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Galvez Victoria Francesca (U060290Y)

SE3222: Gender in Southeast Asia


Weekly Reflection Essay: Week 4, Tutorial 1
Topic: Gender, Nation-state and Nationalism
Tutor: Dr Pattana Kitiarsa
Tutorial group: DW1
Tutorial day and time: Wednesday, 10am-12pm
Jeffords (1987-1988), Ong (1995) and, Heng and Devan (1995) relate issues of
gender to nationalism in America, Malaysia and Singapore. Jeffords (1987-1988)
examines how American soldiers in Vietnam forge masculine bonds that foster an
ideology of collectivity. Marking not merely the elimination of hierarchical difference in
the military during war, this ideology extends to embrace a collective consciousness of
America (80). Through the study of Malay womanhood, family and kinship, Ong (1995)
analyses the contradictory social effects and consequences of state policies and Islamic
revivalism in Malaysia. She points to a common concern of the state and Islamic
revivalists - the control of female reproductive roles in maintaining race, class, and
religious boundaries between social groups (159). Heng and Devan (1995) explore how
the problematization of mothers in Singapores reproductive crisis is linked to wider
anxiety over race and class imbalances (195).
In this essay, I discuss two themes. First, I examine how gender interacts with
class and race in nationalist discourses. Next, I highlight the role of gender in the
(re)construction of national histories.
Jeffords (1987-1988) ideology of collectivity draws on gender, class and race.
The army is depicted as a location for the eradication of social, class, ethnic and racial
boundaries. In addition, the collective consciousness of America functions upon a
structure of differentiation based on gender (80). During battle, lines of division along

race dissolve the fight for survival wiped out colour lines (81). Old definitions of class
expand to include interracial/class brothers (84). Instead, alternative notions of
survival, humanity, brotherhood and common suffering arise. A bond, exclusive to
the males however, transcends class and race barriers. The masculine bond forms the
basis of the ideology of collectivity and American nationalism. Women, regardless of
class and race, are labeled detrimental to this bond/collectivity. Ultimately, they are antinationalist.
Gender and race figure in Malaysias cry for the protection of female sexuality
and Malay cultural identity. Ong (1995) notes that in official Islamic discourse, male
protection of female sexuality delineates the boundaries between Muslims and wider
society (167). Malay cultural identity is defined within these markers. This cry is timely,
coinciding with the states promotion of capitalist development, out-migration and the
deployment of female labour in the workforce. Such increase womens agency. Male
authority over dating and interracial marriage domains within which female sexuality
is controlled is challenged (176). Both genders then, engage in the negotiation of racial
and cultural identities in Malaysian nationalist discourse.
The preceding discussion shows that the interaction of gender with class and race
is dependent on social context and needs. Boundaries of class and race are transgressed in
war; gender lines are demarcated. Racial markers are reinforced however, in the conflict
between Islamic and state discourses. Thus, gender, race and class boundaries are highly
fluid, malleable to suit social needs. Politically reactive, they are connected to
nationalism American ideology of collectivity and Malay cultural identity where
social solidarity and control are highly priced.

In the (re)construction of Malaysian history, the recovery of umma social and


religious community in dealing with the breakdown in social boundaries that define
Malay group identity entails the symbolic use of female bodies. Full purdah, historically
alien to Malay culture, was donned by women in the dakwa (proselytizing) movement
(Ong, 1995:178-179). Likewise, religious nationalism preached moral forces of wifely
obedience; a nurturing, self-sacrificing role of women as homemakers (Ong,
1995:181). These are invented traditions, ideologies of a patriarchal religion, imposed
upon and perpetuated by women. History was redesigned to cope with the yearning for a
return to utopia umma - amidst the uncertainties capitalism and modernization brought
Malaysia.
Singapore too, has attempted to reconstruct her history. Heng and Devans write
that Lee Kuan Yew, spoke feelingly of an imagined past, when the discipline of female
reproductive sexuality within hierarchal structures was dominated by patriarchs (201).
Fearing intensified danger of contamination by the West, he advocated a retrieval of
core Chinese culture Confucianism (203). Decadent Western values of
individualism, relativism and hedonism coupled with womens suffrage and universal
education relinquished to women some control of their bodies (202-203). Singapores
reproductive crisis was a crisis of paternity on two levels for the father in the family,
and for the paternal state. History was rewritten to control female anatomy in a fantasy
of self-generating patriarchy (202).
Gender in (re)constructing national histories makes both active and passive use of
female bodies. Malay womens donning of full purah and preaching of religious
nationalism points to their active role in reviving umma. Such agency was lacking in

Singapore. Women (and men) had no visibly active role in reconstructing history; the
state employed a top-down approach in its construction of ideology. Perhaps, patriarchy
in Singapore leans more towards state patriarchy, rather than family patriarchy like that of
Malaysia. Gender then, is but a variable embroiled in historical transgenerational
replication missions.

References
Heng, Geraldine and Janadas Devan. State Fatherhood: The Politics of Nationalism,
Sexuality, and Race in Singapore. In Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body
Politics in Southeast Asia. Edited by Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1995, pp. 195-215.
Jeffords, Susan. Things Worth Dying for: Gender and the Ideology of Collectivity in
Vietnam Representation. Cultural Critique. 8 (Winter, 1987-1988):79-103.
Ong, Aihwa. State Versus Islam: Malay Families, Womens Bodies, and the Body Politic
in Malyasia. In Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast
Asia. Edited by Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz. Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1995, pp. 159-194.