A new book sheds light on the little studied field of male heterosexuality in Southeast Asia
Given the widely acknowledged lack of studies of masculinity in Asia, the edited collection Men and Masculinities in Southeast Asia makes a welcome and timely contribution to the field. Ford and Lyons have brought together an intriguing set of accounts of heterosexual masculinity in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia and Timor-Leste. Both dominant and marginal constructions of masculine identity are presented in ethnographic accounts. The book challenges the idea that local gender identity constructions are being swept away on the tide of globalisation. It highlights the ways local cultural understandings of masculinity are always framed against the history and contemporary socio-economic realities of the specific country.
Migration for work
The theme of migrant men’s experiences is taken up in several chapters. Steven Mckay and Don Eliseo Lucero-Prisno II’s chapter on Filipino seafarers and Pattana Kitiarsa’s on Thai migrant construction workers in Singapore, both illustrate how marginalised migrant Southeast Asian men work to ‘rescue’ their subordinated identities. These studies demonstrate the ways men construct convincing masculine identities through the limited leisure spaces available to them, especially in the realm of sexuality. This removes, if only temporarily, the sense of racial stigma and socio-economic inferiority they experience in their jobs. It confirms them as manly men. This theme is also taken up in the chapter by Hung Cam Thai on Vietnamese male migrants returning to find marriage partners in Vietnam. Once back home, their marginal labourer status in the United States is transformed through relative economic privilege into a temporary high status class identity. This restores their masculine self-esteem.
Sexuality and male bonding
The theme of sexuality appears again in Ford, Lyons and Williams’ chapter on Chinese Singaporean men’s sex tourism to Batam Island, and in Trude Jacobsen’s chapter on how Cambodian men achieve gender legitimacy and fraternity with other men through the performance of rampant heterosexuality. Both chapters emphasise the group aspect of commercial sex transactions where men bond around conducting and evaluating virile masculine sexual performance. In the chapter on Cambodian men a contrast is pointed out between traditional paradigms of masculinity and contemporary ideas about masculinity shaped by colonisation, civil war genocide and global discourses of hyper-masculinity. In the current context of Cambodia, there are contested ideas about what is taken to be a ‘good’ man, a ‘bad’ man and a ‘successful’ man. Jacobsen observes that a ‘good’ man is unlikely to be seen as a ‘successful’ man. While a good man is morally virtuous, a successful man usually succeeds by abandoning moral virtues by becoming ruthless and arrogant.
Masculinity and violence
Two chapters deal specifically with masculinity and violence. Ian Wilson’s chapter on the achievement of masculine honour among gangsters in Jakarta will certainly be of particular interest to readers of Inside Indonesia. So too will Henri Myrttinen’s chapter on patriarchal masculinities and violence in post-conflict Timor-Leste.
Wilson’s chapter reveals jago (local strongman) masculinity to be constructed around the key tenets of honour, territory and violence. This is far from a recent phenomenon, since the jago was a significant figure in both the colonial and postcolonial history of Indonesia. Preman (thugs) under the control of a local strongman were deployed by political elites to shore up their support and engender fear of dissent. To this end, extortion and intimidation were used, backed always by the threat of physical violence and property destruction. The same practices continue today, especially in local markets, around transport hubs and docks in marginal economic areas.
Violence is the currency of the local jago economy, while territory (whether spatial or symbolic) is the resource over which battles with competing gangs or local authorities are fought. The reputation of the jago is forged in battle and the successful leadership of followers. Reputation is the basis for honour and must be defended. Apparent invulnerability in battle is a vital part of jago identity and reputation. Many locals and followers believe the jago possesses magic powers and supernatural abilities. He can inflict extreme violence on others but not be harmed himself. He has charisma and compels others to do his will. However, as Wilson shows, in contemporary Indonesia the jago’s sphere of influence is limited to the economically marginal area in which he operates. Beyond that he just another socially marginal man who poses a threat to law and order in the rapidly expanding middle class enclaves of Indonesia.
Myrttinen’s chapter on masculinities and violence in post-conflict Timor-Leste focuses primarily on domestic and sexual violence, revealing a society in which male physical aggression is highly normalised. Locals see public and private violence by men as regrettable but an understandable reaction to extreme frustration at the chronic lack of opportunities for advancement. Myrttinen documents the extensive history of institutionalised violence in Timor-Leste back to the Portuguese occupation. The later Indonesian occupation and the bloody struggle for independence further entrenched violence as part of the cultural repertoire for legitimation of masculinities. In present day independent Timor Leste, expectations about education and work opportunities for men have not been met. They are resentful of the political elite and the imposition of the Portuguese language. Myrttinen argues that the prevalence and frequency of gender-based violence signals strongly patriarchal values that are widely social accepted, and are unlikely to change unless an economic transformation takes place.
The final chapter by Lyons and Ford brings together some of these over-arching themes of the book, not in a generalised summary, but in a compelling account of contrasting Chinese and Malay masculine identities in the military in Singapore where National Service is compulsory for men. The authors collected data from Malay men who had seen National Service in the 1990s and early 2000s. The men were keenly aware of the negative stereotyping they encountered. In the context of Chinese hegemony, Malays are implicitly viewed as an inferior race practising a suspect religion. In the military they rarely serve as officers or in high status operational units. Such positions are taken by Chinese servicemen whose loyalty to the state is unquestionable, while basic military duties were ascribed to Malays – inferring a subaltern masculine identity.
National Service is a key site for the continuing construction of Malay disadvantage and distrust in Singapore. Nevertheless, the Malay servicemen spoke about their military experience in largely positive terms that challenge the inference of Chinese men’s superiority. Their physical strength and practical aptitude were a strong source of pride for these Malay men when compared to the perceived physical weakness and scholarly orientation of their Chinese counterparts. The key theme in this chapter is race relations. It also gives a good sense of how men compensate for inferior occupational status by ascribing negative masculine attributes to their superiors.
As an edited collection, this book on masculinities in the region demonstrates an admirable consistency in the standard of writing and preservation of key themes. The reader is shown how Southeast Asian men construct their masculinities in the migrant context, in leisure and sex tourism, in the military, in race relations, and in urban gangs. The merit of the book lies in the diversity of masculine identities portrayed. Southeast Asia is a region in which gender relations are changing at an unprecedented rate. While many accounts of the changing roles of women have been produced, this book is one of few to look at the dynamic gender identities of men.
Pam Nilan (Pamela.Nilan@newcastle.edu.au) is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Newcastle. She is currently researching masculinities and violence in Indonesia.