Making a Country out of a Harbor: The Transnational Everyday Life of Migrant Port Workers in Singapore, 1913-1972


Circular mobility to settlement; casual laborer to national worker; citizen back to migrant. This dissertation examines the history of Singapore’s port and the everyday life of its migrant workers as the city moved from British imperial port integrated into the region of Malaya to inexplicable city-nation-state. Port workers’ everyday lives were structured by the flows of migration and capital around the Indian Ocean that underpinned the British empire, defined the relationship between port worker and labor contractor, and produced ethnicized urban and social life. As an imperial port, Singapore developed thick historical connections with other British colonial ports. Chinese and Indian capital knitted together Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bombay and made them the hubs of their respective regions reliant on a constant supply of migrant labor. Previously connected and functionally similar, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bombay began to diverge in the 1950s as the post-war trends of decolonization, the Cold War, and containerization changed their importance as models of Asian urbanism. These trends reshaped working practices, composition of worker gangs, and the urban fabric of the Singapore port to co-opt the transnational lives of port workers into the new nation. Drawing on port authority reports, police reports, kinship association records, and oral history collections, this dissertation intervenes in the historiography of Singapore by showing how the economic miracle of Singapore was built on forgetting the port’s place in the Malay and Indian Ocean worlds and port workers’ visions and experiences of a Singapore that was deeply connected to its region and the liberation movements of the Global South

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Columbia University Academic Commons


This paper was published in Columbia University Academic Commons.

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