades would have noticed how migration in one form or another has taken root in the psyche of a large proportion of Asians in assessing their life chances. The forces of globalisation, increased levels of education, enhanced transport and communications systems and the internationalisation of labour markets have greatly reinforced this. Mobility of Asian migrants has been facilitated by the vast migration industry comprising agents, recruiters, transport agencies and immigration officials, and the expanding social networks of family and friends abroad.
  3. Migration is not only increasing in scale but also in impact – both economic and social – and calls for meaningful policy responses. Allow me to explore some of these fascinating, albeit sometimes disconcerting, economic and social impact.
  4. While migration into and within the region takes a variety of forms, migration in search of work has experienced the most rapid growth. Supply-push factors such as poverty, unemployment and underemployment; and demand pull-factors such as insufficient human resources at destinations and higher wage opportunities, are moving workers from low-income to high-income countries and from rural to urban areas. Migration is therefore very much grounded in the disparities in wealth and income between people, and partly functions as a redistribution mechanism. People from poor regions move to where the money is and, through remittances, send it to where it is needed most.
  5. Remittances have been a lifesaver for many economies. China, India and the Philippines are three of the five largest recipients of remittances in the world. In countries like Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, remittances make up a substantial proportion of GDP[1]. Remittances from urban to rural areas in China have lifted more that 400 million Chinese out of absolute poverty[2].
  6. Official remittance figures are, however, believed to be vastly underestimated. This is because it excludes the extensive remitting of money through non-formal channels. In many developing countries, remittance flows are a much larger source of development funds than official development assistance and are more stable and predictable than foreign direct investment. As they are received directly by families, they are more effective in directly addressing poverty.
  7. Labour migration, therefore, seems to be one answer to reducing disparities between rich and poor. However, some have argued that over-reliance on remittances can have negative consequences as well. It can insulate backward sectors such as agriculture from modernisation and reduce the need to industrialise and attract foreign investment. In the Philippines and Sri Lanka, remittances exceed the value of export of goods and services.
  8. In some countries, migration has resulted in a brain-drain. When the best and brightest move out, it deprives countries of the human talent required for achieving economic and social progress. For Malaysia, the brain-drain phenomenon has become a serious concern for policy-makers. There are about 800,000 Malaysians working abroad[3], many of whom are highly skilled and actively participate in bringing new technology and innovation to the markets where they work. They represent the very type of human resource Malaysia needs most to propel its own economy. The Malaysian government is now trying to encourage these emigrants to come home, reversing the brain-drain and creating a brain-gain instead.
  9. In some countries that have a surplus of skills, it has been recognised that professionals in the diaspora may contribute more value to their country by residing overseas. The stunning growth of India’s IT industry is a notable example. The industry thrives on the ideas, technologies, markets, and reputational advice of individuals and organisations in the Indian diaspora. In Bangladesh, one study showed that the money and knowledge acquired by migrants are fuelling a mindset change in the villages of their home country. Consumerism, educational attainment and high-productivity agriculture are gaining importance among village dwellers, where they had not previously existed[4]. The diaspora can also be a bridgehead to expand economic linkages of the home nation. For example, Korean Americans were the bridgeheads for the successful penetration of Korean cars and electronics into the United States market[5].
  10. All in all, labour migration has led to significant net economic benefits for sending as well as receiving countries. Allow me to touch a bit on the social impact of migration.
  11. Since the 1980s, the feminisation of labour migration from and within Asia has become the established pattern. The opportunity for women to earn an income, in some cases, becoming the primary earner in the family, has uplifted the status of many Asian women and engendered life-changing conditions. However, there are concerns about their safety and well-being. Among female migrants from Asian countries, unskilled women predominate, taking up low-wage, low-status jobs that are shunned by local women. Asia is one of the greatest suppliers of domestic helpers, involving more than 2 million workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Since they work in private homes, they are more exposed to exploitation than those working in factories or other workplaces.
  12. There are other areas that unskilled female migrants get involved in that make them vulnerable. The most significant of these is in the entertainment industry and the sex trade. There are numerous reported findings of women being misled about the type of work available at the destination, and they find themselves trapped upon arrival – forced into indentured situations. Their unauthorised status exposes them to oppression and abuse, and prevents them from seeking the protection they need from the authorities. Human trafficking, especially of women and children, has come to be recognised as a scourge in Southeast Asia.
  13. There appears to be a dichotomy between business-friendly borders open to trade, tourism and financial flows and the barriers erected to control the inflow of migrants. Asia is noted as having very narrow front doors that are most welcoming to affluent migrants from developed countries. But a harder line approach is taken against asylum-seekers and low-skilled job-seekers from less developed countries, where high costs and stringent visa requirements are imposed. Confronted with such barriers, irregular migration occurring through backdoors has become extremely widespread. In fact, it is believed that there are as many unauthorised migrants in Asia as authorised ones. And this has a host of implications, not least the forcing of irregular migrants into dark corners of the economy, exposing them to dangers with no welfare protection fallback.
  14. Therefore, it appears that different sets of rules apply to different types of migrants. Highly skilled migrants have the right to family unification while low-skilled migrants do not. Residence and other privileges are granted to highly skilled migrants as a means to retain them, while limited and controlled residence is exercised with less-skilled migrants in order to keep them transient. Low-skilled workers are required to undergo regular medical screening. Low-skilled women workers face deportation should they get pregnant in their receiving countries. No such controls are imposed on highly skilled migrants.
  15. A two-tiered system of rights – between skilled and unskilled – seems to suggest that rights are a matter of privilege. This can send the wrong signals regarding the treatment of less-skilled migrants. They fuel the idea that low-level foreign workers are undesirable and cannot be trusted, thus casting doubts on the acceptance and integration of these migrants into the receiving society, and jeopardising their access to decent living conditions.
  16. The European Union is recognised as the only region in the world in which free trade agreements have been accompanied by a substantial degree of free movement of people. It would have been difficult to fathom three decades ago that the free movement of people between east and west Europe would become a norm. But even in the EU it is not all a rosy picture. Non-EU migrants in particular bear the brunt of xenophobic, often Islamophobic, intolerance. It has created a ‘ghettoisation’ in society, reinforcing exclusion and jeopardising the even distribution of opportunities to all its members. As has been vividly demonstrated, this can lead to tension and conflict that have a significant impact on societal stability.

Ladies and gentlemen,

  1. It is clear that migration has become a permanent feature of most Asian economies. Foreigners are not about to stop arriving at our gates. No matter how tight the controls, motivated migrants will continue to circumvent them, taking the back door entry into countries. It therefore becomes imperative to find effective means to manage migration; in ways that would optimise the economic wellbeing of our countries; and in ways that would address injustices wherever they occur.
  2. As I mentioned at the outset, economic migration is driven by supply and demand factors. And receiving countries are as much reliant on low-skilled workers as highly skilled ones to grow their economies. The way a society handles the fate of its workers reflects the values upon which it is based. If we are to call ourselves caring societies, we must envisage better protection for the welfare and rights of migrants, especially those most vulnerable – those who lack the finances and the knowledge to seek protection of the law. Apathy towards this group would contradict the principles that are claimed to lie at the core of our societies. Those who should be penalised, and penalised severely, are those who exploit, and who force people into modern day forms of slavery.
  3. In formulating migration policies, I believe that consultation and cooperation between states at the sub-regional, regional and global levels are of paramount importance. Such policies have traditionally been regarded as the preserve of sovereign states. But migration is now increasingly acknowledged as a transnational issue. ASEAN, for example, has its Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers signed in 2007. There have been plans to draw up rules and regulations based on its recommendations, but for now it remains a non-binding declaration. At the ASEAN Leader’s Retreat held in Hanoi late last month, Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino expressed hope for the immediate implementation of the declaration to ensure that the welfare of all workers overseas will be given utmost priority[6].
  4. Indeed, a rules-based structure would engender more rights protection and give due recognition to the enormous contribution of migrant workers to their own and their receiving countries’ economies. It can also go a long way in mitigating tensions between member countries that arise from disagreements on migrant worker issues. I believe that the commitment of ASEAN to advance towards a socially-responsible community by 2015 provides the appropriate basis to address these issues on a regional platform.
  5. At the end of the day, the development of migration policies should be informed by high-quality research. Research is integral to unearthing empirical knowledge on the realities of migration and the lives of migrants. It can uncover creative solutions to complex problems. I am therefore very pleased to hear about the Metropolis Asia project. It is in the best interest of governments and regional organisations to access and utilise information and ideas in a systematic manner, not only in the specific area of human mobility, but also in associated areas such as development, security, urbanisation, aid, human rights, social inclusion and social cohesion.
  6. I am certain that the research collaboration initiated by the Metropolis project will serve this need and thus play an important role in the creation of the next Asian miracle – a community of inclusive and caring societies, mutually responsible for the enrichment of one another.
  7. I wish you all a productive conference ahead and every success in your undertakings.

Thank you.

  1. 16%, 13%, 9%, 9% and 8% respectively; World Bank (2008).
  2. Saunders, D. (2010), “Arrival City- How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping our World” (London: William Heinemann) p. 112.
  3. The Star, “Driven to Greener Pastures”, 17 October 2010
  4. Siddiqui, Tasneem (2003), “Migration as a Livelihood Strategy of the Poor: The Bangladesh Case” from the Regional Conference on Migration, Development and Pro-poor Policy Chices in Asia.
  5. Hugo, G. (2005), “Migration in the Asia-Pacific Region”, a paper prepared for the Policy Analysis and Research Programme of the Global Commission on International Migration.
  6. Statement by President Benigno Aquino during the ASEAN Leaders’ Retreat, Hanoi, Vietnam, 28 October 2010;
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