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M.A Thesis and Research 

In a speech delivered in 1966 only years after independence from Malaya, Lee Kuan Yew argued that the young city state needed to rid itself of softness, weakness that would act as the existential threat for the island. “It is the young that will determine what happens to this society. And it is we and what we do now that determines what they can be.” This crisis is articulated by Mr. Lee to be in fact a crisis of masculinity. The image of softness and fear of losing masculinity was maturated in Mr. Lee as a result Singapore being lost to the Japanese during the Second World War and the notion that he was unable to protect his home, his family, or his community. It is also something not limited to Singapore, but a wider theme throughout Southeast Asia in many countries that were once colonized. The state of manhood in postcolonial Southeast Asian countries is thus crucial to understanding the social, political, and intellectual development of Southeast Asia and histories of those nations in the following decades. The performance of gender, including its replication, became a key aspect to the everyday individual’s understanding of the self, the community, and the “other.” Creating the “hardened man” has its roots in the colonial histories of these nations. Colonial masculinity as an active force did not “end” with the conclusion of Southeast Asia’s colonial era; rather it became co-opted in the construction of national institutions, such as the education system.


The field of masculinity studies has remained a very niche and understudied area of analysis, largely outside of the research of specialists or Southeast Asia. The research into masculinity reflects this gap in knowledge and has largely been relocated to work done by academics within the disciplines of sociology. Existing research approaches are often rooted in patriarchal culture and institutions, as well as in Confucian values. Stemming from a Chinese cultural context, analysis generally addresses the formation of gender relations as rooted in that cultural ethos. Very little attention is directed towards using masculinity studies and gender analysis as methodology. This absence prevents a deeper understanding of Singapore and Malaysia's first decades of independence, in addition to the historical continuum of colonial masculinities during the colonial period under the respective colonizers for each country and the Japanese.


This project will work with the theoretical insights of gender history, decolonial theory, cultural theory in the form of Chen Kuan-hsing’s Asia as Method. By addressing two primary questions: How was a unique “hardened man” the partial product of these countries’ colonial past? And how did notions of masculinity shape metropolitan understandings of manhood, nationalism, and society? The scope of the project will look at education for children from the early ages of primary school, secondary school, and into their post-secondary experiences. The sources for this research will range from textbooks, children’s stories, schoolyard games, school clubs, sport commitments, music, and oral histories. In examining these forces on youth, a clear line can be drawn between colonial masculinity and its perpetuation, developments of the nation state, as well as the impact of European colonizers in the social tapestry of these countries.

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