Baking a cake requires the right mixture of ingredients, the right consistency, the right temperature, and the right size. Of course, the occasion and preference of consumers determine the type of cake that needs to be baked. Taste is altered even if there is a subtle change in the process. The outcome may not be desirable.
Similarly, crafting a migration policy involves the consideration of different factors such as demography, economy, labour demand and stakeholders. How does this process occur? Who are the stakeholders? How credible and reliable is the data that informs policy-making. Which social and economic needs are priorities?
Answers to these questions differ from country to country, especially in politically diverse ASEAN. Monarchical practices are present in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Brunei. The Philippines and Indonesia are presidential republics. Vietnam and Laos are one-party states, and Myanmar is still in recovery from a military dictatorship. Singapore’s politics takes the form of a parliamentary representative democratic republic. Race, language, and religion further divide the region.
Despite differences, there is a common denominator. Sovereignty is of utmost importance to all ten states. Each state decides its own methods and methodologies of designing policies, without any interference. There is nothing out of the ordinary in a country exercising its sovereignty; it is the essence of a nation-state. Therein lies the challenge in finding common ground; in reconciling policy diversities.
ASEAN countries now supply about 8 percent of the world’s migrants, up from 6 percent in 1995. Intra-regional migration has grown significantly, transforming Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand into regional migration hubs housing more than seven million migrants. Undocumented migrants are on the rise and most migration in the region comprises low-skilled migrants looking for better-paying jobs.
Studies show that there are significant inconsistencies and flaws in regulating intra-regional migrant flows. The losers are low-skilled migrants, including irregular migrants. There is a need for more substantial academic research on migration policy analysis in Southeast Asia. Given that none of the countries has a national migration strategy, more studies have to be conducted on each state’s policy-making process. Why is the cake half-baked? Is process the cause or are the ingredients inadequate?
The researcher is bound to face challenges due to non-transparency, ambiguous legislation and unreliable data. Even if unobtrusive research methods such as process-tracing, comparative analysis and convergence-divergence principles are adopted, applying methodologies to analyse systems that have no proper structure or credible evidence of success, is an obstacle. The research will be compromised but that should not be a deterrent.
Though there is burgeoning literature on ASEAN migration, deep appreciation of how migration policy is linked to education, health, transport, infrastructure, environment and economic policies in every member state is still lacking. Policies cannot be created in silos. Cross-collaboration of government departments is essential for policy alignment. This will ensure that no one policy is compromised by the implementation of another. The migration system theory and the institutional theory would be suitable instruments to frame such policy analyses.
Collaboration among ASEAN states on the standardisation of policies governing the flow of migrants is crucial, but this does not happen at an optimal level. There is a lack of cooperation and coordination between the region’s sending and receiving states pertaining to human mobility. It is not clear why the welfare of 96% of intra-regional migrants has become a secondary concern, especially when this cohort could help ASEAN cope with the demands of the fourth industrial revolution. It is not clear why the flow of goods is prioritised over the flow of the migrant majority.
Different recipes need to be explored to get the most desirable and suitable cake; the perfect formula for the best outcome. Reassessment of ineffective political instruments and arrangements is a necessity. While there is no perfect policy, bilateral trials should be explored as a prelude to regional compromise.