Migrants: Money or multiculturalism, cash or culture, productivity or people?

I have been, and continue to be, troubled by how (im)migrants are portrayed by the media, and by extension, viewed by readers of media, and one could argue, on the basis of how society has made up its mind on the topic. To put it crudely, migrants are valued more for their economic contributions than the multiple cultures and histories they bring with them. All other nuances are lost in the need for quick conclusions in a busy and distracted world.

The economic migrant is a fairly recent construct, spurred by the bigger constructs of globalisation and international trade (see edited book by Trlin, Spoonley, and Bedford (2005) for articles on immigration policy in the 2000s). No doubt migrants and the receiving country are strongly attracted to each other on the potential and promise of financial reward. For migrants, however, the reward is not simply and purely economic. From my own experiences and insider observations, reward can be construed as short-term gains (better jobs, higher pay), longer-term returns (better opportunities for their children), and are often intermingled with other motivations ranging from lifestyle upgrades to escaping political uncertainty. (See Castelli (2008) for an insightful overview of different types of migrants.)

How does one measure ‘contribution’ of migrants and multiculturalism if not by the sure and firm way of dollars and cents?

For the receiving country, one could also argue that the reward is not simply and purely economic. Migrants contribute to the cultural diversity of the nation and enrich the social lives of locals and all residents in the country. The statement I’ve just made is unfortunately more rhetoric than real (something grandiose and admirable enough to be valid), a description, perhaps, of an ideal world that exists in policy and organisational statements signalling inclusion. How does one measure ‘contribution’ of migrants and multiculturalism if not by the sure and firm way of dollars and cents?

In the wake of post-covid rationalisation of immigration, the economic argument still holds strong, if not stronger than before. In a Newsroom article, Professor Steven Poelhekke re-hashes the classic argument for migrants in New Zealand – they do the jobs locals shun (while locals learn how to be more productive), and bring in innovation and patent worthy ideas. The article highlights two extreme values of immigration: low unskilled labour versus high-calibre talent – and appears to welcome them in equal measure.

Another article from the Financial Times reiterates the economic argument but favours one group over the other. It builds its case around Foriegn Minister Winston Peters’ claims that the pandemic has “exposed the problems of building an economy on consumption driven by immigration.” Peters is of the view that relying on high immigration rates to contribute to GDP is ‘unsustainable’ because of the pressure it places on infrastructure, health and education. Instead, New Zealand should focus on a select group of highly skilled immigrants essential to wealth creation.

Interestingly, the FT article contrasts Peters’ worldview with that of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, supposedly “a great advocate of a multicultural New Zealand” by demonstrating hospitality towards migrants. However, apart from the one mention of ‘multicultural’, nothing else is said about multiculturalism. Thus nothing much is known about so-called advocacy for multicultural New Zealand, if indeed there is a specific rationalisation of immigration on the basis of creating a multicultural nation. (Or if my suspicions are right, it’s just too tricky to define and measure.)

… the predominant rationalisation for migrants is that they serve the receiving country’s economic purposes. And in a post-covid recovery state of mind, that surely must be the most important reason.

So putting the two articles side by side, immigration or migration, whether you stick strictly to the definitions of immigration as permanent, and migration as temporary or more mobile, the predominant rationalisation for migrants is that they serve the receiving country’s economic purposes. And in a post-covid recovery state of mind, that surely must be the most important reason.

The case for multiculturalism, while elusive, is suggested in Professor Paul Spoonly’s article for HR practitioners titled ‘Why ethnicity diversity is essential in a post-Covid world’. Spoonley argues that there is an ongoing need for a migrant workforce by providing both economic and cultural perspectives on immigration, but highlights that the cultural perspective is of greater significance.

The economic case for migrants can be summed up as: migration numbers will go down and there is an understandable shift to up/re-skill local workers, but there will still be a need for migrant workers as we can’t fill the gap quickly and efficiently enough.

The cultural perspective that comes after, however, is not strictly a case for ‘multicultural’ New Zealand through immigration, but rather, alludes to the fact that immigration in the past has contributed to a multicultural New Zealand and therefore “ethnic diversity is a major consideration in terms of the current and future economy and labour force of this country.”

Unfortunately, the way ethnic diversity is framed is nebulous – as a ‘consideration’ to promote the ‘viability’ of businesses. What conclusion is one to draw from these words? Reading Spoonley’s argument more closely and inferring the ‘unspoken’, I conclude that companies should hire on the basis of ethnic diversity as opposed to hiring based on the predominant Euro/Anglo culture, and going beyond the existing ethnic diversity policies regarding Māori and Pacific employees. ‘Asian’ is mentioned once as a characteristic of diversity and so if one were to pick that up, that’s one specific group of people you should consider hiring. And the reason for choosing ‘ethnic diversity’? It makes better business sense!

So once again we come back to the tiresome argument, however true and trite, of ‘money makes the world go round’.

So once again we come back to the tiresome argument, however true and trite, of ‘money makes the world go round’. Migrants are good for the economy, whether high or low value migrants, and if migrants have made us more diverse, then we want to make sure we serve our migrant populations and earn their money.

I hope this provokes us into thinking more about (im)migration and (im)igrants; what the big nebulous words of ‘globalisation’, ‘ethnic diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ (to name a few) actually mean to us in our daily lives; and be challenged to think ‘multiculturally’ when it’s easier not to.

A long pause

Hyacinth at the English Wikipedia

Only just last week, life in Aotearoa New Zealand was about being ultra conscious about staying home if sick, washing hands, and being alert to symptoms of COVID-19. From today and moving forward into an indefinite period, it looks like we will have to live in a constant state of heightened awareness and adopt new practices of reduced contact and socialising.

Ordinarily I would be disgruntled at disruptions, upset at being inconvenienced through no fault of mine. But this situation is far from ordinary, in fact, simply extraordinary and unprecedented. It first caused me the typical anxiety about keeping well and protecting myself and my family. But now as the world enters into extreme measures of border control and social directives, my anxiety has turned into more of an uneasy calm. Uneasy because I know the worst thing to do is to be anxious and indulge in panic buying and behaviours; but not ever sure that I am doing enough to do the ‘best’ thing like washing hands and avoiding crowds.

How does one do ‘social distancing’ and keep sane about not being in the company of others? Perhaps my introverted friends welcome the prospect of avoiding the world and all its filth. But for me, I’m trying out alternatives to handshakes and hugs – smiles, awkward gestures and the like. Working from home will be encouraged and while I welcome not having to journey to and fro on the train, I know I will miss the hum of busy minds and bodies about me.

To use a musical term, it feels we have reached a long pause (or a fermata) on a note that was meant to lead on to the next, but holding back for longer than usual. According to the Wikipedia definition, “[e]xactly how much longer it is held is up to the discretion of the performer or conductor, but twice as long is common.” If we are the performers, we take the cue from our country’s leaders, the conductor. Twice as long is probably not long enough, but if we want the music to continue playing, we’ll have to keep on holding the note.

While on this pause, I’ve begun to think about who I want to hang out with, who I could do without, and my obligations to my family if any of us should have to self-isolate. I have learnt to welcome disruption as a way to shine a light on my taken-for-granted values, re-consider knee-jerk reactions, and actually learn how to chill.

For the most part, I would like to be able to meet with people and have conversations. But perhaps they would all soon like to avoid meeting others and making unnecessary contact. And I would probably be persuaded to do so as well. Maybe we do it in the name of self-preservation and keeping the community safe. Maybe we seek solace in avoidance. But we will do what we will be conditioned to do, by political will, by common sense, by social pressure.

May we find the long pause a gift – a gift of restraint to help us become better versions of ourselves when the music resumes.

Adventures of a Note-taking Warrior

Adventures of a Note-taking Warrior

I recently attended the 2013 Joint SELF Biennial International Conference and Educational Research Association of Singapore (ERAS) Conference. I wanted to go more digital in my note-taking so I tool along a Samsung Note 10.1 which includes a stylus. I also had my usual pen and notebook as I wasn’t sure if I would end up going all digital in my notes.

The argument for digital notes is an easy one – more legible, searchable and easily transferred from one digital source to another. But what about writing down notes? Apart from being faster, words stuck on page are just stuck on page.

During the conference, I used Evernote to store my notes. With a premium account, I could work on my notes offline which is important when you may not always have internet access. For me, Evernote has been the best note-taking app/software for desktop, phone and tablet without a doubt. What is not so clear, however, is the best way to make those notes.

Evernote (Photo credit: /Sizemore/)

Here are the results of my experiment with different note-taking ways:

1) Using tablet with on-screen keyboard

Two words: hand cramp.

A non-tactile, flat and smooth surface is really not the best input source. As much as predictive text was helpful, I was still typing more slowly than if I had a regular keyboard. Then there were times when I hit other keys instead of space bar, or when serious mistyping led to incorrect suggestions. In addition, not being able to type fast enough also meant missing some info on the slides when the presenter moved on.

Apart from taking notes from the presentation, I also searched for the presenters, found pages related to them and the main theories and ideas they were presenting on, and copied and pasted the links into my notes. If I didn’t have time to do that, I would just bookmark the sites or save the link directly to Evernote.

All in all, while I captured the notes digitally, I’m not convinced the on-screen keyboard is worth the discomfort.

2) Using tablet with stylus

The stylus was a smooth operator, but a bit too smooth.

The S pen was good for some quick scribbling, a few sentences, but certainly not for anything longer or more complex than that. After taking down a few sentences, I switched back to the keyboard.

The stylus, however, was good for making annotations on pdfs or images. I used two apps to try out the stylus for that purpose: iAnnotate and Skitch. I didn’t do a whole lot of annotations during the conference but will be experimenting more with PDF annotation with iAnnotate in the near future.

So the stylus is good for adding details or comments but not for a long stretch of writing.

3) Taking snapshots of slides

If you can’t beat them, join them.

This was actually the most common way of note-taking at the conference, judging by the number of phones and tablets bobbing up and down throughout the presentations. I resisted at first as I was not keen on having a bunch of photos stuck in my phone. Then I discovered Page Camera in Evernote. I could include my photos of slides in my Evernote notes, whether by importing from my phone gallery or taking the photos directly from Evernote. The tablet was not great for taking pictures of slides, so I used my phone for this.

With the slides in my notes, I could also add comments in the notes, or annotate on the picture of the slide using Skitch. The challenge, however, is to multitask between capturing images and taking down notes. Sometimes I found myself taking down notes but missed the chance to capture the slides.

Page Camera is a great addition to Evernote and I’m looking forward to more enhancements.

4) Taking snapshots of handwritten notes

Have pen, will write!

I ended up using my trusty pen and notebook most of the time for quicker note-taking. But not content with the non-digital nature of physical notes, I took photos of my the pages in my notebook and added them to Evernote.

With the premium version of Evernote, the search function includes picking out text from your images. As long as you write legibly, Evernote can highlight words in those pictures. I haven’t tested this fully, but then again, my handwriting is not the most legible to the human or Evernote eye.

Evernote Smart Notebook
Evernote Smart Notebook (Photo credit: AhBook)

In the end, the winner is …

With the limitations of an on-screen keyboard on the tablet, I think the Mac Air would solve that problem. Personally, I would go for the 13 inch version so I can read documents and long stretches of text more comfortably. I did consider a bluetooth keyboard for the tablet but the weight probably adds up to that of the Mac Air. Furthermore, I’m a heavy user of Mendely to organise articles (PDF documents), and so far, both iOS and Android apps do not have full functionality of the desktop version. So for serious note-taking, I’ll be going the way of the Air.

I’ll also be complementing digital note-taking with snapshots of slides and regular handwritten notes. In fact, I don’t ever think I will give up physical notes. Sometimes, you just want to write and doodle or just not have any clunky devices around. I’m going to get the Evernote Smart Notebook by Moleskin which comes with three months subscription to Evernote Premium (brilliant marketing move!). Evernote Premium is valued at US$7 per month (US$21 for three months), almost offsetting the cost of a 3.5 by 5.5 notebook (US$24.95).

Previously, I didn’t think a physical Moleskin notebook would gel with the digital Evernote but it now makes sense to me, wonderful digital sense.

My Last Class – Reflections on the MAT@USC

My Last Class - Reflections on the MAT@USC

“Please hold while I confirm your passcode. Thank you. Your passcode is confirmed.” That’s the automated message to the virtual classroom I’ve attended every week for 6 semesters in the past two years. As I attend my last class today, I know I will miss that familiar buzz through my headphones which welcomed me to a community of learners from various continents including North America, Europe and Asia.

I started the Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) with the University of Southern California in May 2011. It is a wholly online course and like many others, I was skeptical of how learning could take place. But as I examined the course program, comparing it to other education-related Master programs I could take in Singapore, I was attracted to the subjects it offered, fieldwork requirements, and the convenience that comes with online learning. I could access the classroom from any computer with camera and mic and for me, that meant not having to travel to and from classes, and being able to go home for dinner, attend to my kids, and settle them down to sleep before I stepped into my study.

Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) at USC

The most important part of the program was that it was interactive – real time video conferencing lessons and study group sessions was something that other distance education programs did not offer. (Read more about the Adobe Connect platform that the program used.) While other programs had intensive weekend lessons, the MAT program was paced like a regular program with weekly classes. Like most distance programs, students were required to submit forum postings and term papers, but the MAT program  (as opposed to Master of Education programs) also required students to be involved in fieldwork, observing and video recording classes.

Adobe Connect Meeting Room
Adobe Connect Meeting Room

As I started virtual classes, there were technical glitches now and then but overall, the learning experience was the best I’ve experienced. Most of my schooling experience in Singapore followed what Paulo Freire calls the banking concept where the teacher deposits information into us to be remembered and regurgitated. In the MAT program, on the other hand, true to the impression many have of American education, learning depended on peer discussion and in the process, respecting and embracing the diversity of opinions and ideas. It was liberating for me and I valued and enjoyed every opportunity I had to engage in discussion with professors and classmates alike.

Apart from attending classes, pouring over readings and honing my teaching skills, I spent time with 3 or 4 classmates in study group sessions. In our cozy groups, we clarified our understanding of the readings and concepts, worked on our group presentations, and had fun bonding with one another. Study group was key in connecting me to fellow classmates on a more personal level. I have made friends with kindred spirits and while it is difficult to maintain long distance friendships, I have great hope that we will all meet one another at some point in the future.

As I complete my MAT journey in the Spring of 2013, I have already begun another journey to be a reflective educator and researcher. (Read about my Teacher Leadership Project.) To my professors and classmates, thank you for these two precious years. No goodbyes, just good memories.