The Significance of Mass Migration, and How to Better Talk about it, pp. 8 of 10

Suddenly, India ceased to be the most efficient producer of cotton as Southern USA rose to fill that niche.[xviii] Suddenly, spice ceased to be the main export of the Malay Archipelago as rubber and tin grew to fill that position.[xix] Perhaps these developments that displaced millions during the period is best represented by a visual metaphor - that of the changing shape of a container. Water would naturally flow to fit the shape of a container, and in the 19th century, this was what happened. Old industries died, and new ones rose amidst the massive dislocation of the global economy. Mass migration is situated within such a nexus.

However, the challenge lies in delivering this within the history classroom, and rather than talking about these developments in the language and terms that contemporaries and historians use – such as liberalism, abolitionism, and free trade – this issue should be approached as a simple one of global change. The resources that were in demand, the areas that produced these resources, and the speed and cost of moving these goods around have all changed dramatically over the 19th century. These changes meant that new jobs opened up in some places, while old jobs disappeared. This framing in effect tied together all three factors into a single narrative – in effect a world system, to borrow the World Systems Theory of Emmanuel Wallenstein. The three factors identified in the syllabus are the evidence of this changing world, and the delivery of this bigger narrative would help students see that the world that Singapore was a part of was indeed changing during the 19th century.

Therefore, by talking about the deeper causes of the movement of people around the world in the 19th century, rather than the surface symptoms, what it would achieve is to give our students a more intricate understanding of the global and interconnected nature of the world in the past, and hopefully give them a frame of reference towards understanding their interconnected world today. This would also help to allow students to understand the context of global migration, which they can keep in mind while they narrow down on the more personal and human reasons of why people moved to Singapore as per the third sub-inquiry question.


It is important for history teachers to discuss migration with greater depth with our students, such that they gain an appreciation for how Singapore was and always will be part of a wider world system, and how our participation in that system will shape who we are. It would be a great pity if we allow this opportunity to slip simply because it seemed too daunting to convey ideas of mass migration and world systems to 13 and 14 year-olds.

The proposed changes to the first two sub-inquiry questions hope to exploit the full potential of the topic of mass migration to Singapore, and engage our students to think about Singapore in terms of its role in a globalized world. It would serve to add a greater degree of nuance to the historical characters who were passing through Singapore, not only in the form of the sheer number of groups who migrated to Singapore, but also in terms of the change in migrant profiles over time. Furthermore, by reframing of the various global “factors” as mere symptoms of a wider changing world, it would bridge the weakest link in the syllabus and better deliver on the forces that drove global migration during this period. Collectively, what this paper hopes to achieve is to better discuss the processes of mass migration in the late-19th century, and give our students a better understanding of the processes that shaped Singapore – as this is, after all, the last opportunity to dive into this issue to any greater depth.

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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