Aerin Lai – ECR Spotlight

Person reflected in mirrored wall, by Aerin Lai.

What do men talk about when men talk about men?

My research focuses on masculinities in Singapore and questions the usefulness of a postcolonial intersectional analysis (McEwan 2018) in understanding the kinds of masculinities that are constructed by Singaporean men in contemporary society. A postcolonial intersectional analysis considers how various systems of power like gender race and class interact with each other to produce certain positions of marginality/privilege, while contextualising this interaction within larger historical processes that often transcend national boundaries (e.g. colonialism). I am interested in how amalgamations of ‘class’, ‘race’, and ‘gender’ produce particular performances and constructions of masculinity in Singapore. I argue that existing ways of intersectional analyses are delimited by preconceived notions of race[1], which extend to how national narratives are constructed. These preconceived ideas, derived from Anglophone regions and Western Europe, do not provide the conceptual space to grapple with the ‘postcolonial’ question in decolonised nation-states. Further, they do not take into consideration how narratives of nation-building post-independence regularly draw on and transform colonial discourse, remaking colonial stories to construct a stable historical trajectory of the nation-state.

Singapore, as a postcolonial state that gained independence from the British and broke away from Malaysia in 1965, illustrates this need for a different analytical lens when studying masculinity. Even the concept of race in Singapore, reduced to immutable categories of ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Indian’, ‘Other’, were first used by the British colonial administration, and later reappropriated by the Singapore government to organise society. The fixed parameters of these racial categories become the key channels that ascribe citizens a particular racial identity (i.e. if you are Malay, you speak Malay as your mother tongue, and Muslim) (Goh 2008). Citizenship in the Singaporean body-politic necessarily relies on this ascription of race. To begin, ethnic Chinese forms the majority of Singapore’s population at over 70%, followed by Malays, Indians, and ‘Others’ or Eurasians — people of mixed European and Asian heritage. The state also sees it as an imperative to maintain this particular ethnic ratio through immigration from mainland China. This ensures that the Chinese remain a majority in the country. However, at the same time, the state seeks to mitigate any majoritarian politics by some form of affirmative action. This translates to race taking on a central role for many Singaporeans in their daily lives. For example, in the application of public housing, the government adheres to an Ethnic Integration Policy that mandates quotas for each ethnic group in a housing block, as a way to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves. These quotas are usually reflective of the nation’s overall demographics. However, this often means that one’s race may be the reason for having an unsuccessful application for a flat, especially if one is of a minority ethnic group.

Public housing in Singapore is a contested site for masculinities as well. Qualifying for subsidies often means having to perform ‘normative gender roles’ within an overarching state rhetoric that valorises ‘acts of filial piety’ and the ‘nuclear family’. For example, a married couple who chooses to buy their first flat near their parents’ home would qualify for subsidies. The baseline for getting a flat, however, is marriage between a heterosexual couple. Singles are not eligible for flats until they are 35, as the government signals priority for couples. Such restrictions are further compounded because public flats are paid for through one’s Central Provident Fund (CPF), a compulsory pension-like scheme that accompanies employment. One contributes 20% of their salary every month to this Fund, and one’s employer contributes an equal amount to that Fund. How much one makes is also dependent on gendered citizenship. All Singaporean men are required to complete a two-year military service, either in the army (SAF), the police force (SPF), or the civil defence force (SCDF). They are usually drafted between 18 to 22 years old, depending on their educational background. In light of these compulsory two years that men have ‘lost’ for their country, men are generally given a higher starting salary than women as recognition of their service.

This forms a vast network of social policies that produce very specific gendered, racialised and classed subjectivities. If one would imagine identities as being ‘guided’ by these policies and wider state narratives (i.e. the reasons provided by the state that underpins the implementation of these policies), the postcolonial intersectional ‘hand’ in shaping particular masculinities becomes more evident. Like the Ethnic Integration Policy and other subsidies provided for public housing, other social policies are inevitably racialised and gendered. On a micro-level, Singaporeans often make life decisions based on the kind of benefits and/or entitlements that one receives from adhering to certain policies (Teo 2009). The pipeline that creates Singaporean masculinities thus, starts early. The construction of masculine identities, such as father, son, husband, soldier, employer, take certain ‘dispositions’, that are shaped by these state policies and/or state discourse.

The ‘Singapore story’ is almost a nightmarish melting pot for sociologists trying to analyse micro-level identities and their negotiation with broader and more meso- and macro-level structures like state policies and national narratives. However, perhaps this is what is needed for an operationalisation of a postcolonial intersectional analysis which argues for the interconnectedness and relatedness of ‘social’ variables.

Man covering his eyes, by Aerin Lai.



Goh, Daniel P.S. 2008. “From Colonial Pluralism to Postcolonial Multiculturalism: Race, State Formation and the Question of Cultural Diversity in Malaysia and Singapore.” Sociology Compass 2: 232-252.

Knapp, Gudrun-Axelis. 2005. “Race, Class, Gender: Reclaiming Baggage in Fast Travelling

Theories.” European Journal of Womens Studies 12(3): 249–265.

McEwan, Cheryl. Ed, 2018. Postcolonialism, Decoloniality and Development. London, UK: Routledge.

Teo, Youyenn. 2009. “Gender Disarmed: How Gendered Policies Produce Gender‐Neutral Politics in Singapore.” Signs 34(3): 533-558.

[1] See Gudrun-Axeli Knapp (2005)  for a succinct critique of the repercussions of superimposing the intersectional triad of class, race, and gender onto communities or societies that may not employ the same notion of these elements as from where intersectional studies was conceived.


Aerin Lai is a PhD candidate in Sociology working on masculinities in Singapore from a postcolonial intersectional lens. She tweets @dyspen and definitely loves dogs. Her work extends to sociology of race and sexualities.