The Politics of Distribution: Migrant Labour, Development and Religious Aid in Asia
Date : 16 Nov 2017 - 17 Nov 2017
Venue : Asia Research Institute, Seminar Room
AS8 Level 4, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
National University of Singapore @ KRC
Organisers : My (May) NGO
Download Finalized Program & Abstracts

Migrant labour has been viewed as an important factor in growth, productivity and poverty reduction in Asia where rapid economic development has raised many to middle income countries. However, parallel to the growth of these economies has arisen new challenges and tensions as well as continuing underdevelopment (Rigg 2015). This includes what some scholars have identified as the formation of a labour surplus population in many parts of the world, where a decline in small agriculture and new industries generating less employment has resulted in a labour over supply that has made many “redundant” in the global production system (Ferguson 2015, Li 2010). Instead, distributive practices and “relations of dependence” (Ferguson 2015) have increased in the context of not only diminishing employment opportunities but also in uncertain and precarious employment, as is in the case of migrant labour which has often been linked to abuses over working conditions and wages.

In this sense, religious aid is one significant and diverse form of distributive practice. This is particularly the case where the rise in global civil society and non-state actors make up for many of the “structural holes” (Faist 2009) in social services neglected by the State. The absence of the State in this area, particularly in the global South, has led to an opening up of a space for alternative actors to ‘fill in the gap’, including faith-based actors where religious spaces have become simultaneously humanitarian and development spaces. This is particularly the case for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, who as ‘non-citizens’ are often marginalised in their access to formal work and social services.

The conference will engage with Ferguson’s concept of distributive practices (Ferguson 2015) to interrogate whether it is applicable to religious aid in the Asian context as a significant form of contemporary labour. Although having always existed in the form of remittances, kin-based sharing, patronage, “corruption” and relations of dependence on others such as NGOs, distributive practices have taken on a new amplitude within the context of rapid industrialisation and development. The conference will examine forms of contemporary distributive practices in Asia as they are enacted by religious actors, whether through religious aid organisations, religious networks or informal religious giving, within the context of migrant labour. Migrant labour is taken to encompass those who engage in rural-urban migration as well as what are usually assumed to be binary categories of legal and illegal, temporary and permanent, economic migrant and refugee/asylum seeker; in the recognition that these categories are often not fixed but fluid and changing.

It will also interrogate the ways in which religious concepts, traditions and practices affect and constitute relations of dependence, giving and distribution. It will explore whether distributive practices are given a distinct form and meaning by religious actors, and how these are experienced, produced and negotiated by local, as well as transnational actors. It will explore religious conceptions of development, livelihood and human fulfilment which underlie religious distributive practices, and how an understanding of these might shed light on how social inequality and precarity in Asia could be addressed.

This conference aims to bring together scholars and practitioners who are not only critically engaged with the politics of religious distributive practices, but who are specifically interested in exploring a politics of distribution that is grounded in and emerges out of practices in Asia.


Admission is free, and seats are available on a first come, first served basis. Please email to to indicate your interest to attend the conference.


Conference Convenor

Dr May Ngo
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
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Ms TAY Minghua
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
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Contact Person(s)
Minghua TAY