The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, July 08, 2012


Frauds and cocks: Men and sex                                              

This is a book about sex – but gray bureaucrats flicking pages for porn will have to work hard to find anything erotic.

Dirty words – a few, though in context.  Dirty minds – sadly, an abundance.

Also dismayed will be those who assume ‘sex’ always refers to women, objects used to sell consumer goods by advertisers with limp creativity.

However Men and Masculinities in Southeast Asia will satisfy anyone seriously interested in gender issues, particularly this overdue addition to well-established Women’s Studies.

What does it mean to be a man in Indonesia?  At village entrances around the Archipelago fossickers through the undergrowth may encounter a little man, his hard wife and two crumbling kiddies.  Despite suffering concrete cancer the manikin looks sober and responsible.

The statues were erected during the Family Planning program of the New Order government to show the ideal Indonesian – by his dress a Muslim - leading two kids. Never mind that President Soeharto fathered six.

But there’s another guardian of many kampong gateways, a snarling muscle-bound warrior defeating the Dutch.  Here the model is the US film character Rambo.

Will the real Indonesian guy please jump onto the pedestal?  Family Fellow. Action Man – or someone else?

The confusion is enough to drive a lad into the arms of Mistress Nicotine – and there he is again, on posters pushing a SUV into the rock-strewn hinterland, firm-jawed, gazing into the sunset. 

Though nothing dangles between his white lips we know the Real Man inhales.  He also poisons his lungs and rots his gums, but this information is confined to medical texts.

After decades of feminism, masculinity is only now becoming a serious study topic for social scientists.  Some were present at an International Congress of Asian Studies held in Kuala Lumpur.  This book is a collection of eight papers developed following the conference.

The topics are diverse, covering the way Filipino fishers define their manhood through to violence and patriarchy in Timor Leste.  But the study of Malay National Servicemen in Singapore is the gem.

It rips off the coverlet long used to show the island state as a happy land of ethnic equals, publishing comments about race and prejudice seldom seen in print. 

The revelations were gathered by Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons, senior academics at Sydney University’s Department of Indonesian Studies, who also edited this collection.

If a Muslim Singaporean is called to fight in some future conflict against an Islamic nation like their near neighbors, where would their loyalty lie?  This question is at the heart of the alleged discrimination against minorities in Singapore’s armed forces

Apparently the system ensures the Malays mark time in lower ranks, far from serious weaponry and promotion, kept down by racial stereotypes.

 In retaliation the Malay conscripts consider themselves physically and morally tougher than their ethnic Chinese comrades who they label materialistic and promiscuous, ready to run when the lead starts flying.

Also by the same authors together with Australian PhD candidate Sophie Williams, is a study of Singaporean Chinese men who zip across the water to unzip their sexual fantasies in Batam.

The Lion City rakes get their directions from a sex site inaccessible in censorious Indonesia.  Here lads trade information on their exploits and ladies advertise their services. 

Not all are Indonesians.  Western women are also in demand by the Singaporeans who leave their upright wives and uptight city for fantasies abroad.

The researchers pick apart the men’s on-line comments and how chatline contributors build a reputation among their fellow sleazemasters. 

Much of this is sickening as the men (many with daughters, all with mothers), hide behind virtual identities to verbally debase the women who service them.  By doing so they reveal themselves as inadequate, dishonorable, fantasy heroes and real-life losers.

Comment the authors: “ … (on line) conversations about sex … render the sex act almost invisible… thread members must demonstrate their sexual capability and experience – and through it their masculinity – without actually describing their own performance.”

Most women would consider this infantile, indicating it’s time to change the diaper, but apparently it’s all about brotherly bonding among alleged adults.

The same imperative drives the gangs in Jakarta according to Murdoch University social scientist Ian Wilson’s study titled The Biggest Cock.

In some risky research the Western Australian lecturer followed jago (a cock, but in reality an urban warlord) as they patrolled their asphalt, intimidating locals and extracting protection money.

The gangs they control battle each other for lucrative territory.  They are thugs-for-hire by business people wanting to evict tenants and intimidate rivals.  Politicians seeking to frighten off rivals or make a political point through trashing property are also clients.

For jago “acts of violence are motivated by a deep sense of justice, honor and order, one that transcends that of the law and the state.”

Jago and preman (literally ‘free men’ but in truth gutter crooks and stand-over merchants) aren’t a recent phenomenon. They were operating before the Dutch arrived, with some becoming famous figures skilled in pencak silat (Javanese martial arts), supposedly impenetrable by bullets and knives through drinking magic potions and undertaking esoteric rituals.

Some of these myths continue today with jago gaining reputations so fearsome that they don’t need to hammer heads or trash foodstalls.  Just swaggering in leather jackets, cracking their bejewelled knuckles can be enough to ensure compliance.

Royal families have almost disappeared in Republican Indonesia, but in Jakarta and other urban deserts a man can still be a king – not through chivalry, selfless bravery and protecting the weak – but by being atop a decrepit rubble-strewn parking lot.

Women take heart – you are the superior sex. 

Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons (eds)
Routledge, 2012
163 pages

(First published in The Sunday Post 8 July 2012)

1 comment:

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