The Significance of Mass Migration, and How to Better Talk about it, pp. 4 of 10

However, the syllabus does not achieve its full potential of discussing Singapore in a global context because it did not fully embrace the notion of ‘mass’ in mass migration. For the most part, the textbook and factors identified in the syllabus only peripherally dealt with the ‘mass’ scale of the phenomena, and treated the wave of migration to Singapore as one that is simply based on individuals choosing to depart their homes for countries with greater opportunities. Therefore, this paper proposes the changes to the first and second subsidiary inquiry questions in order to better deliver a more nuanced and informative, and lasting approach to the issue of mass migration.


Sub-Inquiry Question


Role in Overarching Historical Narrative

Who were the people that came to Singapore in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries?

Addition of nuances in the form of: (i) greater diversity within each ‘ethnic group’, and (ii) greater diversity of migrants in relation to the changes in time.

Demonstrating the melting pot dimension of mass migration and settlement, and demonstrating changes in migration patterns over time with potential links to thinking about the current trends in migration to Singapore.

Mass migration in the 19th Century – why did it happen?


What is migration?

Addition of overarching framing to the three factors identified in order to better set a global context as one of a rapidly changing world system.

Demonstrating the changing economic order of the world that served as a series of ‘push-factors’ which drove the entire world on the move during the period, of which Singapore was experiencing a part of that wider movement.

Reasons for coming to Singapore.


Specific pull-factors that made Singapore attractive to migrants during the 19th century.

These suggested changes are made in order to better bring out the key features of mass migration, which are the diversity in migrants in the process of forming new societies, and the global system which drove this migration. The changes to the first two sub-inquiry question will give students a deeper understanding of mass migration, pay heed to the scale of the migration, while at the same time demonstrating the centrality of the global context and plugging some gaps in the current content of the syllabus. This will be explained in the two subsequent sections.

Talking about the characters who moved

The first sub-inquiry question asks the question of “who migrated?” to Singapore during this period, and the textbook identified some of the key groups by geographical origins. These were the Arabs, the Europeans, the Chinese, the Indians, and the people from all over the Malay Archipelago. It is a simplistic model that works well and fits with the prior knowledge of our students, who would be familiar with the Chinese-Indian-Malay-Others (CMIO) racial framework that is used in National Education and other public discourse within Singapore. There are two ways to improve this framework.

We will first have to reduce the reliance on the prior knowledge of our students. The CMIO model was a narrative created for state administration, and has limited utility in the historical classroom. We should be focusing on the flip side of the migration coin, of Singapore as a melting pot of influences from around the world. In order to tell the story of a melting pot, demonstrating nuances and changes in migrant profiles over time is a useful method.

In order to add nuance, it would be to stress on the sub-groups within the CMIO model. For instance, the people who migrated never fully thought of themselves as Chinese or Indians, but rather felt greater allegiance to their sub-ethnicities.  This was rightly hinted at in the textbook, but was seriously underdeveloped. It would be useful to unpack these groups into their further sub-groups - to speak of the Hokkiens, Hakka, Teochew, Javanese, Padangese, Tamils, Bengalis, and Sinhalese rather than of Chinese, Malay, and Indian. In doing so, we would be encouraging our students to consider the meeting of many worlds in Singapore, an essential feature of migration.[ix]

One of the things that struck me when I was sharing about the Chinese secret society and communal riots of the 19th century, such as the Penang Riot of 1854, or the Singapore Post Office Riot of 1876, was that students and adults alike would often wonder why were the Hokkiens rioting against the Teochews. It was at some point where I realised that not even with the suspension of disbelief in a historical classroom could students imagine their subtle ethno-lingusitic differences to be sufficient reasons to clash with each other. This is the opportunity within the syllabus to present this element, and set the stage for students to understand unit three of the lower secondary history syllabus, about life in colonial Singapore.

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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