Modus Operandi

The beginning of a year usually brings hope and a new wave of positivity. 2019 is no exception, though the underpinnings of the promise of a better future are still fervently in search of calm waters to anchor. Those left behind are making sure that they are heard, loud and clear. International cooperation is aimed at eradicating siloed approaches. Inclusive multilateralism is determined to peacefully and firmly challenge populist nationalism. Now, the dominant questions are – Why are people being forgotten? Why is populism taking over reason? Nature’s consistent warnings are being taken more seriously than ever before. The digital revolution is projecting itself with a much louder voice, creating greater unrest. Private investment is the hope of the developing world and China wastes no time in fulfilling its own needs by helping others.

In the backdrop of multiple conflicting and collaborative occurrences, what is the future of migration in ASEAN? Migration policies in the region are likely to be impacted by the rise of the fourth industrial revolution and China’s eager engagement. In an interconnected global environment, it would be unforgivably negligent of the researcher to assume otherwise. At the same time, establishing such links could be challenging, especially when long-term consequences are not visible to the myopic eye – the reason why epistemology, theory and methodology are all the more crucial to developing a sound argument. 

China has sowed its seeds in every ASEAN state through trade, investment and most importantly, the belt and road initiative (BRI). With the exception of Singapore and perhaps Malaysia, most of the region is still developing and therefore desirous of any help available to promote economic growth. China has been volunteering aid aggressively. The great power’s investment and infrastructure projects have created thousands of jobs in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, locals in need of employment opportunities are disillusioned by large flows of Chinese nationals into their country to fill positions. How can this situation be assessed?

Any change in the unemployment rate could shed light on job creation for locals. The national migrant statistics and migration rate would also reflect any change caused by China’s engagement. For instance, if there is a significant increase in migrant outflow after the great power’s entry, it could be interpreted as locals being deprived of their rightful opportunities. This is just one way of establishing a causal link.

Another possibility would be the increase in rural-urban migration caused by improved infrastructure, which could lead to a saturation of labour markets in urban areas and thus, an increased migrant outflow. Member states’ employment rates will play a role in assessing such situations.

A third possibility would be the expansion of job opportunities that increased connectivity is likely to cause. The BRI would open up intra-ASEAN migration to the rest of the world. For an Indonesian migrant worker, making a transition to Kazakhstan or any of the countries connected to the new silk road, would be a greater possibility. He may even prefer and choose to work outside ASEAN because of better working conditions and salary options. Distance would no longer be an issue with the journey made easier and cheaper.

Changes in migration patterns and preferred destinations can be inferred from country migration reports prepared by the IOM and related reports from the World Bank and the IMF. The ILO has set up a migration database for ASEAN states – the International Labour Migration Statistics (ILMS). Relevant data could be extracted from this source as well. Government reports could provide useful information but the data may be backdated, especially in reports from Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

Migrant quotas imposed by receiving states also play a part in influencing regional migration trends. With an abundant labour pool in sending states and limited opportunities, migrants may be compelled to look for work elsewhere. If the BRI indeed has an impact on migrant flows, changes could occur during the course of the project, as well as after its completion. On the flipside, a worsening domestic situation could contribute to an increase in migrant outflow. China’s impact has to be understood, given the present local political and economic context of the ASEAN state.

The fourth industrial revolution has set Singapore on a never-ending pursuit to reskill and upskill its workforce. China has consistently been the front-runner in artificial intelligence and digital technology. With an ageing population, Singapore is limited in what it can do in the far future. Its need for migrant workers is bound to increase with time. China has the intellectual property and financial resources to equip people for tomorrow’s jobs. Given these two potential factors, migrant workers from developing ASEAN states could benefit; if Singapore takes the lead in sharing its expertise and training potential; or if China engages member states’ labour pool for its technological excellence projects. Both are possibilities.

ASEAN reports will provide information on such collaboration, as well as research published by the ILO. If Singapore expands its upskilling initiatives to the rest of ASEAN, the city-state would expect migrant inflow from the countries it has assisted. This would in turn impact its migrant quota, which would have to correspond to the state’s economic needs. Singapore could very well allow entry of more migrants in the future.

Presently, ASEAN’s Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs) facilitate entry of high-skilled workers and professionals. In future, out of necessity, MRAs could be extended to low-skilled workers, who make up more than 95% of intra-regional migrant flow. Such information can be obtained public announcements on policy changes, government reports and reports from international bodies.

If China takes the lead in inclusive upskilling, migrant workers in developing member states could be bonded to work in projects led by the great power; or they could eventually choose to move elsewhere, having more marketable skills. The ILMS and country reports from international organisations, reflecting unemployment and migration rates, could provide such information. National media sources and local research institutions would also be valuable in providing alternative insights.

If migrant flow is altered and traditional intra-regional migration patterns are disrupted, memoranda of understanding and bilateral agreements would have to be modified to accommodate changes. Inflow and outflow quotas may also need to be adjusted. It is pertinent to note that existing migration agreements have not been functioning at an optimal level for most sending states in the region.

The researcher would also have to consider the effects of natural disasters, climate-induced internal displacement, political instability, GDP growth or decline, trade agreements, national debt, foreign direct investment, terrorism and human trafficking while assessing the impact of China and technological advancement on migration policies. Relevant data is readily available in public domains and almost always in the form of grey literature.

ASEAN states may find it more practical to have a common policy facilitating migrant flow at all skill levels, given the coupled effect of China’s engagement and the digital revolution serving as the common denominator. Private investments, labour demand and supply, economic growth, development, demographic needs and technological advancement in member states are interlinked.

ASEAN can continue to be strong, provided it practises inclusive multilateralism. Challenges need to be countered collectively. That is the underlying principle of the global compact for migration (GCM). The impact of China’s engagement should be distributed across the region. Every state should have a fair chance at embracing the technological revolution.

Though political, ethnic, religious, and language diversity is rich in the region, each member state cannot afford to look after only its own interests; it is ill-equipped to do so, be it Singapore or Laos. A regional compact will ensure that no state is left behind. ASEAN should strive for policy convergence, regionally and globally.

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