This weekend, I attend an event at the Asian Civilizations Museum, where there was a discussion on the Arab Diaspora. The highlight of the event involved the launch of a book entitled “Arab World’s Beyond the Middle East and North Africa.” The book, is a collection of chapters written by academics of Arabic decent who studied various Arab communities in different parts of the world like in the USA (largest community being around Dearborn, Michigan), Europe, South America and Singapore.

As can be expected of an event centred around a diaspora, the key theme was that of “identity.” How does one balance between the culture of where you came from and where you are now. Members of any diaspora often find themselves having to make compromises and certain sacrifices. One of the writers of the book mentioned that when his parents fled Syria for the safety of Argentina, they actually gave up their Islamic faith so that they could settle into Argentina more easily.

This brought one of the lines from the Marvel Universe to mind, when Odin, the King of the Asgardians reminds Thor, his likely successor that Asgard is not a place but a people. The scene can be found at: [LINK]

One of the key questions that any diaspora faces is ultimately the question of “identity.” If your born of a particular ethnicity but outside the “homeland” of that people, the question remains, do you identify yourself with a place or a people.

It’s a touchy subject as many Chinese in Southeast Asia and Gujaratis in Africa will confirm. If you are a successful minority, you need to ensure that you are more native than the natives for the simple reason that when things go South, populist politicians will turn on you and blame you for every s*** thing that’s going on. In Indonesia it happened in 1998 during the fall of Suharto. In August 1972, Uganda’s Indian (predominantly Gujrati) community found itself having to flee after generations because Idi Amin thought that stealing from them would make him look better.

So many minorities do take pains that their loyalties are to the country of birth rather than to their “race.” In Indonesia, the Chinese take great pains to make sure they are as Indonesian as can be. Most do not speak Chinese. They speak Bahasa Indonesia as their mother tongue. All of them have changed their names to be more Indonesian. Think of the founder of Salim Group, who was born Liem Sioe Liong but was officially Sudono Salim. In the case of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, assimilation is a question of survival.

Yet, in this day and age of a “globalised” world, we have to ask ourselves if forcing people to choose between a place and people is the right thing to do. Contrary to what today’s populist are telling us, being able to communicate across cultures is actually a vital skill. The only people who get excited about extreme nationalism (the people who talk about one land for one race and so on) are more often than not, impotent layabouts who expect to be fed without doing work.

Let’s start with the obvious point. The world is increasingly interdependent. The countries that you want to be (prosperous and stable) are usually the ones that work to build bridges with other countries. This is true of big countries like the US, where the most successful parts of the US are on the West and East coast which are open to people from all over the world. It is especially true for small nations.

The most prominent example of this, is Israel, which as a population of just under 10 million but a functioning, dynamic, innovation-driven economy. Israel is not only prosperous, but it’s a military power-house. How did they do it. The answer is simple – they nurtured the global Jewish diaspora, which in turn has helped Israel stay safe and prosperous. The American Jewish community is by all intents and purposes but they see to it that Israel has a “friend” in the USA.

China has tried to do something similar with the Chinese diaspora. Early investors in China were the “Overseas Chinese,” in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. However, whilst many of the Overseas Chinese have invested in China, they’ve also kept their ties elsewhere alive, especially when the Chinese government has acted in a heavy-handed manner.

India, prior to its initial reforms in 1990s used to regard Indians who went overseas as traitors to India. The old joke was that NRI used to stand for “Not Required Indians.” However, as India opened up, it prospered and suddenly the Not Required Indians became a very required part of India Inc’s expansion.

Sure, one should always have a degree of loyalty to one’s place of birth and where one grew up. I, for example, am Singaporean in as much as I served national service (combat unit, combat vocation), my family is here and I have a home. However, should this be at the expense of things that might give me a foothold elsewhere? Although I speak Mandarin very badly, why shouldn’t I be able to look for opportunities in the “Chinese” sphere of the world. If I had to operate in China, I would not become any less loyal to Singapore because of it. I believe the same would be true of my ethnic Indian and Malay friends.

I cannot think of a reason for one to be forced to choose between a people and a place. Not in this century of cross-border communications, the digital world and so on. Being able to survive in a cross-cultural world is an increasingly essential skill and being the bridge between nations and cultures can only benefit everyone.


Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.




2 Responses to “Asgard”

  • xoxo:

    But in our CECA-FTA,*NRI* can only mean 2 things?
    Non-Reciprocal India and Not Reliable Indians?

    CECA-FTA is merely a ONE-WAY TICKET FOR NRI (Not Required Indians) to come here as some kind NRI(Not Reliable Indian) FTs?

    Didnt they fake credentials even for jobs at A*Star and didnt they carry DELTA n cause a wild-fire Spread here?

    Only our daft gahmen get conned while conning sgs?

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  • Observer:

    Sometimes, I find the older-generation Chinese Singaporeans’ imagination of China is so different from reality.

    My late grandmother used to tell me Chinese MUST eat rice. But when I visited North China, I see Chinese eating noodles and dumplings.

    And the Mainland Han Chinese no longer pray to idol statues. Sun Yat-Sun used soft persuasion to discourage idolatry. But it was Mao Zedong’s hard punishment against idolatry that turned the bulk of China’s society away from idolatry.

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