‘Conversations over walls: Friendship and aspiration amongst low wage migrants in Singapore and Dubai’ by Dr Laavy Kathiravelu, Aug 19

On Monday, August 19th, 2013 Dr Laavanya Kathiravelu will give a presentation entitled Conversations over Walls: Friendship and Aspiration Amongst Low Wage Migrants in Singapore and Dubai. This event is jointly organized with the Singapore Research Nexus (SRN) at FASS. The Conversations over Walls seminar poster can be downloaded here.

Dr Laavanya Kathiravelu is a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. She is currently working on a multi-sited project that looks at everyday diversity across three cities. Her previous research explored labour migration and the urban condition in Dubai. She can be reached at kathiravelu@mmg.mpg.de.

The event will be chaired by Professor James Sidaway and take place from 2:30-4 pm. The venue is the Research Division Seminar Room at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, in the AS7 Shaw Foundation Building, level 6, room 42. The Research Division Seminar Room, 06-42, is in The Shaw Foundation Building (AS7) of FASS, NUS, at Kent Ridge. The address of AS7 is 5 Arts Link, Shaw Foundation Building (S), 117570. To get to the Research Division Seminar Room, walk straight past the restrooms after exiting the elevator, then past the glass door on the left, and one door on the right. The seminar room is in front of you at the end of the corridor.

If you would like to attend, please RSVP with your name, email, and affiliation. Light refreshments will be provided. Thank you and hope to see you there!


Despite being in geographically different parts of Asia, the city-states of Singapore and Dubai share many similarities and affinities. They are both small, paternalistic states that play host to large foreign populations – of middle class migrants from across Asia, as well as an army of low wage transients. The former are desired for the capital, knowledge and networks they bring with them to invest in their host country. The latter group compose an underclass whose presence and contributions often go unacknowledged. Both these non-local populations make up significant proportions of inhabitants of private residential developments in the two cities, as they are typically ineligible for the subsidised forms of housing available to citizens or are engaged as workers within these compounds.

Much of the literature to date has focused on how privatised gated developments reify and augment socio-economic cleavages in the larger societies in which they exist (Atkinson 2006, Caldeira 200;2005, Low 2003; 2006, Wu 2006). The research also focuses on the lack of community in such housing developments, and effectively depicts the atomised and isolated lives of urban residents. This paper, however, complicates that picture in showing how networks of friendship and care exist amongst low wage migrants in gated housing developments, despite constant surveillance and restrictions by employers who often fail to acknowledge the social and emotional needs of this marginalised transient class. Often enacted furtively over walls or when employers are away, they provide important forms of access to support and knowledge. These affective networks are also performed in public spaces of parks, plazas and shopping malls on Sundays, when many get their only day off, but where their presence is constantly monitored. In examining this often overlooked phenomena, this research complicates and thickens older analyses by understanding how certain forms of urban architecture and the increasing privatisation of public space in cities across Asia has led to alternative and often surreptitious modes of seeking sociality for low wage and marginalised migrant populations.

In these interactions with fellow migrants, aspirational desires and motives are often encouraged, explicitly, but also stoked by the levels of consumerism displayed in these prosperous city-states. Employers who engage in discourses of self-improvement add to this. Keen to display the trappings of a growing middle class back home, many low wage migrants engage in processes of remittance, saving and consumption in trying to negotiate and perform their place in the wider city, as well as with family back home. These negotiations are often a source of tension, leading to conflicts with employers, friends and even relatives in the home country.

In examining understudied networks of care and discourses of aspiration amongst low wage migrants in Singapore and Dubai, this research augments and extends our understanding of residential projects and the social lives of residents who live within them. This paper seeks to make contributions to understandings of marginalised migrant populations, public and privatised spaces and the negotiated identities of the popular classes in Asia.


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