Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 36 September 2014

Troubling Gender, Vexing Sexualities in Singapore and Malaysia

Adeline Koh and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

    The birth of 'troublesome women'
  1. The idea for this project arose during a conversation in late 2009. We 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.[1] We 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!'
  2. And thus the title was born for what became this project: 'Troubling Gender, Vexing Sexualities.' There are two connotations to the term 'troubling' that we want to evoke. On one level, the term 'troubling' connotes its counterpart 'troublesome', meaning something annoying, irritating and vexing. Difficult children are often referred to as 'troublesome': trying, exasperating, badly behaved. On another level, the term conjures up something deeper and spiritual: disturbing, problematic, taxing—a perspective mirrored in our second adjective, 'vexing'. We argue that gender and sexuality are simultaneously irksome, maddening and disquieting in the writing of Singapore and Malaysia studies.
  3. While we had originally intended to study the ways women have been left out of Singapore and Malaysia studies, we have also paid heed to multiple theoretical shifts within the field of 'women's studies' that have shown that a narrow concentration on 'women' is limiting.[2] Thus we use the terms 'women' and 'gender' to denote interconnected yet distinct areas of study in our special issue of Intersections. Through our focus on 'gender,' our contributors also discuss men and masculinity in their essays, and through our use of 'sexuality,' we signal our intentions to include perspectives on queer, trans and intersex identities and analysis. Our focus on these three terms signifies our attention to the need to describe a variety of identities, and to provide analytical frameworks for studying a range of discursive, economic and geopolitical processes and social movements.

    The place of gender in Singapore and Malaysia
  4. The study of gender in East and South Asia has expanded rapidly since the 1980s. Within China studies, for example, scholars have begun to draw on fields outside Sinology and area studies, through the influence of debates about gender as a category of analysis, and by conversations about gender in relation to interdisciplinary study both within and outside China.[3] All this has created a very rich dialogue among scholars of different fields within China studies, leading in turn to groundbreaking research on gender in Asia. This has been similarly manifest in feminist work in South Asian studies, where scholars such as Gayatri Spivak and Kumari Jayawardena have introduced the element of gender in feminist historiography and South Asian cultural studies.[4]
  5. In comparison, there is no existing work that extensively examines gender in both Singapore and Malaysia. This anomaly is significant because both countries are well placed to examine enduring questions such as the conditions of accelerated economic modernity arising from colonial influence, and the role that women and gender have played in this development. Located between Thailand and the sprawling archipelago of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia were part of the British colonial empire from the nineteenth century and, as independent nations, first captured contemporary global attention in the 1980s with their double-digit economic growth and accelerated development. Singapore was one of the 'Asian Tiger' economies which focused predominantly on export-oriented growth and performed economic developmental miracles as a postcolonial nation. Both Singapore and Malaysia still enjoy relatively strong rates of growth: Singapore's GDP growth rate for 2010 was 14.5 percent, Malaysia's was 7.2 percent.[5] Since attaining independence, both countries have launched a series of modernisation projects ranging from hypermodern air and sea ports, to investment in high-technology fields such as information technology and biotechnology.
  6. Additionally, both countries have been sites of globalisation avant la lettre. Singapore and parts of Malaysia were important nodes of ancient regional trade networks, and interacted with the Srivijaya and Majapahit empires from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries. Local sultanates in both areas rose to importance in Sino-Malay and Arab-Malay trade networks from at least the fifteenth century. Furthermore, the two countries' extensive histories with European colonialism—Dutch, Portuguese and British—provide a salient take on contemporary discussions of postcolonial history and culture. Ultimately, both nations' positions in the history of globalisation make them uniquely situated to interrogate the roles that women, gender and sexuality have played in Asian modernity.
  7. 'Troubling Gender, Vexing Sexualities in Singapore and Malaysia' is a multidisciplinary overview of the ways women, gender and sexuality have both influenced and influence the construction of the state in Singapore and Malaysia. In particular, we are interested in the manner in which the state—in colonial or national form—interfaced with gender in fields such as education, sexuality, marriage, economics, labour and law. This special issue explores how gender has and continues to 'trouble' Singapore and Malaysia in terms of state power and influence.
  8. Contemporary observers may be confused as to why we are discussing both countries together, as Singapore and Malaysia developed disparate national identities and cultures after independence; a divergence marked by the emergence of separate scholarship on both countries post-independence. We will discuss this intellectual divergence later in this introduction. We made our decision to study both countries together as they continue to share many commonalities from being jointly governed as part of the British Empire for much of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. British colonial influence began with the annexation of several key port cities that the British administered as the Straits Settlements: Penang, Melaka and Singapore. This colonial presence was consolidated with the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, which divided the vibrant cultural exchange of the Malay world (spanning modern-day Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia) into two separate spheres of British and Dutch influence. This treaty resulted in the creation of a new, shared Anglophone culture between Singapore and the Malay Peninsula.
  9. Additionally, Singapore and Malaysia also share a similar range of ethnic diversity and history of immigration. Migrants from southern China and India arrived in both countries in large numbers in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the colonial state created an infrastructure for managing and separating different races and ethnicities that the governments of Singapore and Malaysia perpetuated after independence. At the same time, in the early twentieth century it was always assumed that Singapore and Malaysia were to become a joint independent entity; indeed, Singapore was briefly part of Malaysia from 1963 to 1965.
  10. In essence, we chose to study both countries in conjunction because many of the issues that continue to shape contemporary Singapore and Malaysia stem from this shared past, such as ethnic and racial structures, language, economics and cultural identities. Additionally, to give a more complete picture of the ways that gender has shaped—and taken shape in—Singapore and Malaysia, our project takes a long historical view, which necessitates a simultaneous observation of the interconnectedness of both countries.
  11. This book also hopes to break ground for further work on gender in both countries. Some of the most important research on Singapore and Malaysia-such as Aihwa Ong's influential Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline on factory women's work in Malaysia, and Geraldine Heng and Janadas Devan's critique of gender in Singapore-stems from the 1980s and 1990s.[6] While this work well deserves its critical acclaim, gender studies on Singapore and Malaysia must go further to incorporate new and interdisciplinary approaches from the larger fields of East Asian and Southeast Asian studies. There has been some hopeful indication of work that takes this in new directions—such as Cecilia Ng, Maznah Mohamad and tan beng hui's Feminism and the Women's Movement in Malaysia, and Lenore Lyons' work on the feminist movement in Singapore.[7] Through this collection, we hope to encourage the spawning of more work that considers the interconnectedness of both countries.[8]
  12. Part of the reason for this academic gap may lie in the fact that gender in both countries has been examined more in terms of Southeast Asia as a region rather than within the specific historical developments of Singapore and Malaysia. There currently exist multiple extensive studies of this variety that focus on subjects such as religion, the role of women, gender trends, masculinities and sexualities.[9] But limiting discussions of gender to Southeast Asia as a region only blurs some of the more specific contexts in which gender functions. It also implies an uncritical adoption of the arbitrary conceptualisation of 'Southeast Asia'—which originated with Allied military policy in World War Two—as the most convincing lens from which the history of such a diverse region can be understood.[10] The reality is that each of the various countries that make up the regional bloc 'Southeast Asia,' while sharing interconnected histories, also underwent different histories and cultures that developed from being colonised by different European nations and being influenced by different types of trade and religions that passed by. Reading gender using the theoretical apparatus of 'Southeast Asia' is thus inadequate for a fuller understanding of the role of women and gender in Singapore and Malaysia.
  13. In addition, we use our project to re-examine the historical assumption that women played more passive than active political roles in Singapore and Malaysia. This intellectual legacy has stemmed from an enduring conservatism within scholarship in the social sciences and humanities for both countries. Borrowing from mid-1950s schools of historical materialism, this wave of scholarship typically considers the feminine as either Other or supplement to the creation of modernity, rather than critical to its establishment. Major feminist scholars criticised this in the 1990s.[11] Scholars working on feminism and colonialism such as Kumari Jayawardena, Chandra Mohanty, Jacqui M. Alexander, Ann Laura Stoler and Ann McClintock also urged the academic community to begin examining the role of the feminine subject in colonial and national modernities.[12] At the same time, feminist scholars such as the anthropologist Ester Boserup began a series of programmes globally known as 'Women in Development,' fighting against the patriarchal efforts of the early postcolonial state. Describing West Africa in the mid-twentieth century, Boserup argued that 'men ride the bicycle and drive the lorry, while women carry head loads, as did their grandmothers. In short, men represent modern farming in the village, women represent the old drudgery.'[13]
  14. This politicised intellectual genealogy—which argues that feminisms in Singapore and Malaysia arose as a subset of nationalist politics,[14] rather than coming into being on their own—is shared by current scholarship on Singapore and Malaysia by critics such as Cecilia Ng, Maznah Mohamad and tan beng hui, Virginia Dancz, Lenore Manderson as well as Wazir Jahan Karim.[15] While Aihwa Ong's work on disciplined female factory labour in Malaysia in the 1980s and Phyllis Chew's examination of the political role of the Singapore Council of Women in the 1950s and 1960s have shown that women and gender played central roles in the construction of both economic and political modernity of both countries, we believe that this can be developed further. We seek to use our special issue to address this, heeding Kumari Jayawardena's influential call in Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World to reinvestigate the role of women in constructing nationalist movements in the colonial world:
  15. The concept of feminism has also been the cause of much confusion in Third World countries. It has variously been alleged by traditionalists, political conservatives and even certain leftists, that feminism is a product of 'decadent' western capitalism; that it is based on a foreign culture of no relevance to women in the Third World; that it is the ideology of women of the local bourgeoisie; and that it alienates or diverts women, from their culture, religion and family responsibilities on the one hand, and from the revolutionary struggles for national liberation and socialism on the other.

      … As a result of this, I have thought it necessary to take up some of these issues and to show that feminism was not imposed on the Third World by the west, but rather that historical circumstances produced important material and ideological changes that affected women, even though the impact of imperialism and western thought was admittedly among the significant elements in these historical circumstances.[16]

  16. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, while conducting background research for this special issue, we realised that scholarship on Singapore and Malaysia has diverged considerably in terms of ideological and methodological approaches. In comparison with Singapore studies, which has more frequently adopted cultural studies approaches and representational methodologies, Malaysia studies has been very much influenced by sociological approaches that heavily weight the methodologies of political economy. Much of the limited amount of work on gender in Malaysia studies, stemming from the 1980s, focuses on the role of women in development and centres on urban-rural divides, labour force issues and environmentalism. Aihwa Ong's Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline and Maila Stivens's work on rural women are exemplary in this regard and indeed, have influenced an entire generation of similar criticism.[17] This emphasis has also been reflected in the creation of the complementary thread on women's participation in the labour force as part of Malaysia's economic development.[18] Similar approaches are applied in other areas of Malaysia studies such as marriage and the family,[19] race and ethnic studies,[20] and education.[21] In addition, given that about 60 percent of Malaysia's population is Muslim, a large body of work on gender in Malaysia studies focuses on Islam.[22]
  17. In comparison, Singapore studies of gender have been much more heavily influenced by cultural studies and poststructuralist approaches from the 1990s. This includes work that comes from scholars working primarily in the humanities and social sciences.[23] Lenore Lyons, Ingrid Hoofd, Natalie Oswin, Karen Teoh and Melvin Chng apply similar approaches in this special issue.
  18. The reasons for this intellectual split may lie in the different political paths taken by the Malaysian and Singaporean governments after independence. While it was not our intention to perpetuate this divergence, the availability of scholarship in both these fields has led to it being replicated in this issue. Nonetheless, a collective representation of this divide may be useful to future scholars who wish to explore gaps and nuances within the critical literature on Singapore and Malaysia. By studying these two countries in conjunction with each other, we aim to present an overview of how the division between these theoretical approaches pervades the structure of Singapore and Malaysia studies, and the representation of gender in both.
  19. To summarise: 'Troubling Gender, Vexing Sexualities in Singapore and Malaysia,' is a first step in addressing the lack of extensive gender-oriented scholarship in comparative discussions of Singapore and Malaysia. We seek to make visible how women have been 'troubling' the writing of Singapore and Malaysia studies on a number of levels. By the term making visible, we mean to bring to light gender as a useful category of analysis, in the manner of Joan Scott. In her groundbreaking article 'Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,' Scott raises an important question: 'How does gender give meaning to the organisation and perception of historical knowledge?'[24] The answer to this question, Scott argues, lies in understanding gender as an analytic category, one which is both a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences, and as a category which signifies relationships of power between groups of people. Scott's theory shifts the point of historical inquiry; as one commentator writes, it was 'no longer so much an empirical question of 'What did women experience, and what did women, do in xth century in y culture?' but rather a more theorised 'How (and by what processes) in xth century in y culture did gender help construct distinct masculine and feminine meanings and identities?''[25]
  20. Scott encourages scholars to examine how 'gender is one of the recurrent references by which political power has been conceived legitimated, and criticised.'[26] There are many 'implicit understandings of gender' that have been invoked in the way that political processes and relationships have been understood in scholarship on Singapore and Malaysia. Through our project, we want to not only problematise women as philosophical, political and historical subjects, but also make explicit and question these 'implicit understandings.'[27] Our project asks: to what extent can we use gender as a basis for interrogating constructed understandings of politics, culture and modernisation in Singapore and Malaysia?

    The politics of gender in Singapore and Malaysia
  21. This special issue aims to make gender in the state visible by exploring the concept in two interconnected rubrics: first, in the history of feminism and women's movements in Singapore and Malaysia, and second, in the role of the state in determining women's lives and the role of gender in creating state mechanisms.

      The history of feminism and political action

  22. In the first major rubric, our special issue explores the history of feminism and women's movements in Singapore and Malaysia, and how women have effected political change in society. The chapters in this rubric consider women's involvement in politics, nationalist movements and women's movements both before and after decolonisation. It also traces the development of feminist and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and how gender and sexuality are understood in society today.
  23. First, in 'Localised Voices of Feminism: Singapore's Association of Women for Action and Research,' Lenore Lyons casts an interesting new genealogy of feminism in Singapore and Malaysia. Using the framework of transnational feminism, Lyons draws attention to how race/ethnicity, gender and class intersect in the historical constructions of Singapore feminism. Lyons locates the 'first wave' of Singapore feminism in women's organisations in the late nineteenth century, the 'second wave' in the birth of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) in 1985, and a 'third wave' in the aftermath of the 'AWARE Coup' (which occurred in 2009 when a group of Christian women suddenly attempted to take over the secular NGO, a move which triggered widespread resistance within the typically politically neutral Singaporean population). Lyons argues that the 'AWARE Coup' signifies the birth of 'third wave' feminism in Singapore as an irreverent spirit of activism.
  24. Next, Ingrid Hoofd examines the contemporary manifestation of Singapore feminism by closely examining the impact of the 'AWARE Coup' in her chapter, 'Making Sense of the AWARE Saga: The Aporetic Enactment of Feminist Responsibility in Singapore.' Drawing on a cultural studies analysis á la Jean Baudrillard,[28] Hoofd uses this incident to show that the mobilisation of signifiers of difference—including 'feminism,' 'religion' and 'Asian culture'—are implicated in a global process of mediated acceleration, one in which online media play a critical role.
  25. The next chapter shifts to the role of women in the anti-colonial communist struggle against the British from the 1930s to 1989. Drawing on new field research in her essay 'Women, Jungle and Motherhood,' Mahani Musa brings long-overdue attention to the women soldiers of the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army and the Malayan Communist Party. She argues that their involvement was both revolutionary, in furthering the aims of the Party, and unrevolutionary, in their personal experiences as women subordinate to their male comrades. Mahani's chapter illuminates how women's bodies became a site of control and struggle during the anti-colonial conflict. Her work is a thoughtful addition to the growing postcolonial literature on agency and identity formation among women in war.
  26. Finally, the last essay in this section moves towards feminism in contemporary Malaysia. Shahirah Mahmood's chapter, 'Politics of Shariah Reform and Its Implications for Muslim Women in Malaysia,' then discusses the role of Islam and how it affects women's rights in Malaysia. She presents a systematic study of three cases of recent reforms to Shari'ah law in Malaysia—the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act, the Shari'ah Criminal Code Enactment (Kelantan) and the Shari'ah Criminal Code Enactment (Terengganu)—in order to explain the conditions that facilitate either progressiveness or conservatism in Shari'ah law reforms. Mahmood's analysis systematically reveals that increasing Islamic resurgence does not necessarily lead to strict Islamic laws which discriminate on the basis of gender. She shows that the two most important variables are instead the extent of Islamic threat faced by the ruling political party and the degree of governmental and grassroots support received by organised women's groups. Her study adds a thoughtful, nuanced perspective on how gender can be understood against Islam and the modern state today.

    Gender and the state
  27. Our second major rubric contains essays which examine the impact of the emergence of the nation-state and the diffusion of political control on the lives of women in Singapore and Malaysia. The essays here look at women's participation in education, migration and globalisation, and the implications of how women are understood and positioned by the state in neoliberal capitalism. Some essays discuss how women engage, avoid or subvert action by the state. Other essays address the politics of gender and sexuality, including the definition of the family, LGBT issues, and questions of family values, sexuality and religion.
  28. The section begins with a paper on the role of education in shaping gender and women's history in Singapore and Malaysia. In 'The Burden of Proof: Gender, Cultural Authenticity and Overseas Chinese Women's Education in Diaspora,' Karen Teoh presents new research on girls' schools in Malaya and Singapore, which shows how overseas Chinese women in these societies confronted and responded to expectations regarding their place in empire, diaspora and nation. Her study juxtaposes the education for girls offered at schools started by the Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese, with that offered by Chinese-medium schools. Teoh also shows that although these developments resonate with the concept of the Modern Girl as a global phenomenon, the modernisation of women has never been separate from the modernisation of the nation, or in the case of the overseas Chinese, of the diasporic community.
  29. Next, Juanita Elias's essay, 'Gendered Tensions, Resistances and Confusions in Malaysia's Pursuit of Economic Competitiveness: The Case of Women's Labour Force Participation,' directs the focus of the book towards economic issues. Elias argues that the Malaysian government has redirected its pursuit of economic competitiveness away from labour-intensive manufacturing towards the knowledge-oriented economy, with a highly instrumentalist focus on women's labour and in particular on middle-class, educated women as a pool of underutilised and potentially highly skilled labour. She discusses the tensions, resistances and confusions within the state and Malaysian society which stem from this policy emphasis, in relation to transnational disciplinary neoliberalism and Malaysia's localised politics of ethnicity. Through a range of examples of women's experiences in the workforce, at home and in relation to migrant workers, Elias underscores the fact that economic restructuring remains embedded within localised gender ideologies which are crosscut with notions of ethnicity and religion, thus perpetuating traditionalist understandings of women's roles and responsibilities in the family.
  30. Vicki Crinis brings us to the specific issue of female labour and migrant workers in Malaysia. She asserts that similar to Malay women workers, female migrant workers are situated in national development discourses as 'docile' workers—but unlike Malay women workers, the employment of lowly-paid male migrants is viewed as a threat to industrial harmony and to the industrial upgrading of the manufacturing sector. Crinis traces how Malay women workers were sexualised and feminised as a result of state development policies which required young women to relocate away from the protection of family and rural cultural values. She then shows how these representations and discourses continue to be reproduced today in the treatment and perception of migrant workers, both male and female.
  31. The next two contributors discuss the changing role of marriage and citizenship in contemporary Singapore. In 'Troublesome Women and the Nanny State: Drawing Boundaries and Legislating Bifurcated Belonging in Patriarchal Singapore,' Eugene Tan argues that government policies, societal norms and laws manifest the normative conception of Singapore as a patriarchal state, even though this is in tension with and constrained by the state's aspiration for Singapore to be a global city, open to the movement of people, ideas and financial capital. Tan argues that there is a bifurcated regime resulting in the differentiated rights of women living in Singapore, which is reflective of the state's ideological drivers on family, citizenship and ethnic identity.
  32. Elaine Ho veers overseas to study the marriages of Singaporean women abroad. Using fresh insights from ethnographic interviews with Singaporean women with foreign husbands, Ho examines the gendered experiences of women in the citizenship domain. Her paper draws out the implications of these international marriages and growing international mobility on the structure of women's citizenship in Singapore. Her paper therefore speaks to wider issues not only of citizenship and identity in a transnational context, but also of creating a space for feminist praxis despite self-censorship practices that perpetuate the asymmetries of power in the citizenship context.
  33. The final two papers in this issue deal with the concept of sexuality and citizenship in Singapore. Responding to attempts in 2007 to petition for the removal of legislation in Singapore that criminalises homosexual acts between men, Melvin Chng addresses Singapore's heteronormative conceptualisation of citizenship and examines the ways in which sexuality is discursively constituted and policed by the state. He argues that Singapore's insistence on criminalising homosexual acts needs to be understood within the state's particular deployment of sexuality in its political, social and economic rhetoric in constructing a 'nation' and a Singaporean identity.
  34. Finally, Natalie Oswin's essay, 'Sexual Citizenship in Singapore: The Politics of Population,' explores the interplay of heteronormativity in Singapore with race, class, gender and nationality norms. By looking at the historical emergence of the family norm as Singapore transformed itself from a colonial entrepôt of single male migrant labourers into a nation of settled families, she highlights the ways in which the drive for a 'quality' population to spur on national development has 'queered' many more than just gays and lesbians.

    Problematising women, gender and sexuality in Singapore and Malaysia
  35. 'Troubling Gender, Vexing Sexualities in Singapore and Malaysia' has two objectives: first, by making women visible, we try to re-envision the roles that women played in the construction of postcolonial modernity; and second, by revisiting gender and sexuality, we seek to develop a more critical understanding of how gender is understood and enacted and sexuality expressed and disciplined. The essays in this special issue present a study of how women, gender and sexuality function, both in the writing of versions of feminist historiography, as well as in a range of experiences and state processes.
  36. While numerous feminist scholars such as Partha Chatterjee have shown that women have traditionally been symbols of 'tradition' rather than arbiters of modernity for nationalisation movements, we believe that only by paying closer attention to the roles that women played in the historical record, can we begin to see women in Singapore and Malaysia as not simply passive objects but active agents of modernity.[29] It is our goal that our numerous contributions, drawn from a multiplicity of disciplines, will ultimately go some way to show how women and gender in Singapore and Malaysia are instrumental to understanding the historical and contemporary fabric of both nations.


    [1] Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Singapore: A Biography, Singapore: National Museum of Singapore/Editions Didier Millet, 2008.

    [2] In her landmark volume Gender Trouble, Judith Butler influentially argued that the gendered nature of the body—whether male or female—was imperative to studying any women's studies issues, an argument which arguably resulted in the expansion of many women's studies fields to incorporate gender and sexuality. See Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990. A genealogy of feminist study shifts can be found in Leora Auslander, 'Do women's + feminist + men's + lesbian and gay + queer studies = gender studies,' differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 3 (1997): 1–30; and Robyn Wiegman, 'Doing justice with objects: or, the "progress" of gender,' in Object Lessons, Durham: Duke University Press, 2012, pp. 36–90.

    [3] China studies has especially benefitted from the work of scholars who have deeply reproblematised the role of women, gender and sexuality in the writing of Chinese historiography, sociology and literature. Gail Hershatter's Women in China's Long Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) is particularly iconic in this regard, as is Wang Zheng's influential text on Chinese May Fourth feminism, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999; see also Tani Barlow's The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Dorothy Ko rejected the popular image and accepted Western and Chinese scholarship on the status of women in pre-modern China, arguing that literate gentrywomen in seventeenth-century Jiangnan were far from being oppressed. See Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994. A more recent example of such work is Katrina Gulliver's Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

    [4] The field of South Asian feminist studies is too vast to list in detail here. Some important elements of the genealogy of this feminism includes: the work of the Subaltern Studies feminist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 'Can the subaltern speak?,' in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan Education, 1988, pp. 271–313; historiographical challenges such as Lata Mani's work on sati, or widow immolation, see Lata Mani, 'The production of an official discourse on "sati" in early nineteenth century Bengal,' in Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 21 no. 17 (1986): WS32–WS40; the work of postcolonial/international South Asian feminists who challenge the ideology of western feminism, such as Chandra Mohanty Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Duke University Press, 2003; and work on women in South Asia, such as Ania Loomba and Ritty A. Lukose South Asian Feminisms, Durham: Duke University Press, 2012; and Sara Suleri, 'Woman skin deep: feminism and the postcolonial condition,'in Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie A. Smith and Julia Watson, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998, pp. 116–26.

    [5] 'GDP growth,' World Bank Data Catalog, The World Bank Group, last modified 2012 online:, accessed 12 July 2012.

    [6] See Aihwa Ong, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987; and Geraldine Heng and Janadas Devan, 'State fatherhood: the politics of nationalism, sexuality, and race in Singapore,' in Nationalisms and Sexualities, ed. Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer and Patricia Yaeger, New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 343–64.

    [7] See Cecilia Ng, Maznah Mohamad, and tan beng hui, Feminism and the Women's Movement in Malaysia: An Unsung Revolution, New York: Routledge, 2006; and Lenore Lyons, A State of Ambivalence: The Feminist Movement in Singapore, Leiden: Brill, 2004.

    [8] Most existing work on gender tends to treat both Malaysia and Singapore as discrete entities. The only studies that focus on both countries are Barbara Andaya's work on gender in the Malay world, but her work is concerned only with the pre-colonial time period and by ethnicity. See for example The Flaming Womb: The Repositioning of Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006; and her edited volume Other Pasts: Women, Gender and History in Early Modern Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000.

    [9] These include Barbara Andaya, The Flaming Womb and the edited Other Pasts: Women; Theresa Devasahayam Gender Trends in Southeast Asia, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009; Michael Peletz's Gender Pluralism: Southeast Asia Since Early Modern Times, New York: Routledge, 2009; P. Van Esterik's Women of Southeast Asia, Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1993; Aihwa Ong and Michael Peletz Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; Barbara N. Ramusack and Sharon Siever, Women in Asia: Restoring Women to History, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999; Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons, Men and Masculinities in Southeast Asia, London: Routledge, 2012; and Wazir Jahan Karim, Male and Female in Developing Southeast Asia; London: Berg Publishers, 1995.

    [10] See Nicholas Tarling, 'Preface,' to the paperback edition of The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, vol. 2 part 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. xvii–xix.

    [11] See for example Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

    [12] See Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, London: Zed Books, 1986; M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (eds), Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, New York: Routledge 1996; Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010; and Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, New York: Routledge, 1995.

    [13] Ester Boserup, Women's Role in Economic Development, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970, p. 56.

    [14] Geraldine Heng, '"A great way to fly": nationalism, the state and the varieties of Third-World feminism,' in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, ed. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, New York and London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 30–45, p. 34.

    [15] See Cecilia Ng, Maznah Mohamed and tan beng hui, Feminism and the Women's Movement in Malaysia, London: Routledge, 2009; Virginia H. Dancz, Women and Party Politics in Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1987; Lenore Manderson, Women, Politics and Change: The Kuam Ibu UMNO, Malaysia, 1945–1972, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981; and Wazir Jahan Karim, Women and Culture: Between Malay Adat and Islam, Boulder, CO: Westview Press,1992.

    [16] Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, London: Zed Books, 1986, p. 2.

    [17] For work on gender and environmentalism and rural politics, see P. Porodong, 'Bobolizan, forests and gender relations in Sabah, Malaysia,' in Gender, Technology and Development, vol. 5, no. 1 (2001): 63–90; Noeleen Heyzer, Gender, Population and Environment in the Context of Deforestation: A Malaysian Case Study, Asian and Pacific Development Centre: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1996; Chan-Seok Moon, Z.W. Zhang, T. Watanabe, S. Shimbo, N.H. Ismail, J.H. Hashim, M. Lkeda, 'Non-occupational exposure of Malay women in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to cadmium and lead,' in Biomarkers, vol. 1, no. 2 (1996): 81–85; Colin Nicholas, Tijah Yok Chopil and Tiah Sabak, Orang Asli Women and the Forest: The Impact of Resource Depletion on Gender Relations among the Semai, Subang Jaya, Malaysia: Centre for Orang Asli Studies, 2002; Adela Baer, Karen Endicott, Rosemary Gianno, Signe Howell, Barbara S. Nowak & Cornelia van der Sluys (eds), Orang Asli Women Of Malaysia: Perceptions, Situations & Aspirations, Subang Jaya, Malaysia: Centre for Orang Asli Studies, 2006; Cynthia Chou, 'Orang Laut women of Riau: an exploration of difference and the emblems of status and prestige,' in Indonesia Circle, vol. 67 (1995):175 –198; Cheng Sim Hew (ed.), Village Mothers, City Daughters: Women and Urbanisation in Sarawak, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007; Abdul Samad Hadi. 'Forgotten contribution: women and development in Sabah,' in SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, vol. 1, no. 2 (1986): 199–212; Gillian Hart, 'Engendering everyday resistance: gender, patronage and production politics in rural Malaysia,' in Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 19, no. 1 (1991): 93–121; Lucy Healey, 'Gender, power and the ambiguities of resistance in a Malay community of peninsular Malaysia,' in Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 22, no. 1 (1999): 49–61; Marvin L. Rogers, 'Changing patterns of political involvement among Malay village women,' in Asian Survey, vol. 26, no. 3 (1986): 322–44; and Heather Strange, 'Education and employment patterns of rural Malay women 1965–1975,' in Journal of Asian & African Studies, vol. 13 nos 1–2 (1978): 50–64.

    [18] See Susan Ackerman, 'Rebellion and autonomy in industrialising Penang: the career history of a young Malay divorcee,' Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, vol. 24, no. 1 (1996): 52–63; Shanina Amin, 'Life-cycle labour supply of married women and family income inequality in Malaysia,' Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, vol. 8, no. 1 (2003): 1–18; Rohana Arrifin, 'Assessing patriarchy in labour organisations,' Kajian Malaysia: Journal of Malaysian Studies, vol. 12, nos 1–2 (1994): 47–72; Susan Ackerman, 'Women and trade unions in West Malaysia,' Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 19, no. 1 (1989): 78–94; Bruce Chapman and J. Ross Harding, 'Sex differences in earnings: an analysis of Malaysian wage data,' Journal of Developmental Studies, vol. 21, no. 3 (1985): 362–76; Juanita Elias, 'Gendering liberalisation and labour reform in Malaysia: fostering "competitiveness" in the productive and reproductive economies,' Third World Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3 (2009): 469–89; Fatimah Halim, 'Workers' resistance and management control: a comparative case study of male and female workers in West Malaysia,' Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 13, no. 2 (1983): 131–50; Cheng Sim Hew, Women Workers, Migration and Family in Sarawak, London: Routledge, 2002; Hing Ai Yun, 'Women and work in West Malaysia,' Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 14, no. 2 (1984): 204–18; Charles Hirschman and Akbar Aghajanian, 'Women's labour force participation and socioeconomic development: the case of Peninsular Malaysia, 1957–1970,' Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 11, no. 1 (1980): 30–49; Amarjit Kaur, 'Working on the global conveyor belt: women workers in industrialising Malaysia,' Asian Studies Review, vol. 24, no. 2 (2000): 213–30; Merete Lie and Ragnhild Lund, Renegotiating Local Values: Working Women and Foreign Industry in Malaysia, Richmond: Curzon Press, 1995; Linda Lim, Women Workers in Multinational Corporations: The Case of the Electronics Industry in Malaysia and Singapore, Ann Arbor: Michigan Occasional Papers in Women's Studies, 1978; Cecilia Ng, 'Making women's voices heard: technological change and women's employment in Malaysia,' Gender, Technology and Development, vol. 3, no. 1 (1999): 19–42; Cecilia Ng, Positioning Women in Malaysia: Class and Gender in an Industrialising State, London: Palgrave, 1999; Lenore Manderson, Women's Work and Women's Roles: Economics and Everyday Life in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1983; Leslie O'Brien, 'The effects of industrialisation on women: British and Malaysian experiences,' Kajian Malaysia: Journal of Malaysian Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (1984): 38–58; and James Palmore, Robert E. Klein and Ariffin bin Marzuki, 'Class and family in a modernising society,' American Journal of Sociology, vol. 76, no. 3 (1970): 375–98.

    [19] See Susan Ackerman, 'Rebellion and autonomy in industrialising Penang: the career history of a young Malay divorcee,' Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, vol. 24, no. 1 (1996): 52–63; Abu Talib Ahmad, 'Marriage and divorce in Johore among the Malay-Muslims during the Japanese Occupation, 1942–1945', Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 71, no. 2 (1998): 63–90; Ziariat Hossain et al., 'Mothers' and fathers' childcare involvement with young children in rural families in Malaysia,' International Journal of Psychology, vol. 40, no. 6 (2005): 385–394; G.W. Jones, 'Trends in marriage and divorce in peninsular Malaysia,' Population Studies, vol. 34, no. 2 (1980): 279–92; June M.L. Poon, 'The Malay wedding,' Asian Thought and Society, vol. 33, no. 69 (1998): 220–36; and Mehrun Siraj, 'Women and the law: significant developments in Malaysia,' Law and Society Review, vol. 28, no. 3 (1994): 561–72.

    [20] See Victor Agadjanian and Hui Peng Liew, 'Preferential policies and ethnic differences in post-secondary education in peninsular Malaysia,' Race, Ethnicity and Education, vol. 8, no. 2 (2005): 213–30; Shanina Amin, 'Ethnic differences and married women's employment in Malaysia: do government policies matter?,' The Journal of Socio-Economics, vol. 33, no. 3 (2004): 291–306; Boon Kheng Cheah, 'Power behind the throne: the role of queens and court ladies in Malay history,' Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 66, no. 1 (1992): 1–22; Cynthia Joseph, 'Negotiating discourses of gender, ethnicity and schooling: ways of being Malay, Chinese and Indian schoolgirls in Malaysia,' Pedagogy, Culture and Society, vol. 14, no. 1 (2006): 35–53; Cynthia Joseph, 'Researching teenage girls and schooling in Malaysia: bridging theoretical issues of gender identity, culture, ethnicity and education,' Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol. 21, no. 2 (2000): 177–92; Michael G. Peletz, Reason and Passion: Representations of Gender in a Malay Society, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996; Michael G. Peletz, 'Neither reasonable nor responsible: contrasting representations of masculinity in a Malay society,' in Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, ed. Michael Peletz and Aihwa Ong, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 76–123.; and Bee-Lan Chan Wang, 'Chinese women: the relative influences of ideological revolution, economic growth, and cultural change,' in Comparative Perspectives of Third World Women: The Impact of Race, Sex and Class, ed. Beverly Lindsay, New York: Praeger, 1980, pp. 96–122.

    [21] See Victor Agadjanian and Hui Peng Liew, 'Preferential policies and ethnic differences in post-secondary education in peninsular Malaysia,' in Race, Ethnicity and Education, vol. 8, no. 2 (2005): 213–30; Shanina Amin, 'Ethnic differences and married women's employment in Malaysia: do government policies matter?,' The Journal of Socio-Economics, vol. 33, no. 3 (2004): 291–306; Cynthia Joseph, 'Negotiating discourses of gender, ethnicity and schooling: ways of being Malay, Chinese and Indian schoolgirls in Malaysia,' in Pedagogy, Culture and Society, vol. 14, no. 1 (2006), 35–53; and Cynthia Joseph, 'Researching teenage girls and schooling in Malaysia: bridging theoretical issues of gender identity, culture, ethnicity and education,' in Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol. 21, no. 2 (2000): 177–92.

    [22] See Zainab Anwar, Islamic Revivalism in Malaysia: Dakwah among the Students, Selangor, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1987; Sharon A. Bong, The Tension between Women's Rights and Religions: The Case of Malaysia, Lewiston and New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006; Rebecca Foley, 'Muslim women's challenges to Islamic law: the case of Malaysia,' International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 6, no. 1 (2004): 53–84; Wazir-Jahan Karim, Women and Culture: Between Malay Adat and Islam, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992; Aihwa Ong, 'State versus Islam: Malay families, women's bodies and the body politic in Malaysia,' in Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, ed. Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 159–194; Norani Othman, 'Islamisation and modernisation in Malaysia: competing cultural reassertions and women's identity in a changing society,' in Women, Ethnicity and Nationalism: The Politics of Transition, ed. Robert E. Miller and Rick Wilford, New York: Routledge, 1998, pp. 147–66; Haji Faisal bin Haji Otham, Women, Islam and Nation Building, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Berita Publications, 1993; Wirdati Mohammad Radzi, Muslim Women and Sports in the Malay World: The Crossroads Of Modernity And Faith, Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2006; and Maila Stivens, '"Family values" and Islamic revival: gender, rights and state moral projects in Malaysia,' Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 29, no. 4 (2006): 354–67.

    [23] See for example Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, 'Hegemony and "Anglo-American feminism": living in the funny house,' Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, vol. 12, no. 2 (1993): 279–87; Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Writing South/East Asia in English: Against the Grain, Focus on Asian English-Language Literature, London: Skoob Books Publishing, 1995; Philip Holden, 'A man and an island: gender and nation in Lee Kuan Yew's The Singapore Story,' Biography, vol. 24, no. 2 (2001): 401–24; You Yenn Teo, 'Gender disarmed: how gendered policies produce gender-neutral politics in Singapore,' Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 34, no. 3 (2009): 533–57; You Yenn Teo, 'Inequality for the greater good: gendered state rule in Singapore,' Critical Asian Studies, vol. 39, no. 3 (2007): 263–84; You Yenn Teo, Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How Family Policies Make State and Society, London, Routledge, 2012; Geraldine Heng, 'A great way to fly: nationalism, the state, and the varieties of Third-World feminism,' in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, ed. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 30–45; Lenore Lyons, A State of Ambivalence: The Feminist Movement in Singapore, Leiden: Brill, 2004; Shirlena Huang, Peggy Teo, and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, 'Diasporic subjects and identity negotiations: women in and from Asia,' Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 23, no. 4 (2000): 391–98; Thompson S.H. Teo and Vivien K.G. Lim, 'Gender differences in internet usage and task preferences,' Behaviour Information Technology, vol. 19, no. 4 (2000): 283–95; Katie D. Willis and Brenda S. A Yeoh, 'Gender and transnational migration strategies: Singaporean migration to China,' Regional Studies, vol. 34, no. 3 (2000): 253–64.; Brenda S. A. Yeoh and Shirlena Huang, 'Negotiating public space: strategies and styles of migrant female domestic workers in Singapore,' Urban Studies, vol. 35, no. 3 (1998): 583–602; Lily L.L. Kong and Jasmine S. Chan, 'Patriarchy and pragmatism: ideological contradictions in state policies,' Asian Studies Review, vol. 24, no. 4 (2000): 501–31; and Kenneth Paul Tan, 'Sexing up Singapore,' in International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 6, no. 4 (2003): 403–23.

    [24] Joan W. Scott, 'Gender: a useful category of historical analysis,' The American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 5 (1986): 1053–075, p. 1055.

    [25] Jill Liddington, 'History, feminism and gender studies,' University of Leeds Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies: Working Paper 1, 4 January 2011, online:, accessed 12 July 2012.

    [26] Scott, 'Gender: a useful category of historical analysis,' p. 1073.

    [27] Scott, 'Gender: a useful category of historical analysis,' pp. 1073–074.

    [28] See Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981.

    [29] See Partha Chatterjee, 'The nation and its women,' in The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 116–34.


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