Turning diaspora into identity | Inquirer Opinion

Turning diaspora into identity

05:04 AM April 25, 2018

Many citizens of Asean member-states (AMS) have left their home countries, whether voluntarily or because they were forced to. They live and work in other AMS or in countries outside the Asean, hewing to their native traditions, culture and talents even as they adapt to their new environments.

Some AMS with pronounced diasporas are:


Indonesia. There are about 2.5 million Indonesians in Malaysia and another 200,000 in Singapore. Outside the Asean, their favorite destination country is the Netherlands, their former colonizer, where there are about 1.3 million Indonesians.

Malaysia. As of 2010, there were almost 400,000 Malaysians in Singapore. Outside the Asean, their preferred country is Australia, where there were about 140,000 Malaysians in 2010.


Myanmar. The biggest human dislocation happening now in the Asean is the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s Rohingya, mostly to neighboring Bangladesh, a non-Asean state but to whose people the Rohingya are closely linked ethnolinguistically. Some have found their way to Malaysia and Indonesia, and President Duterte of the Philippines has indicated willingness to accept Rohingya refugees as well.

Philippines. One in every 10 Filipinos lives or works outside their country. There is practically no country in the world where there is no Filipino. In the Asean, the country with the biggest number of Filipinos is Malaysia (325,000 Filipinos as of 2013). Outside the Asean, the United States hosts the biggest number of overseas Filipinos (about 4 million), followed by Saudi Arabia (about 1 million).

Generally, modern diasporas such as those in the AMS are caused by the need to seek better economic opportunities elsewhere. According to the World Bank, 9 out of 10 international migrants move due to economic reasons. In 2013, migration within AMS reached 6.5 million, or roughly 1 out of every 100 Asean people. Is this diaspora beneficial to the migrants’ home and host countries? Yes, and more important for the region, this diaspora can be the foundation of the regional identity that the Asean seeks and envisions.

In very human terms, the increasingly borderless world of the Asean enables it to build a core community that exhibits
the unity in diversity that is among its guiding principles.

“The diaspora serves as a link between the sending and receiving communities, expands the opportunities to access international financing, and facilitates networking,” says the World Bank.

The Asean tradition of keeping strong family ties keeps the economic and sociocultural exchange flowing both ways, with the migrants influencing their home countries and impacting their host countries as well, and vice versa.

Adds the World Bank: “Migration does not only imply movement of people, but also movement of cultures. Successful assimilation … while keeping the culture of the origin country alive creates a positive environment for the … creation and formation of their new multicultural identity.”


As the Asean marked its 50th anniversary in 2017, it rightfully proclaimed its economic and sociocultural accomplishments. According to asean.org, these include: “the proportion of people living on less than US$1.25 per day fell from 1 in 2 persons to 1 in 8 persons; the enrollment rate for children rose from 92 percent in 1999 to 94 percent in 2012; proportion of seats held by women in parliaments increased from 12 percent in 2000 to 18.5 percent in 2012; maternal mortality per 100,000 live births fell from 371.2 in 1990 to 103.7 in 2012; and the proportion of urban population living in slums decreased from 40 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2012.” The momentum of this progress can be maintained only if there is a sense of ownership and belonging.

The face of an emerging Asean identity became apparent to me when I met a young Filipino honor graduate of a technological university who was about to migrate to Indonesia and apply for Indonesian citizenship. Since my growing-up years, Filipinos had wanted to gain American, Canadian, or Australian citizenship; it was the first time I was actually talking to a young Filipino with a promising career in IT who wanted to be an Indonesian citizen. His reason was practical: He needed to have Indonesian citizenship to work in a state-owned company.

So there it is. Earning well is the primary reason for migration. But along the way, one’s identity gains a regional or global character. Multiplied by millions of other such migrants, “One Identity” can become an Asean reality.

* * *

Roderick Toledo is a freelance communication projects manager.

Subscribe to our opinion newsletter

Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

TAGS: Asean, Asian diaspora, Inquirer Commentary, Roderick Toledo
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.

© Copyright 1997-2022 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.