The Malaysian Diaspora

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Obligation and Loyalty: The Malaysian Diaspora

[Ongoing Research - The Linking of Loyalty and Perception. 'Perception' is defined as the degree to which the individual feels whether the existing political system could possibly be a platform that advances his/her interests.]

When I first started out on my senior-year research, I stumbled upon an array of words that in layman’s context would have been used interchangeably without regard nor repercussion: obligation, loyalty, fidelity, allegiance, commitment etc. However, in the academic context, such distinctions become hot spots for academic analysis and banter. In my opinion, the paper that contributed most towards a comprehensive review of such vast territory is a text by Judith N. Shklar titled: ‘Obligation, Loyalty, Exile.’ She too, started off such journey by trying to tease out the differences between political obligation and political loyalty. She attempted to do so via the analysis of exiles.

This is how she defined obligation:

By obligation I mean ruled-governed conduct, and political obligation specifically refers to laws and law like demands. made by public agencies.  We…have a duty to comply with the rules…because it is rational do to so, even though the definition of rationality may be disputed. – pg. 183

And she distinguishes loyalty by saying:

What distinguishes loyalty is that it is deeply affective and not primarily rational. The emotional character of loyalty also sets it apart from obligation. If obligation is rule driven, loyalty is motivated by the entire personality of an agent. When it is a result of choice loyalty is a commitment that is affective in character and generated by a great deal more of our personality than calculation or moral reasoning. – pg. 184

Following this logic, loyalty lacks the legal structural element that spells out the expectation of a given person: what he/she can/cannot do. This deficit makes loyalty much vaguer than political obligation since it relies not on theories of state or philosophy of law but on moral expectations (Baron, 2009).

To be flatly honest, I’m not too comfortable with the way Judith has framed the distinction between these two terms. To posit that obligation could suffer no irrationality and that the allocation of loyalty between competing sources is more about the flashes of personality than shrewd calculation stretches things a tad too far. (Baron, 2009) sums if perfectly by saying:

The basis of any political obligation requires a judgement about whether or not the obligating agent should have obligatory powers and whether or not one wants to abide by obligations demanded. Obligation involves the problem of choice, which involves the problem of agency, which involves more than any rational calculus can provide. – pg 6

To Judith’s credit, she did claim that she had “drawn a shaky intellectual map. It is meant less to be accurate than to throw a lurid light upon the difficulties of my project. (Shklar, 1993, pg.186)” However, let’s for the sake of argument accept them as they are. The most interesting part of her paper [in my opinion], are the illustrations of conflict between obligation and loyalty. She explored this from the multiple examples of exiles drawn from classic texts such as Themistocles and Aristides [both appeared in Plutarch and the former in Thucydides] to modern ones such as the exile of Jews, Captain Dreyfus and the treatment of the Japanese in the USA during World War II.

Her central question was this: How did the agent(s) react when they were betrayed by the state? 

Judith claimed that the act of betrayal freed the agent(s) from any forms of political obligation towards the state, but yet in certain cases, “loyalty can and does sustain obligation. (Shklar, 1993, pg. 187)” Some agents chose to overlook the act of betrayal, but some understandably, resorted to abandon the state.

The Malaysian Context

Though ‘exile’ and ‘betrayal’ are rather extreme adjectives to characterize the Malaysian diaspora, but tune it down a few notches and one would arrive at a rather accurate depiction of the Malaysian ‘brain drain’ challenge [at least a huge part of it]. The World Bank Malaysia Economic Monitor Report (2011) stated that the Malaysian diaspora is heavily skewered towards one particular ethnic race: the Chinese. And this is partly driven by concerns pertaining ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘social justice.’ To put it bluntly: the New Economic Policy. It is a classic example of a divergence between the expectations of the state and the reality that those migrants have to internalize.

@Source: World Bank Malaysia Economic Monitor Report 2011 on Brain Drain [pg. 15 of 150]

One can look at their condition in Lockean terms, Both contracts have been broken, the fist between the members of the society as well as the second between citizens and the state…And for many of them that is what exile came down to. What am I trying to show is that the extent of the rejection determines whether there is, even after the elimination of any obligation, any possibility of retaining some loyalty to the native land. – (Shklar, 1993, pg. 193)

However, The World Bank Malaysia Economic Monitor Report (2011) also claimed that almost half of those who took the survey feel a strong sense of attachment to their country. This raises a very interesting question:

On hypothetical terms, why would a person who has been let down by his/her state [didn't obtain a scholarship when expected to etc.] still maintain a sense of attachment to his/her country? 

@Source: World Bank Malaysia Economic Monitor Report 2011 on Brain Drain [pg. 133 of 150]

Judith nailed it when she wrote:

They have to ask themselves whether the government that betrayed is a tyranny or whether just some of its policies are manifestly unjust, but capable of being altered. Clearly, Dreyfus and the Japanese Americans unlike Willy Brandt and the German Jews had to deal with a reasonably just state, not Hitler. – (Shklar, 1993, pg. 193)

This brings up an interesting point. Loyalty need not necessarily be a question of reciprocity. Instead, it’s a matter of whether remedies could be administered via the political system and whether the agent feels that he/she could play apart in bringing those changes. This means that in the event of an adverse shock, the agents who feel that they could alter the system in their favor would most likely still maintain their loyalty for the nation, as opposed to those who feel that their nation is ‘beyond hope.’

I would suggest that injustice not only cancels obligation and undermines loyalties, however resilient the latter may seem; it also engenders the conflicts between obligation and the affective ties that binds us. – Shklar, 1993, pg. 197

This blog post references:

  1. ‘Obligation, Loyalty, Exile’ by Judith N. Shklar. Political Theory, Vol 21, No 2 (May, 1993), pg. 181-97. Link here. Judith N. Shklar was, at her death, Cowles Professor of Government at Harvard University. 
  2. The Problem of Dual Loyalty‘ by  Dr. Ilan Zvi Baron. The Canadian Journal of Political Science, 2009, 42 (4), pg. 1025-1044.
  3. The World Bank Malaysia Economic Monitor Report (2011) on Brain Drain

Skilled Diasporic Citizenship

I haven’t had the chance to thoroughly go through this Working Paper by Sin Yee Koh titled: “Towards a Theory of “Skilled Diasporic Citizenship”: Tertiary-Educated Chinese-Malaysians in Singapore as Citizens, Diasporas, and Transnational Migrants Negotiating Citizenship and Migration Decisions. But I’ll do so when I have time for I am guessing that there’s a great over lap as to what we both seek to cover. My senior-year research tries to answer these three questions using Albert Hirschman’s framework on loyalty:

  1. Who is most likely to Voice?
  2. Who is most likely to Exit?
  3. Who is most likely to ‘Exit and Voice’, ‘No-Exit and Voice’, ‘Exit and No-Voice’ and ‘No-Exit and No-Voice’?

For those of you who are back in Malaysia this December 14th, she will also be presenting her paper at this conference: ‘ECONOMIC MIGRATION, DIASPORA AND BRAIN DRAIN IN ASIA-PACIFIC’ at University Malaya.

Sin Yee Koh is pursuing a PhD in Human Geography at the London School of Economics. Her research interests are in migration, citizenship and nationalism. Her MSc dissertation examined assumptions underlying notions of citizenship, identity, loyalty and belonging in skilled diasporas’ citizenship and migration decisions. 

Malaysian Diaspora and The Role of National Identity

@Source: Gizmag

Before we delve into the reasons as to the why the stock of Malaysian emigrants doesn’t fit the traditional mould of a modern diaspora, it would be best if we first start with an overview of the term ‘diaspora’ itself. This is important as journalists and academics have employed the word to reference a wide range of socio-political phenomena and institutions, which invariably led to ambiguity with respect to its exact meaning.

In Greek, the term ‘diaspora’ stems from: “speiro” which means ‘to sow’ and “dia” which means ‘over.’ Thus, it is widely believed that the first usage of the term appeared in the Greek translation of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, which refer to the situation of the Jewish people – “Thou shalt be a diaspora in all kingdoms of the earth” (Deut. 28,25). Moreover, the term was used again by Thucydides in the ‘History of Peloponnesian War’ with regards to the dispersal of the Aeginetans. Therefore, the term had been used to refer to the two oldest ethno-national diasporas: the Jews and the Greeks that had resulted either from voluntary or forced migration.

Jewish Diaspora

@Source: GoJerusalem.com Tourism

But due to the development of modern history surrounding the Jews, the term ‘diaspora’ has been used to refer mainly to the Jewish exile existence around the world. In 1975, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defined the term as: 1) ‘settling of scattered colonies of Jews outside Palestine after the Babylonian exile,’ 2) ‘the area outside Palestine settled by Jews’ and 3) ‘the Jews living outside Palestine or modern Israel.’ It was not until 1993 when the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defined the term as ‘the situation of people living outside their traditional homeland.

The key take-away point is that until the end of the 20th century, the term ‘diaspora’ had more often than not contained an ethnic slant. Case in point: the Chinese, Irish, Indian, Armenian diaspora etc. Gabriel Sheffer (1986) defined a modern diaspora as an ‘ethnic minority group of migrant origin residing and acting in host countries but maintaining strong sentimental and material links with their countries of origin – their homelands.’

The Malaysian Predicament

“It’s an over-generalization–in fact, a stereotype–to suggest that a diaspora is a homogeneous community that acts in a unified, self-interested manner. After all, Bobby Jindal is no more Indian than he is Democrat, or Yo-yo Ma is no more Chinese than he is a bass player.” – a comment by ‘gngottawa’ at an article at the Economist: ‘The Magic of Diasporas.’

Viewing the existing diaspora via an ethnic lens makes sense for most nations, especially those whose demographic composition are unambiguously dominated by one ethnic majority. Usually, these nations would require immigrants to assimilate within the nation’s preexisting ‘way of life’ – suppressing the immigrant’s ethnic or former identities in favor of  the host nation’s. A recent paper by Teresa Casey and Christian Dustmann (2010) claims that empirically, there is an observed negative correlation between the ethnic minority and the majority [national] identities. However, it is more convoluted for nations like Malaysia that maintains the structure of a plural society: separate racial groups under a singular political roof (Lee 2004). The most recent public discourse of: “I am a Malaysian first and [ethnicity] second” or vice versa suggests that Malaysia is still a plural society struggling to forge a sense of nationhood.


Having said that, there are insufficient grounds to claim that given the lack of a concrete sense of nationhood, the ethnic minorities’ allegiance lie with their ancestral homelands. But just as a theoretical exercise, let’s assume that this premise isn’t true. This means that a Malaysian living in a host country would have to be tested for three competing identities: 1) the identity of the host nation – how well the immigrant has assimilated into the majority identity, 2) the Malaysian identity, 3) the respective ethnic identity vis-a-vis his/her ancestral homeland. From the Malaysian perspective, it would invariably be much harder to organize and tap the diaspora movement as we would now have to compete with two ‘competitors’ instead of one.

On the other hand, let’s assume that the premise is true. While the ethnic minorities in Malaysia no longer hold any allegiance or affection for their respective ancestral homes, the lack of a national identity still posses coordination issues for Malaysia. If every Malaysian acts in a manner that maximizes the interests of his/her ethnicity as opposed to that of Malaysia’s, it would be particular unpleasant if those interests were polar opposites. And it would be harder to galvanize the Malaysians living abroad under one common umbrella.

The point is this: a successful diaspora in relations to what it can contribute to the well-being of Malaysia can only materialize if it’s well-organized. While complete homogeneity in outlook and interests is not a necessity [it's actually impossible too], the diaspora would certainly benefit from a more coherent national identity that it can latch on as a compass. While there are certain benefits with respect to a plural society, everything comes at a price. It’s good to have  diversity, but let’s make sure the things that differentiates us are not too far apart until they are unbridgeable.

It’ll be a double whammy if it ever comes to that.

This blogpost heavily references:

  1. “Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad” by Gabriel Sheffer, pg 8-13: Clarification of Terms. Gabriel Sheffer is a Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and also the recipient of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Prize for Political Biography. Link here
  2. ‘Immigrants’ Identity, Economic Outcomes and The Transmission of Identity Across Generations’ by Teresa Casey and Christian Dustmann, The Economic Journal, Volume 120, Issue 542, pg F31-F51. Link here
  3. ‘The Transformation of Race Relations in Malaysia: From Ethnic Discourse to National Imagery, 1993-2003′ by Raymond L.L. Lee, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University Malaya. This article is published in the African and Asian Studies, volume 3, no.2. Link here.

Factors Conducive to Diaspora Investment

@Source: Gizmag

Among the most established diasporas are the Chinese, Indians, Irish Catholics [in the USA], and the Armenians. Some of these diasporas took generations to mature from natural migration and some were forced to look for greener pastures abroad due to adverse exogenous factors [e.g. war, economic destitution]. Despite being embedded within the political, economic and social fabric of their host nations, most of these emigrants and their progeny maintain a sense of belonging towards their ancestral homeland. They contributed to the development of their ancestral homes through modest and obvious means. One of them being remittances, which increased the disposal incomes of households and thus creating a multiplier effect via their consumption activities. However, globalization has set the stage for greater forms of economic and socio-political integration between the diasporas and their home nations, such as investment-based contributions [entrepreneurial ventures, diaspora bonds etc.] as opposed to basic consumption-centric remittances.

Thus, this begets an important question: What are the variables that catalyze and promote diaspora investments in their respective home nations?

The first variable pertains the investment climate in the country-of-origin. This refers to a government that welcomes foreign direct investments, a credible judicial branch that protects private property and enforces contracts, an opportunity for the remittance of profits etc. If the investment climate in the country-of-origin is sub-optimal, even the most faithful diaspora would be wary of making substantial economic contributions.

The second variable is the capability of members of the diaspora. Substantial economic contributions from the diaspora could only happen if it possesses a surplus of wealth, some of which could be repatriated to their home country for the purpose of investment. This is unlikely to happen if the diaspora consist primarily of low-skilled labors who would most likely only engage in consumption-based remittances – at least for a few generations to come. An entrepreneurial, wealthy and high-skilled diaspora is crucial towards diaspora investment.

The third variable is the diaspora’s inclination. Diaspora-based investments rest on the assumption that this segment of society are more likely to contribute towards the development of their country-of-origin out of nostalgia, loyalty or pecuniary reasons. Members of the diaspora may be so firmly integrated into their host nations that they no longer feel a sense of belonging with their ancestral homelands. These members are unlikely to provide assistance. Besides that, some members of the diaspora may be disinclined to contribute as they feel that their former homeland does not merit their help. This usually applies to members who were oppressed and treated as second-class citizens.

Case Study: Irish Catholics in the United States of America

In short, from 1820 to 1920, about 5 million Irish came to the United States to escape the great famine back in Ireland. This first wave of immigrants are mostly poor, uneducated and unskilled peasants. However, it was not until World War II did the Irish Catholics in the USA gained the economic stature to make significant investments in Ireland’s economic development. Moreover, circa the mid 1980s, after joining the European Economic Community, the Irish government decided to open its doors to foreign direct investment. The response was a success.

Ireland's GDP (1960-2010)

 @Source: Google Public Data Explorer

However, here’s the caveat: very little of the foreign direct investments were diaspora-centric. Despite having wealthy members in the diaspora and sustained interest in their ancestral homeland, most of them declined to partake in the Irish economic development. One reason cited is that upon the liberalization of the Irish economy, most USA corporations jumped at the opportunity, which resulted in a very pronounced flow of investments towards Ireland. Upon witnessing this, most of the economically-capable Irish diaspora saw no need to make any special contributions, notwithstanding their continuing affection for Ireland.

Ireland’s Foreign Direct Investment (1975-2010)
 @Source: Google Public Data Explorer 

Hence, the crucial lesson: even if the diaspora’s inclination hoovers in the positive domain, the government of the country-of-origin must take active steps in engaging them. The presence of a narrative that involves the diaspora in the long term development of the home nation is absolutely important. The diaspora has to feel that their investment is needed and that it will make a difference in the country’s well-being.

How does this apply to Malaysia?

According to the World Bank in 2011, the Malaysian diaspora is estimated to be a million strong and a third of it consists of high-skilled labor. The setting up of Talent Corporation in 2011 and the public endorsement from the Deputy Prime Minister on the diaspora’s role in Malaysia’s development sets the stage for a promising future – if only it’s done right. As illustrated by the Irish example, tapping into the national loyalty of the Malaysian diaspora is not enough. Economic investments have to make pecuniary sense and that the Malaysian diaspora has to feel that their investments will make a difference. Rampant corruption or at least the perception of it deters the diaspora from making any significant contributions – as it did with the Armenian diaspora.

Malaysia's Net Migration

 @Source: Google Public Data Explorer

But most importantly, the Malaysian government has to start moving away from the bi-modal  “Please come back” rhetoric. This site doesn’t dismiss the government’s efforts in this regard and agrees that there is a place for it. However, this unnecessarily limits the option present to the Malaysian government. A more productive conversation to start will be the ‘Diaspora Option’ – a means of seeking contributions from the diaspora irrespective of their current geographical location. They need not return to make a difference.

Malaysia has got a lot of work to do.

This blogpost heavily relies on “The Factors Conducive to Diaspora Investment: Comparing China, Armenia, and Ireland” by Milton J. Esman from the book “Diaspora and Develpoment: Exploring the Potential.” Milton J Esman served as the Senior Advisor in Public Administration at the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office under the administration of Tunku Abdul Rahman. He is also the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies (Emeritus),  Professor of Government (Emeritus) and  former Director of the Reynaud Center for International Studies at Cornell University. 

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