The Significance of Mass Migration, and How to Better Talk about it, pp. 3 of 10

At a personal level, there is something unnerving about the mass movement of people to Singapore in the 19th century. As I researched into this topic, the thing that always bothered me were the silences. The hundreds of thousands of migrants were nameless, and there were no records of their names, and the only record of their deeds were the numbers reflected on the balance sheets of the Straits Settlements Blue Books and Census. Even most school records were not retained to any meaningful degree. It was in such a context where Singapore as a migrant society becomes a valuable asset to the study of our own past. In order to make sense of Singapore’s trajectory, we will have to understand why people from all around the globe decided to move to Singapore in the years before the Second World War, and by pursuing this line of inquiry, we can hear the voices, motivations, and hopes of the generations of sojourners who preceded us.

Therefore, what this paper will do is to first unpack the syllabus design and examine what are the current shortfalls that prevents us from fully exploring the potential of this topic for our students. It will then proceed to suggest two augmentations that can be made to two sections of the syllabus such that we can deliver a more holistic understanding of the era of migration, and more importantly allow students to better appreciate the role of Singapore in this world system that had came to shaped Singaporean society.

Dissecting the current syllabus

Given the historical significance of migration to Singapore, as explained above, and the potential learning points this topic has for us, what are the problems with the current syllabus that prevents our students from appreciating mass migration as the important event that created Singapore, and as the porthole into Singapore’s role in a wider world?

The overall design of the syllabus is sound. It asks the main inquiry question of “Why did people come to colonial Singapore before the Second World War?”, and attempts to address this main question using three subsidiary inquiry questions, which aimed to address the following: (i) who migrated; (ii) why was there global migration during the 19th century in general; and finally (iii) why did these migrants end up in Singapore.[viii] These three questions are logical and does follow on from each other in a manner that would help set the context for students before specifically discussing migration to Singapore in specific. They first identify the actors who were on the move, then ask why were so many people moving to new places in the 19th century, before attempting to demonstrate how Singapore was attractive to some migrants.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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