Migrant Workers, Postcolonialism and Knowledge-Sharing in East and Southeast Asia: Interview with Joyce C. H. Liu

“By sharing experiences and collaboration of research, I think there will be more ways to think about the issues of equity in the global context,” says Joyce C. H. Liu, Chair Professor at the Institute of Social Research and Cultural Studies at the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, in this interview with the Global Research Programme on Inequality (GRIP) on COVID-19 and global inequality.

#11 Miniseries on COVID-19 and Inequality

“By sharing experiences and collaboration of research, I think there will be more ways to think about the issues of equity in the global context,” says Joyce C. H. Liu, Chair Professor at the Institute of Social Research and Cultural Studies at the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, in this interview with the Global Research Programme on Inequality (GRIP) on COVID-19 and global inequality.

We are already seeing how the impacts of the COVID-19 are unevenly distributed depending on where you live, your job situation, age, class position, gender, ethnicity, the availability of health services, and a range of other factors. In this series, we provide short interviews with scholars and relevant organisations that share their insights and views on how the pandemic might exacerbate or alter existing inequalities across six key dimensions: social, economic, cultural, knowledge, environmental and political inequalities.


Photo: Joyce C. H. Liu

In this interview, GRIP has talked with Joyce C. H. Liu, Chair Professor at the Institute of Social Research and Cultural Studies at the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan. Liu is also the Director of the International Center for Cultural Studies at National Chiao Tung University, of the International Institute for Cultural Studies at the University System of Taiwan, and of the International Program for Inter-Asia Cultural Studies at NCTU & UST. Here, Liu focuses on the coronavirus’ effects on inequality in East and Southeast Asia, particularly on the migrant workers, and argues for the importance of knowledge-sharing to overcome global postcolonial legacies.


To what extent could we now see urban inequalities both between and within countries becoming accentuated as a result of the corona outbreak?


The rapid spread of the coronavirus and the high death toll around the world is alarming just by looking up the daily jump of the statistical figures. But, the most striking thing about the corona outbreak, to me, is the magnifying effect of the crude exposure of the most vulnerable infrastructures of each society.


The infrastructure or the base structure here refers to the laborers who keep the city’s functions operative, such as manufacturing, construction, domestic help, service business, food stores, and so on. The massive demand for labor in the urban area requires a large number of low-wage workers from the impoverished countryside or workers from other less developed countries. These workers, either documented or undocumented, are the main labor force that is indispensable for the city. They mostly live in cramped, shanty houses or crowded dormitories, with no clean water supply, reduced environmental hygiene, limited shared toilets, and no private space at all. They are the invisible communities co-existing in the neighborhood, next to the skyscrapers, like a parallel space that does not converge in daily life.


The precarious living and working conditions are even more endangered under the threat of the coronavirus. The recent drastic increase of COVID-19 cases from 618 up to 12693 in Singapore within a few weeks, one thousand up per day, is one clear example. The instances of infections occurred primarily among the blue-collar migrant workers.


Singapore has about 1.4 million migrant workers, mainly housekeepers, domestic helpers, construction workers, and manual laborers, according to government figures, a quarter of its entire population. The city-state heavily relied on these cheap foreign laborers that boosted its economic growth. But, the living conditions of these blue-collar workers, as the migrant workers in other countries, are poorly maintained. According to the report, 10 to 20 blue collar-workers share a room of 45-90 square meters. Social distance is a luxury for them. When the government exercised the policy of quarantine restriction, the cases of cross-infections in the dormitories rapidly rose.


Similar situations also happened to the migrant workers and urban refugees in Kuala Lumpur of Malaysia, Jakarta of Indonesia, Bangkok of Thailand, and Manila of the Philippines. These capital cities of the Southeast Asian countries, due to the massive flow of migrant workers from one country to another, are highly populated with migrant workers. In Malaysia, there are around 4 million to 5 million non-citizens, that is, migrant workers, refugees and undocumented migrant workers. The lockdown started from March 16 and continues through May 15. During the lockdown or the Movement Control Policy, these non-citizens were hit the most because, in addition to the high risk of contagion in the dormitories or slums, they are ripped off their jobs and cannot make their living. When the governments ordered the factories to re-open to avoid a total crash of the economy, however, these disposable people again are the first to be sent to the frontlines.


This bio-politics of make live and let die surfaced to an obscene level. The sacrificable and disposable people are these invisible communities that undergird the vulnerable infrastructure of the cities.


How are the responses to the corona outbreak revealing the reverberations of imperial, colonial and postcolonial histories in terms of how pandemics are thought about? In what ways is the global outbreak of the virus also revealing the underlying political, economic or other drivers of heightening inequalities within a capitalist system?


The line of separation between the life zone and the death zone is no longer merely between the north and the south, the developed countries, and the developing or underdeveloped countries. Now, especially in the time of COVID-19, the borders that separate the livable and the non-livable are within each country and within each city. One clear example is the high death rate among black Americans that magnifies the inequality of the United States.


When I mentioned the vulnerable infrastructures of each society, I was also thinking of the way the local government handled the situation and the laws that stipulate the line of separation. Over the past four months, several characteristic symptoms have exposed the poor management of the governments:

(1) a lack of transparent information and accurate medical knowledge,

(2) denial of the truth and manipulation of statistical figures,

(3) being slow in the right way of response against the spread of the coronavirus,

(4) forcing specific policies to pass when people are forbidden to go out in the streets to protest,

(5) exercising total surveillance to control every sector of the societies,

(6) even using police force to shoot people to death during the extreme lockdown.


Indonesia’s government insisted that the coronavirus did not exist in Indonesia at the beginning of March in order not to stir up panic for fear of economic damage. On April 26, the government claimed that the death toll has reached up to 720, while the Jakarta government confirmed that it had buried more than 1000 bodies due to the coronavirus. Now that the month-long holiday of Ramadan has started in April, Pandu Riono, an epidemiology expert at the University of Indonesia, worried that the coronavirus cases could infect one million people afterward.


President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, continuing his practice in the “War on Drugs,” instructed police to shoot to kill anyone who resisted the government’s coronavirus lockdown. One army veteran Winston Ragos, age 34, was shot dead on April 21 only to discover later that he had a mental disorder.


The politics of denial in Indonesia and the militarization of rule in the Philippines did not begin only in the time of COVID-19. These practices are the exacerbation of the techniques of governmentality in these countries. We have to ask how these forms of inverted colonialism, or internal colonial rule, were legitimated in the postcolonial state.


The highly contagious but invisible virus triggered the fear as well as the aggressively defensive mechanism of people. The unknown target of fear/aggressivity finds its object as the enemies of society with xeno-racism. The racialized outsiders, or social stratification, are the residues of colonial history in the past. It continued in various forms in the postcolonial nation-state in East and Southeast Asia.


Are there experiences from the Asian context that global stakeholders or researchers concerned with inequality should be mindful of?


I cannot say that the experiences from the Asian context, as I have discussed in the previous section, are all recommendable. There are pitfalls in every country. In South Korea, the COVID-19 cases have amounted up to 10718, with 240 deaths. In Japan, 13943, with 360 deaths.  According to the study carried out by researchers at the University of Hong Kong University’s (HKU) school of public health and published in the Lancet on April 21, the actual coronavirus cases in China should be around 232,000, four times higher than official numbers.


Since the first cases started in December 2019, the Taiwan government was informed about the severity of the situation. Being only 130 km away from China, with more than one million Taiwanese live or work in China, the Taiwan government took the advance deployment of the precaution measures as early as January 20. The Central Epidemic Command Center began to coordinate the response to COVID-19 on all levels, including travel restrictions, border control, disinfection of public spaces, and schools. Taiwan also closed its borders to residents of Wuhan, and other cities of China, including suspending the entry of students from China announced on January 26, which had been criticized as racist and anti-China sentiments. But, because the World Health Organization (WHO) has excluded Taiwan from being a member, Taiwan has to rely on its own judgment and management. On April 26, Taiwan has reported 429 cases, with six dead. Schools continue to run, and there is no city lockdown. People can carry on their regular daily life while observing the precautions, such as wearing a mask in public places, washing hands, and keeping social distance.

What might a global and equitable response to the outbreak look like, and what role can research and education play in this regard?


I would not want to offer any universal proposal as to how to conduct a global and equitable response to the current crisis. But, as a researcher and an educator, I believe that it is essential to continually encourage concrete analysis of different forms of conflict and injustice caused by the fragile infrastructure that creates social stratification and inequality. These various forms of conflict and injustice are frequently the residues of the colonial rule and are transformed and legitimized by the anti-colonial and postcolonial nation-state, and intensified in the age of neoliberal capitalism. People who grew up in their hometown are accustomed to the modes of governmentally and do not question or doubt these unless they can be exposed to different perspectives. The best way to respond to the crisis is to do it through collaborative trans-local research and critical pedagogy.


In our institute, we have students from around the world, not only from East and Southeast Asia, including South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, China, and Taiwan, but also from Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the US. In my classroom, we discuss theories of biopolitics, border politics, colonialism, Cold War regimes, capitalism, and neoliberalism, with various local contexts. I also design units related to contemporary issues, such as crony capitalism, migration, refugee crises, ethnic conflict, religious conflict, land justice, gender inequality, unequal citizenship, vigilantes, etc.


Because of the diverse cultural and political backgrounds of our students, tensions surface in the classroom discussions. These are tensions among different ethnic and religious groups from the same societies, especially in multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and India, and tensions between diverse political backgrounds, such as Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan, even tensions between the former colonizer and the colonized, such as Belgium and DR Congo.


I could see that most students’ educational backgrounds were confined within national historical narratives and they were often not fully informed about the darker sides of the past in their countries. Nor were they always aware how heavily their local conditions were implicated and even determined by the global context. They often trusted wholeheartedly the nation-state that bred them. Their national pride, identification, and even patriotism were fostered and strengthened by the education and information fed them by government and the local educational system. They often did not doubt the legitimacy of their exclusionary ethnic or religious prejudice against other groups in their societies. Even though they might reject racism, they revealed unconscious racist attitudes against certain groups of people without knowing it.


Through readings that related parallel situations in their communities and other countries, however, my students started to realize the complexity of the past. In group reports and classroom discussions, they began to share their diverse experiences and reflect on the convoluted histories of their own countries. More significantly, they started to read studies from different perspectives related to the accounts of their past, and they initiated research projects that deal with issues that came up within a broader geopolitical and geo-economic frame of reference. The results of these projects took form as MA theses and Ph.D. dissertations on topics conceived differently than might have been the case in their own countries. We encourage them to join the research group of “Conflict, Justice, Decolonization” and publish their project of the digital platform.


Recently, some of the students have published a series of articles concerning the impact of COVID-19 on different societies and on various aspects, such as “The Politics of Gig Work in Times of COVID-19,” “The ‘Turmoil’ of Internal Migration in India During the Covid19,” “Violence During the Time of Pandemic: COVID-19 and the Rise of Domestic Violence in Poland.”


The trans-national joint research project on “Migration, Logistics, and Unequal Citizens” organized by the ICCS and awarded by the CHCI-Mellon Foundation also is featuring the impact of COVID-19 on the theme of “migration, logistics, and unequal citizens.” A series of online seminars, workshops, and sharing of NGO activities will be launched on Facebook.


I believe that the intervention has to begin with addressing the local conditions. But, by sharing experiences and collaboration of research, I also think there will be more ways to think about the issues of equity in the global context.