The Significance of Mass Migration, and How to Better Talk about it


Why should we place an emphasis on the wave of mass migration to Singapore in the years before the Second World War? Singaporeans who have gone through the local education system would know very well about the mass movement of people to the island after the coming of the British. Their pre-existing understandings are likely to have been forged by a symbiotic combination of National Education messages and the popular media portrayals of the period. Local drama serials such as The Awakening (1984) and The Price of Peace (1997) proved to have a significant and enduring impact on the popular memory of Singaporeans regarding the narratives of mass migration to Singapore. [i] One enduring narrative, reinforced every National Day, was that migrants came to Singapore in search of a better life, and together they built a shining city on the hill, and whose fruits of labour we are still enjoying. An appreciation of the achievements of our forefathers plays an important role in the process of nation-building, for instance, by providing younger Singaporeans with something they can feel proud of. Mass migration is therefore the bedrock upon which the Singapore Story was built.

Singapore and the wider world system

There is much validity in this narrative. It is true that Singapore was a migrant society that was made up of thousands of men and women seeking a better life. However, in the context of a history classroom, we should aspire to go beyond that narrative and give our students a deeper understanding of the complex global forces that were at work which drove Singapore’s founding, and triggered a large wave of migration to the British colony – bearing in mind that this was a wave of migration that was only second in numbers to European migration to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand during this period. [ii]Therefore, it is odd for a society that was built on the back of migration from far and near to not dedicate substantial time and attention to these historical processes that had shaped Singapore’s historical development.


An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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