Beyond the Singapore Girl: Discourses of Gender and Nation in Singapore

By Priyanka Sharma


Beyond the Singapore Girl: Discourses of Gender and Nation in Singapore represents a scholarly examination of the symbiotic relationship between gender constructions and national identity within the specific socio-cultural milieu of Singapore. The text adeptly navigates the complex terrain of gender discourses, unveiling their profound impact on the conceptualization and articulation of Singaporean nationhood. The author explores the “ways in which Singapore women have, firstly, contested the gendered narration of nation and negotiated their way through the demands of the nation and the family on their own terms; and secondly, how, through the textual interventions into the dominant discourse they have escaped the gendered narrative and reclaimed the image of the modern Singapore woman”.

The book is arranged into 7 chapters that give a chronological account of the national rhetoric and the evolution of the various policies around gender, fertility and the role of women in nation building, providing readers with a comprehensive account of the evolution of policy as responses (and reactions) to emerging national needs.  

Hudson’s main argument revolves around the idea that gender imagery in Singapore is characterized by “contradiction and ambivalence” rather than fixity, and this provides Singaporean women the space for subversive negotiations and modes of “counter-practice” to redefine notions of “the modern Singapore woman.” This also allows for the establishment of boundaries within which the State constructs discursive gendered distinctions that support the creation of a modern nation.

The first two chapters lay out the narrative of “Singaporean” nationhood, focusing on vocabularies of fear, vulnerability, progress, modernity, and Confucian patriarchy. Chapters three and four explore the historical evolution of gender roles, focusing on fertility and procreation as a central element of Singapore’s post-colonial nation-building efforts. The fifth chapter scrutinizes the role of the media in shaping gendered imagery, analysing contributions from mainstream and alternative media in constructing and contesting gender norms. Subsequent chapters delve into citizen-run forums and digital spaces, offering a nuanced understanding of diverse voices and perspectives from the Singapore citizenry. Chapter seven notably delves into the the masculine response to the ‘New Singapore Woman’ while acknowledging the loss of the ‘State’s narrative authority’. The book concludes with an exploration of how popular culture, including film, television, and literature, reflect and challenge prevailing gender norms in Singapore.

I found chapter four ‘Romancing Singapore’ of particular interest. In this chapter, the author analyses the circumstances that led to the formation of the Social Development Unit (SDU), a government initiative with the “express aim of matchmaking male and female graduates with a view to marriage. This form of social engineering was designed to ensure the reproduction of the next generation of Singapore elite. Other marriage brokering units, such as the Social Promotion Section (for ‘O’ level holders) and the Social Development Section (for ‘A’ level holders which dealt with people of inferior educational background were later established”. This demonstrates the extent to which policy and government interventions endeavoured to shape the personal lives of Singaporeans. This also elucidates the employment of eugenics as an instrument of State designed to produce better outcomes for the State.

The book’s strength lies in its interdisciplinary approach that draws from a diverse range of theoretical frameworks including gender studies, media studies, and cultural studies. The author employs an analytical examination of the topics by integrating key scholarly works, including Bhabha’s theories of the nation, Althusser’s concepts of “bad subjects”, Foucault’s notion of biopower, Butler’s examination of the body and performativity, and Braidotti’s work on specificity within feminist theory. The author engages in a nuanced analysis of the historical trajectories, cultural representations, and socio-political dynamics that have colluded to shape gender dynamics, marriage, fertility, and women’s participation in the context of nationhood and nation building in Singapore. The analysis is peppered with extracts from a wide range of sources – books, speeches, white papers, newspaper articles, as well as internet message boards, and so on, focusing on Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s, the PAP’s and the government’s position on women, and the various policy measures that were put in place to shape women’s participation in Singapore society. The book also features the responses of both academics and ordinary citizens to these policy measures.

This book will give readers a crash course in understanding how gender constructions in Singapore were shaped and influenced to a large degree by the State, and the ways in which women reclaim and challenge the prevailing gender norms in Singapore.

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