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ICA 2012: Rajiv G. Aricat

Distant Democracy: Mobile Phone and Political Discussion among Migrant Laborers in Singapore

With the advent of various new media, especially the mobile phone and broadband internet on personal computers, the diaspora of Indian labor migrants in Singapore has received a new platform to engage in the political affairs of their home country. Over and above the identities they assume as part of their communication exchanges with host and home society members, these migrants become essentially ‘Indian’ while discussing, and also campaigning for, various governance-related issues of their home country. In-depth interviews were conducted among 31 Indian migrants in Singapore with diverse political ideology and cultural and linguistic backgrounds to understand how they engaged with the politics of their home country while staying outside the national boundaries for long years. Two contexts were identified to understand their transnational political exchanges: a) elections in homeland India, and b) the backdrop of various civil society movements. Findings showed that some respondents used the calling affordance of the mobile phone to canvass votes for the candidates they favored in the elections. Social networking and online news reading affordances of mobile phone and computers were also widely used in both the contexts. However, the affordances were trialed and tested for their efficacy in providing truthful information before they were added to the usage repertoire of the respondents. Although many were aware of the potentialities of the new media to mobilize people under a cause, no goal-oriented use of communication technologies was observed. Much of the churning was virtual, existent only as messages, phone calls and sharing and commenting in social networking sites; political discussion hardly led to political action – like demonstrations or public speeches – in the host society. Yet, the kind of political engagement made possible by mobile phones contributed to the strengthening of democratic thinking among these migrant laborers.

Rajiv G. Aricat is a PhD candidate at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. After doing his masters in Communication & Journalism and Master of Philosophy in Cultural Studies, Rajiv worked in the editorial departments of various media organizations and web portals in New Delhi for half a decade (2005-09). Supervised by Dr. Arul Chib, Rajiv’s PhD research investigates the impact of the mobile phone on the acculturation of South Asian migrant workers in Singapore. Rajiv is a recipient of Strengthening ICTD Research Capacity in Asia graduate award (research) sponsored by the Singapore Internet Research Centre (SiRC). His papers on ethical media practices in India (2010) and the role of the mobile phone in migrant acculturation (2011) won the top-three paper award in consecutive years in the ‘Symposium for PhD students in Asian Communication Research,’ jointly organized by four leading communication schools in Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea.