Friday, September 15, 2006

Migratory birds, Imaginary homelands

The question of immigrants and immigration was recently a hot topic in Singapore. The island state needs immigrants to supplant its declining population.

Japan is another example but it can't take a recourse like Singapore. Singapore is unique in the region. Like the United States, it is a multicultural society, built with the blood and sweat of immigrants.

In our time, when the world's economies are integrating globally, we are seeing immigration happening on a large scale all over the world.

People are crossing borders in hordes, legally or illegally. Educated youths, generally holders of a Master's degree in business administration, engineers or computer experts from poor countries, and even semi-skilled workers are emigrating to richer countries.

And the rich countries welcome them with open arms for their skills.

But there are also some unpleasant, unwelcome guests.

The British are worried, for example, about workers from Eastern Europe inundating their labour markets. America had to put up a fence and recruit troops to patrol its border with Mexico. Spain's Canary Island is awash with illegal immigrants from Africa.

The core question remains: Why do people immigrate?

The question has vexed me for a long time. Even as a child in a nondescript village in India, I would wonder about this.

Then, my imagination was bound within the territories of my country, India. I would see fellow village folk, short of work, going off to Kolkata and Delhi to work in the mills. Others went to faraway Punjab to work for rich farmers benefiting from a green revolution in India in the 1970s.

Economics was the only reason that could explain this flight of able hands from my village to the big cities or richer places. Places from where village folk could send money to feed the hungry mouths at home.

Years later, I went to Delhi to pursue higher studies. But what did I see? Many of my better-off friends, born and brought up in metros such as Delhi, wanted to go to the United Kingdom, the US or Australia.

After getting their degrees, some went away to the rich countries as foreign students, never to return to India. Universities were their entry points to the workforce of those rich countries.

Later, when I joined the Delhi workforce, I saw many colleagues migrate to Western countries. They never returned.

People from villages and small towns who went to the big cities such as Delhi or Mumbai considered them good enough to find success in, and their parents felt proud of their children's achievements. After all, to find a toehold in a metro within a country of 1 billion people was no mean achievement for most of us.

What about those who seemingly had no complaints; why did they need to migrate?

I guess they had different parameters for success. For many from South India, for example, it became almost a competitive trend to send their sons and daughters to the US or Europe, either to work or study.

THEN I came to Singapore, and found to my dismay that some Singaporeans were also leaving their country.

Why? Over the centuries, this age-old question has vexed many hearts and souls, not just mine.

Let me take you to Russia, to 1869. To the fictional world set by Nobel Prize-winner novelist J M Coetzee in The Master of Petersburg.

The novel's protagonist, an old Dostoevsky (yes, the famous Russian novelist) is summoned from Germany to St Petersburg by the sudden death of his stepson, Pavel. He visits the place where Pavel lodged and muses about his stepson's desire to go to France.

In a discussion with the landlady, the ageing novelist comments: "When you are young, you are impatient with everything around you. You are impatient with your motherland because your motherland seems old and stale to you.

"You want new sights, new ideas. You think that in France or Germany or England, you will find the future that your own country is too dull to provide you with."

Perhaps, now, I vaguely know the reason why people migrate.

Migration appears to be basically a question of survival. But it is not that simple.

On another level, it is also a matter of aspiration. The desire to achieve or to prove something.

There may be hundreds of reasons but one thing is for sure: It is not about money and comfort all the time.

Published in Today, dt Sep 13, 2006.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Video Nights with YouTube

Are you a YouTuber?

I did a piece on YouTube for Today/CNA, Singapore. Here's the into:

EXIT Video Nights in Kathmandu. Enter Video Nights with YouTube.

In his book Video Nights in Kathmandu and Other Reports from the Not-So-Far-East, author Pico Iyer set out to explore the impact of American culture in Asia.

He travelled through Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Tibet, Nepal and elsewhere in Asia, and recorded how these societies were making American films, music, food and fashion — among many other things — their own.

That was in 1988.

Fast forward to 2006. Much has changed, especially after came into existence. It was launched last year to host short videos posted by the public.

In a short period of time, YouTube has spawned millions of online gawkers, fondly referred to as YouTubers.

Unlike Mr Iyer, these "armchair tourists" do not have to leave their rooms to meet new people and explore new cultures.

YouTube has started a new online video culture. The Guardian recently named it one of the 15 websites that has changed the world. And its success is evident in the numbers — more than 100 million clips are viewed every day.

Here's more

Monday, September 11, 2006

Colonial Quarters

Colonial Quarters
Originally uploaded by zafaranjum.

I love this view (seen from the Boat Quay side of the Singapore river) and the area close to the colonial quarters of Singapore. A nice place to spend the evening.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz

It was sad to know that Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz passed away on August 29. He was 95.

Naguib lived a long life, almost a century long and his ouvre as a writer is quite impressive, both in quality and quantity--35 novels, 20 film scripts, a dozen collection of stories, essays, etc. But he will always be remembered for his Cairo Trilogy.

"GREAT writers often seem to haunt their cities. Joyce and Kafka remain ghostly figures on the streets of Dublin and Prague, and the elfin presence of Borges is still glimpsed, through cigarette smoke and tango sweat, in the cafés of Buenos Aires. In the ancient city of Cairo, it is Naguib Mahfouz who does the haunting," says The Economist.

While reading his obit in The Economist, I loved this part: "Into his 70s he prowled far across the cityon solitary early morning walks, typically ending up in one of the many cafes where he was greeted as a returning son of the quartier. Into his 90s he rarely missed his weekly gathering of intimates at some public watering hole. There he soaked up the endless tales of woe, the political gossip and wicked jokes that provide the spice of Egyptian life."

How many writers like him are there amidst us? Many writers today live the lives of celebs who come down and meet the hoi ploi only when they have a book to launch.