So, what did I do during the end of year holidays? Read Women and the Politics of Representation in Southeast Asia: Engendering Discourse in Singapore and Malaysia by Adeline Koh and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, an overview of how gender and representation come together in various configurations in the history and contemporary culture of both nations.
Yet another academic text, I know, but well worth the effort. Adeline and Yu-Mei, in their introduction write: “From the discussion of the Singapore Girl as a neo-Orientalist symbol with global material culture to the analysis of pious Muslim feminism, these chapters illustrate both some of the recurrent, dominant tropes of gender in public discourse on Singaporean and Malaysian men and women. At the same time, they indicate both the depths of these tropes with the public discourse, as well as their limitations.”
I particularly enjoyed reading Simon Obendorf’s essay, “Consuls, Consorts, or Courtesans: ‘Singapore Girls’ Between the Nation and the World” which situates the Singapore Girl as an orientalist figure to “bear hybrid and transnationalized cultural aspects of Asian femininity as part of the nation’s bid to court flows of global capital” and Michele Lazar’s “What Will It Cost You Today?: The Gendered Discourse of Parenting” which examines the Singapore’s government’s representation of parenthood as a social practice. (I read the former on a long-haul Singapore Airlines flight!)
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Adeline and Yu-Mei also edited a special issue of Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific titled Troubling Gender, Vexing Sexualities in Singapore and Malaysia, which serves as a companion text to the book.
The book and the special issue of Intersections began as part of the same project, with the working title Troublesome Women, in late 2009. The co-editors were chatting about Yu-Mei’s research for the book she had just co-authored, Singapore: A Biography, and the conversation swerved to how the book did not focus as much on women as she would have liked.
They “started discussing how it was difficult to write on the subject of women or gender in Singapore and Malaysia studies because there was little secondary research available in book form, and because much of the primary archival material had not been differentiated according to gender or, for that matter, did not contain many narratives from the perspectives of women. At one point Yu-Mei exclaimed, ‘It seems like men would be annoyed by us always wanting to focus on the perspectives of women. It’s like by asking women to be included, we’re being very troublesome. These women-so troublesome! That’s what research on women must seem like!'”
She and Adeline were hoping to put together one comprehensive volume on women, gender and sexuality in Singapore and Malaysia. But “publishers told us that our manuscript was interesting, but it was just too big as one volume and would cost too much to print,” Yu-Mei told me. “Generally, it’s tough getting a publishing contract for a book that focuses only on Singapore and Malaysia, or even ASEAN, as the region doesn’t get that much attention from academics worldwide. So, we split the book into two parts based on subject area: politics and the state for what became the Intersections issue, representation and media for what became [this book].”
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FYI, Women and the Politics of Representation in Southeast Asia: Engendering Discourse in Singapore and Malaysia is available Lee Kong Chian Reference Library (Level 11, NLB).