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Reaching Out To The Asian Migrant Communities

United Future Party Christchurch Public Meeting Monday 29 November 2004

Speaker: Lincoln Tan, editor iBall bilingual newspaper, chair Christchurch Asian Youth Trust

Reaching Out To The Asian Migrant Communities

I have been struggling to understand my position as an immigrant to this country since arriving seven years ago, and more so since co-organizing an anti-racism march in the middle of this year.

We were disillusioned when what we thought was a basic right for all New Zealanders - freedom of speech and expression – was made difficult for us to practice.

In media reports then, the Mayor of Christchurch said we - myself and my two co-organizers (a lawyer and a university lecturer) - were naïve, and called us extremists.

He said the City would be behind the march only if we turned it into a street parade, with members of Asian community groups donning their national costumes - singing, dancing and performing for onlookers.

The Mayor said we should also end the parade with an Asian food festival at the Square.

This, he said, would project a positive image of Christchurch overseas.

We declined.

Racism was the context for the march, and we did not move to this new country to become court jesters.

I remember having a long discussion with my wife the evening before that march.

I was grappling with the difficulties of accepting the two conflicting views given to me by members of my own community – by that, I mean the Asian and other migrant communities.

They fall into two distinct groups:

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One – that we migrants are guests in this country, and that we should just mind our own business. We should not get involve in politics and get on with life. Concentrate on making money, I was told.

This view came mainly from migrants who had been living here for a long time, and are well settled here.

The second – it’s about time we migrants made a stand on things, and for us to stand up and be counted. It is not about being superior, but wanting to be treated equally.

This view came from new migrants who had been here for seven years or less.

That evening, I looked at the faces of my two children, aged two and four, who were asleep then.

For the sake of their future as New Zealanders, I decided I had no choice but to follow the second group’s advice.

If Christchurch is home to me and my family, our views and opinions would have to be heard.

Everyone in New Zealand has the right to freedom of speech and expression, and that is a right that has to be given to every migrant person as well.

Having worked as a newspaper journalist in Singapore, I am fully aware of how this “right” can be so easily restricted.

My first brush with politicians in Singapore was in the early nineties.

I had written a story about one housing estate adopting the rising sun as their symbol in a town called Bedok in Singapore’s East Coast.

Residents were up in arms because it reminded them of the Japanese occupation and some described quite graphically what the Japanese had done to them and their family members during the Second World War.

There was nothing wrong with the story, but there was everything wrong with the timing.

It was then nearing the General Elections, and Bedok GRC (comprising four electorate seats) was a closely contested ward, and one where the governing PAP could possibly lose.

The office of the then Singapore Minister for Education, the late Dr Tay Eng Soon, a candidate for Bedok, called my editor and myself, and mentioned that our publishing license could be at stake if the PAP lost. Page 3

Following this saga, I remembered my editor telling me that in Singapore, there is a clear cut “black and white” in reporting, and even “colour-blind reporters could see that, and that I must learn to stick to right side of the colour chart”.

While I learnt to accept there is black and white in Singapore, I am finding it very hard to understand the many “grey areas” of life in New Zealand.

In many situations, the colour could tilt towards the white if you are non Asian, or towards the black if you are an Asian migrant, as I realized when organizing that anti-racism march.


Forget the commonly used argument that there are over 160 ethnic groups in Christchurch and that there’s no way for political parties to meet the individual needs of each of them.

Migrant communities fall into three distinct groups:

Long term migrants This is a group that had migrated here many years ago. They probably would have received free education and other benefits from New Zealand, and somehow has a sense of gratitude and indebtedness to this country. Their opinions would have been formed within the New Zealand context over the years, and being well settled, this group would be the ones who would be active in community groups, food festivals and work on committees to preserve and promote their cultural roots which they left behind quite sometime back.

New Zealanders are used to having this group of migrants around, and tend to typify all migrants to be like this group.

New migrants This group would have arrived ten years or less. New Zealand’s immigration policy has brought in migrants who are better educated, more affluent and more vocal. They would have been educated overseas, worked in international cities and have opinions that are formed outside of New Zealand. Fresh from their home countries, many would be more interested in establishing business opportunities than participate in food festivals or performances.

New Zealanders struggle to get used to this group of migrants who seem to differ in many thoughts and opinions as themselves.

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Short term migrants The short-term migrants are the international students and those who come here for working holidays. They are treated like outsiders in every sense of the word. Apart from wanting the money that they bring in, little else is wanted of them. Education Christchurch and Canterbury has been talking about setting up a one-stop shop for international students since 2000. Four years on and it is still in the talking stage. The Christchurch Asian Youth Trust, of which I am the chair, was set up to help with settlement issues of new Asian migrants. By default we have been seeing a lot more of Asian students because they have no where else to go. But in doing so, we have been told by the City Council that it would stop funding the Trust as of next year because our work involved fee-paying students, and suggested we looked to schools for funding instead.

New Zealanders and even the migrant communities in general tend not to mix with this group.


For most migrants, there are but two common needs: inclusion and integration.

Political parties and local government can help in both areas – but it should be done in consultation with members representing the three groups rather than adopting the “we know best” attitude.

At this point of time, active engagement by political parties and local government has mainly been with the long-term migrants, and not much with the new migrants and hardly any with the short-term migrants.

Christchurch City Council boasts of having organizations and cultural events to help with migrant integration and settlement.

In reality, some of these have reverse effects.

In October, I was speaking to an elderly Pakeha gentleman called Bob at the Papanui Club about Culture Galore – an event organized annually by the Christchurch City Council to showcase the diversity of cultures in Christchurch.

The theme of the annual event is “celebrating diversity in Christchurch.”

Last year’s event saw participation of about 50 ethnic groups, and is said to have an even bigger participation from the migrant communities this year. However, no Pakeha group is represented in the event.

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Did Bob think Culture Galore was a good way to introduce the many cultures to New Zealanders?


Bob said Culture Galore made him afraid.

He said the event was a “right in the face show of how migrants were coming to New Zealand in such huge numbers and shoving us Kiwis right out of our own home”.

He too noticed the fact that Pakeha were not part of the show, and commented on how migrants and locals seem to be living in separate worlds.

Luke, a friend of mine who was visiting Christchurch from Singapore attended Culture Galore last year.

He thought it was a bit odd that other than a Maori performance, there was nothing else reflecting New Zealand culture at Culture Galore.

Luke said to me: “I cannot imagine attending an event called Culture Galore in Japan, and Japanese culture is not part of it.”

He asked if it was because the Pakeha found it “too degrading” to be part of this event.

Inclusion of Pakeha, who are the majority culture in Christchurch by far, could have resolved a lot of misunderstanding. Efforts should be made to treat everyone who lives in New Zealand as one people.

The Intercultural Assembly (ICA) is another example where representation comprises only migrant community groups and no local ethnic community organizations.

Although problems migrants faced are actively discussed at the ICA, it would achieve little if it does not to include the locals.

Integration is a two way thing, and unless the locals are part of it, the ICA would be nothing more than an organization like the Alcoholic Anonymous, where we (migrants) talk amongst ourselves.

Politicians like Winston Peters have said that migrants who come to New Zealand must assimilate.

He does not talk of integration, but assimilation – a migrant is expected to lose his or her history, language and identity, and become a “born again” human person in the form of a 100 per cent New Zealander.

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This thought may attract support from some factions, especially among the older generation of New Zealanders who fear the face of change

But it is an impossible dream.

Since independence, Singapore has tried to try to get its citizens to forget our ethnicities and be Singaporean. Daily in school, we had to recite our pledge promising fairness for all “regardless of race, language or religion”.

40 years on, Singapore’s first Prime Minister and now Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew admitted that the melting pot idea is idealistic but not realistic.

In Singapore Parliament last week, Mr Lee said: “To forget race, language, religion, culture, it’s just not do-able.”

He said that people by nature, prefer their own ethnic group, and that it would take generations before people can “forget about our ethnic origins and be Singaporeans.”

For myself, I am very much a Singaporean – my past has made me what I am today.

However, my future and the future of my family will be with New Zealand.

Events such as Culture Galore and all the Ethnic events and organizations are good for a migrant’s transition into this new country, because it links them with members of their ethnic group and gives them confidence in being able to showcase their culture.

But there must be opportunities for them to progress to a stage where events and activities are designed to help them integrate.


Not having a common language to forge links between Asian migrants and politicians is also a major issue in New Zealand.

Migrants miss out on news and other reports because many are not able to read English or understand Kiwi English.

Even migrants who speak English in their home country struggle to understand the Kiwi accent, although many of my Kiwi friends would insist that they don’t have an accent - only everyone else does.

Without a common language it is a challenge for politicians to reach out to the migrant community.

This too, I believe, is a temporary one generational problem.

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Let me refer back again to a scenario I am familiar with; Singapore.

Pre-independence and early nationhood years saw Singapore politicians grapple with difficulties in communication and language.

Singapore did not have a common working language, and its people spoke several languages and Chinese dialects – such as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English.

Political parties got around it by having members who spoke a language to be the link between the party and the people who spoke that language.

MPs and party members served beyond their electorate, and served the interest of a particular clan or ethnic community.

In New Zealand, political parties do not engage enough with the Asian community enough to even have many non Pakeha or Maori members.

This is one area that must be strengthened.

Better communication can also be achieved through the growing number of ethnic publications, radio and television stations.

Efforts could be put in to source out the more credible and reliable ones, and utilize them as a platform to reach out to the ethnic communities.

I say this language problem is temporary, because like Singapore, which implemented English as its official working language after independence, communication became much easier after one generation.

In New Zealand too, I believe the children of migrants would be more comfortable with English than their own mother tongue or ethnic scripts in the future.


Dunedin Mayor Peter Chin described the media in The Press last weekend as an organization that “makes their judgement on what they deem to be newsworthy and publish it in a form to the community which may sometimes bear little resemblance to what we thought we said, or what we believed really happened.”

Like the Mayor, many migrants cannot identify with the stories reported in the mainstream media.

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I started a bilingual English-Chinese newspaper iBall a year ago. United Future MP Marc Alexander was the first politician to write an opinion piece in our inaugural issue.

The paper carries the theme “bridging the cultures”, and its aim is to better facilitate communication between Asian migrant communities and the wider New Zealand community at all levels.

This is not a paper to glamorize Asians, but to report news and issues affecting the Asian communities as the mainstream would for the locals.

iBall has been very well received. The Human Rights Commission acknowledged it for contributing to positive race relations in Christchurch in September, MPs have referred to it and its reports in Parliament, and iBall stories were getting picked up by the mainstream media such as The Christchurch Star, TV One and World Television.

We are happy to publish opinion pieces of political parties, and to have them translated into Chinese as well to reach out to the migrant communities.


My wife and two children are currently in Singapore, and I will be joining them later this week for my parents golden wedding anniversary Mass and dinner this weekend.

But Christchurch is home for us.

I was on the phone with my son over the weekend, and when I asked if he liked Singapore, he said: “I like home (Christchurch) better.”

Many of my Kiwi friends complain about things and hanker after better things overseas.

I tell them they are blind in not being able to see the many treasures around them.

Over the last month, I have enjoyed dinner at a café in New Brighton while watching surfers surfing in the sunset, walked along the Avon River watching whitebaiters at work, dived for Paua (abalone), and watched one of the most spectacular concerts under the stars and fireworks display for free at Christmas in the Park.

These are things you can only dream about from where I came from.

Perhaps better integration will help Kiwis see and appreciate New Zealand better through the eyes of a migrant.

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My dream is that migrants will not have to feel that they are second-class citizens, and that politicians would be prepared to listen to the differing and diverse opinions of migrants, especially if they are “pro-New Zealand”.

That migrants can freely express themselves without being accused of intruding and their actions viewed with cynicism.

My dream also is that as New Zealand competes for global talent, it starts looking for them from within the migrant communities who are already within its shores

That politicians talk about the positives that migrants bring into New Zealand rather that just dwell on the negatives to achieve their political gain.

It is my firm belief that political parties need to change their stance on the migrant issue, and to engage them more actively in politics and policy making.

With the growing number of migrants, the ones that win the hearts of migrants will be the ones that win seats in Parliament.


© Scoop Media

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