Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Why do Ah Bengs wear pink?

At a recent SinQSA (Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance) meet-up, we were discussing some stereotypes and of course having a ball of a time.

One participant was slightly (and jokingly) irritated by the observation that Ah Bengs were patronising New Urban Male, a local beach-themed apparel shop currently/formerly popular with gay men (please correct me if I am wrong, and apologies in advance).

Ah Bengs, by definition, are mostly Chinese-educated ethnic Chinese, mostly heterosexual and mostly subscribe to a certain brand of hegemonic masculine set of behaviours, which is of course centralised on the notion of what a "true" man should be/become. Moreover, the Ah Beng signifies the 'essence' of working class ethic and brotherhood.

So, technically, the traditional Ah Beng would have been averse to shopping at New Urban Male, as the shop does not supplement the heteronormality of the Ah Beng aesthetic.

Times have changed now. And we are witnessing a cultural aesthetic change, almost similar in nature to that of the Great Vowel Shift in England, not in terms of language, but the social classes involved. In short, this great shift involved the lower classes following the pronunciation of the upper classes.

The Ah Beng has evolved into a diversity of species. There are middle-class Ah Bengs who behave like they are from the working class, and more specifically, 21st Century middle-class Ah Beng acting like and embodying the perceived essence of the 1980's working-class Ah Beng.

The rough-and-tough bad boy image has acquired ideas and aesthetics of the changing expectations of the "it" man. SNAG or the sensitive new age guy become a fad for a while and some of its attributes seem to have attached to the Ah Beng facade.

The supposedly cool and (maybe/perhaps) previously English-educated exclusive fashion trend of wearing your haversack (school bag for many) low (i.e. maximising the length of its straps) has now been adopted by the Chinese-educated (or those who identify with the values of the Chinese educated).

Of course, the trend now is not to have sling bags or haversacks, but to have huge handbag-like bags to be slung under one's shoulder. This aesthetic used to belong to the domain of women and (later) gay men, but we have straight men slinging their hangbag-like bags (what are they called, by the way?).

The observation that the Ah Beng aesthetic is changing informs of their class consciousness, of which fashion can be a plausible manifestation.

The original Ah Beng existed as an anti-thesis to the English-educated middle class folk and their values, the schools, law, political leadership and status quo that privileges them, and of course the perceived inherent sissiness and inferior brand of masculinity that is the English-educated middle class people (especially the ethnic Chinese whose anglicisation are beyond the Ah Beng's threshold. Anglicisation means... just ask Dawn Yang).

It is contradictory now that the Ah Beng manifests his aspirations for upward social mobility in the form of fashion and more specifically, in the image of what the Ah Beng had traditionally detest. This is because the Ah Beng encapsulates class/status frustration.

The aesthetics of Ah Beng deviancy (from the perspective of the English-educated middle class) has now inherited some properties from the "normal" stratum of Singaporean society.

Given this, there are many Ah Bengs in body, but few in mind/spirit, and this is because of the changing times and the way our society is changing.

Still, I cannot understand the rationale for why Ah Bengs wear pink. Pink is not culturally "male", and by male, I mean heteronormal, heterosexist, heterosexual man.

For an ordinary man to wear pink, it is traditionally indicative of cultural gender subversion.

For an Ah Beng - normally a hyper-masculine manifestation - to wear pink, I have two different (though not mutually exclusive) observations.

One, since pink threatens the domain of hegemonic masculinity, a man who wears it would be considered brave. This thus supports the idea that the Ah Beng, the hyper-masculine incarnate of lower social stratum, is able to conquer all (and pink) and has the manly courage or ji/qiu/mao (testicles/balls/hair in Beng speak) to neutralise the cultural threat pink poses to most heteronormal masculinities. This is probably why we have the silently (hetero)sexist phrase "real men wear pink".

Two, I also see that the Ah Beng is being reinvented. The previous working class roots and identity is now being tainted by middle-class "blood"/values. The fact that the Ah Beng wears pink indicates an amalgamation of tastes from both classes. The Ah Beng has also attained a better social position than previous generations, and while he may have retained some values, his fashionable expressions follow that of the social class he is in, the very class previous generations may have opposed.

So what is it about (heterosexual) Ah Bengs who wear New Urban Male?

Before I attempt to make sense of that, "heterosexual Ah Beng" might be tautological while "gay Ah Beng" might seem oxymoronic, but there are gay Ah Bengs, just that they are less visible given the homogenisation of the homosexual (i.e. gay stereotypes held by both straight and queer people).

In my view, the Ah Beng (still) has status frustration, but with higher classes. There is always a desire to rise up the social strata. Previous generation Ah Bengs got their muscle from spartan nutrition, menial jobs and for some, gang fights. Modern day Ah Bengs get their muscle from going to the gym, which is a privilege characteristic of their improved social status.

I do not mean to simplify or essentialise, but it seems that (some) Ah Bengs are following gay men, given they wear pink, have or aspire towards having ripped "manly" bodies and of course, shop at New Urban Male.

The essence of the Ah Beng is threatened to extinction by our changing society. The more urbanised and cosmopolitan we become, along with changes in the school system and parenting, the more irrelevant the values of the traditional Ah Beng. I'd like to think that Ah Beng values are central to their dress-code and fashion, but now that these values are eroding, modern-day Ah Bengs can decide their fashion. And it is ironic they pursue what they disliked.

Side point, I also find it highly ironic that some working-class (as well as middle-class) ethnic Malay youths are spending loads of money just to look like working-class sub-urban African American youths/rappers, and of course, even speaking like them. Ethnic envy? Will adopting a sub-urban African American aesthetic and mannerism make one more masculine and cooler?

Meterosexuality and the -ism of SNAG have not spared the Ah Beng. The pink-wearing New Urban Male-patronising Ah Beng is his navigation through the modern day cultural landscape of new emerging masculinities. It is no longer as trendy now to physically assert one's masculinity (because of social and legal sanctions), so in its place is the suggestion of one's masculinity. The Ah Beng, culturally enveloped by all these influences, is enjoying some freedom in choosing how he would want to suggest.

Unfortunately, hyper-masculine (hetero)sexist attitudes and behaviours still exist, regardless of pink and New Urban Male apparel. These continue to perpetuate essentialist ideas of masculinity and ensure the continuity of hegemonic cultural gender identities.

More unfortunately, I still cannot understand or make sense of why Ah Bengs wear pink (or patronise New Urban Male, but that's not to say that New Urban Male is exclusive to gay customers).

Maybe we should keep our eyes peeled for Ah Bengs and do our own anthropological study on them. What is an Ah Beng now? If Ah Bengs are representative of status frustration, are bloggers who blast the government and elite classes Ah Bengs themselves?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

PSLE results: One of the few times we can talk about race in Singapore

Every time the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations) results are out, there is the customary celebration of ethnic achievements.

The top ethnic Chinese (according to your identity card, birth certificate and the prescribed ‘race’ of your father) pupil will generally be “the top student”. Of course, the overly racially-sensitive and sensitised establishment will also want to feature the “top Malay/Indian/Other students” too.

I might be wrong, but last year’s top student is ethnic Malay. Interestingly, I have seen and heard little mention about “the top Chinese student”.

Have we become slaves of our national history and politics?

The education system, as in most countries, is a creation of the culturally and politically dominant ‘race’, a promotion and glorification of (in this case) English-speaking ethnic Chinese middle-class values. This is further entrenched by the fact that ethnic Chinese form the numerical majority in Singapore. So it should be no surprise that a Chinese student (who more importantly identifies with the values of the system) excels in such a system.

A side point, I think we are not “ethnic” Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others, but “categorical” Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others.

The stellar performance of a categorical Chinese student in a Singaporean school would win her (mainly female any way) the accolade (and media tribute) of “best/top student”.

The excellent results of categorical Malay or Indian or Eurasian students would win them not only “best/top [insert categorical race] student” but the typical otherising that most minorities receive.

We have “top student”, “top Malay student”, “top Indian student” and “top Eurasian student” in every year when we have a categorical Chinese as a top PSLE performer. The insertion of racial adjectives is an example of who the minority status of the student is played up; how the student is made an “other” because of how his/her “race” is being prescribed to him/her.

It is definitely well-meaning, given our historical condition. But if we were to make such segregations and distinctions along the lines of categorical race, why not class or religion (or if you’re cynical enough, sexual identity, but religion for a 12 year old would be a stretch)?

Can we not have a top student from a combined household income of more than $10,000? Why not have a chart of PSLE distinctions and socio-economic status?

I think that the categorical Chinese Singaporeans idea of Chinese-ness or Chinese Singaporean-ness is growingly diluted and dispersed. So where is the value or what is the point in talking about Chinese achievements when we all have different ideas of what constitute Chinese-ness?

The notion of race precedes that of nationhood and nationalist identity. Here we are today waving our racial/ethnic banners at one another. Of course, we are not waving them ourselves, but we have the culturally-sensitive press to do it for us.

A racial riot will always follow the aggressive playing-up of racial differences. Here, in the Straits Times for example, we also see the same kinds of distinctions being made, albeit more subtle and politically correct. The newspaper is not to blame as it is still answerable to the establishment, the very same authority that gave us our categorical identities.

The well-intended mentions of minority achievements still condemn minorities to a status of an “other”. We talk about having a Singapore that is together and integrated, but here we are, unknowingly or not, sowing the seeds of polarisation and fragmentation along the lines of institutionalised difference-ing.

That’s right, there are some kinds of differences that are recognised by the institutions/establishment, while others are ignored. Our differences are calibrated by those who seek to gain the most from this categorising. If the process of categorising was made by the people themselves, we will have a different style of governance and perhaps a different government (not many Singaporeans can imagine that, myself included).

Race, or categorical race, will always be an issue because the people that matter, the people who can influence policy, still consider it to be what it is. From young, we are fed the “essence” of our categorical race, so that upon institutionalisation, we continue this cycle of cultural hegemony.

I have one burning question, where do we go from here? So what if all of us knew about this “problem”? Will it serve us better to have a non-racialised Singapore? After all, we welcome foreigners/‘farangs’ (and gladly defend them using our local boys). Also, the category of CMIO and in this case, academic achievements along the lines of categorical race, will appear to be less relevant in years to come, given we are becoming more culturally diverse (or mixed/diluted/withered).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What stay-home husbands do

They make a profile on Mediacorp Channel 5's website, Live and Loaded. It's a pity they only allow a maximum of 2 songs to be uploaded.

Yes, there are media scholars and sexual minority rights advocates who can make some music too.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Hi, I am still alive, but have been busy being ill lately. One illness after another. And feeling quite weak. I've fallen ill for about 5-6 times this year (normally the number would be 1-2). Initially planned to do lots of work during this month, but doubt I can get anything done given my poor state of health. Will be back soon.