Gender and the Body in Transnational Space: Female Educational Migrants from Malaysia in Singapore


Based on 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Singapore and Malaysia, this work analyses the female body as a site for asserting or transforming identity in transnational space. Singapore is a destination for migration for reasons of labour and education. The majority of educational migrants in Singapore are Chinese-Malaysian women. These actors shape the transnational space between their countries of origin and of destination, among other things, through bodily selfrepresentation.

Malaysia is a multicultural society with Malay Malaysians, Chinese Malaysians and Indian Malaysians. Ethnic categorizations build the basis for the Malaysian society, in which the Malay Malaysians benefit more from governmental politics than Chinese and Indian Malaysians do. Despite cultural diversity, Islam as the religion of the Malay Malaysians is the dominating one. Chinese Malaysian middle-class women, who have access to the necessary resources, have developed their own ways to achieve social agency: they migrate to Singapore for further education. In Singapore, gender ideologies and practices are linked to modernity and Confucianism. Female educational migrants express these ideologies and practices with regard to the concept of the body through the way they dress. A lot of them constitute themselves as modern women through a certain level of bodily exposure. Whereas these social actors regard as modern the opportunity to present oneself in Singapore with naked shoulders, they distinguish themselves from the traditional lifestyle in Malaysia where they are required to wear long Muslim clothing. The social space constructed in such a way between Singapore and Malaysia is thus affected by using the gendered body as a means of self-transformation.

Key Words: Body, gender, femininity, transnational space, educational migration, multicultural societies, middle class, modernity, Malaysia, Singapore.

1. Introduction: Linking Malaysia and Singapore

In the third week of my ethnographic fieldwork in Singapore, I talked to Elizabeth1 who was a Chinese Malaysian student at Singaporean Nanyang Technological University (NTU): Elizabeth: ‘Their [The Malaysian’s] thinking-wise, and the way they dress-up, they are more conservative with it. Some of the girls wouldn’t expose… (…) Because it depends of what kind of family background you come from. Like some of even the Chinese Malaysians. It depends on where they come from. Like aMalay school, so they are more influenced, more of the Malaybackground. Because Malay they need to be conservative.’2Elizabeth was using the keyword ‘conservative.’ Thereby, she indicated thatMalaysian girls would not physically expose in Malaysia, depending on their ethnicbackground. This would be especially the case when the girls were in regularcontact with the Malay Malaysian population, e.g. on the basis of shared schooling.By means of using the term ‘conservative’, Elizabeth opened up a comparisonbetween conservatism in Malaysia and progressive or modern norms, which can belinked to Singapore due to her position of articulation.Malaysia and Singapore are connected through a shared history, 3 which becomesevident in the multicultural situation in both countries.

The societies aresegregated into ‘Chinese, Malays, Indians and Others.’ In Western Malaysia, Malaysform the biggest group,4 in Singapore the Chinese.5 Indians are the smallestgroup in both countries. Despite cultural diversity in both countries, the respectivegovernments legitimate a Chinese majority society in Singapore and a culturalMalay supremacy in Malaysia (ketuanan Melayu). Furthermore, the latter is beinglinked to religion: Sunni Islam dominates as the compulsory religion for the MalayMalaysians (ketuanan Islam). 6 This multicultural situation, with its linkages togender, religion, and class, leads to educational migration7 of young ‘modern’,Christian, English-speaking, middle-class female Malaysians to Singapore. Theaim here is to look at how these educational migrants in Singapore draw on thebody in order to negotiate agency in the transnational space.8 In the followingsection, the social background in Malaysia concerning the body, with its connectionsto gender and morality, will be traced.

2. Body, Clothing and Morality in Malaysia

In Malaysia, the body and morality are influenced by Islam, adat (set of cultural norms, values, customs and practices) and political Islamization. In the 1970s, Islam in Malaysia gained strength through fundamentalism, the so called dakwahmovement.

With reference to Islam, this movement as well as the government require bashfulness and modesty for all women. The aurat, a ‘nakedness’ which includes hair and skin has become an important focus. Muslim women have to cover the aurat due to male sexual desire. Since the early 1980s, devout female Muslims in Malaysia wear tudung, a headscarf that covers hair and neck, or hijab which comes up to the waist and therefore covers the bodily silhouette. Women often wear the headscarf together with the traditional Malay Baju kurung, which consists of long, wide skirt and blouse. Many women additionally wear socks, some even gloves or a veil covering the face. This kind of clothing was unknown to Malay Malaysians until the rise of political Islamization. 9 Through wearing these specific female clothes in male connoted public space, parts of female personalityare finally located in domestic space.10The dakwah-movement especially regulates spaces of action of female MalayMalaysian university students. Even if Malaysian women are encouraged by thestate to educate themselves, they do not obtain total autonomy within this area.Women should be protected from ‘western’ influences or male sexual desire inpublic space. The social order is thereby linked to female morality.11 How do thesesocial processes influence the Chinese Malaysian educational migrants in Singapore?In the following section, I will shed light on the female body in the transnationalspace between urban Malaysia and Singapore.


1 All names in this are pseudonyms. 2 Elizabeth, interviewed by the author, October 13, 2008. 3 Before independence, Singapore and Malaysia together formed one state, called Malaya. 4 Department of Statistics, Malaysia, Buletin Perangkaan Bulanan: Mac (Kuala Lumpur, 2008), 9. 5 Singapore Department of Statistics, Census of Population 2010 - Statistical Release 1: Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion, 2010, viii, 6 Robert Hefner, ‘Introduction: Multiculturalism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia,’ in The Politics of Multiculturalism. Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, ed. Hefner (Honolulu: University of Hawai´i Press, 2001), 29. 7 By educational migration I will refer to migration on grounds of getting further education. 8 The empirical data was collected on ethnographic fieldwork in Singapore and Malaysia from September 2008 to August 2009 in the context of my PhD-project in Cultural Anthropology on educational migration and gender in the regional context. 9 Aihwa Ong, ‘State Versus Islam: Malay Families, Women´s Bodies, and the Body Politic in Malaysia,’ in Islam, Gender and the Family, ed. Bryan Turner (London: Routledge, 2003), 279. 10 Maila Stivens, ‘Family Values and Islamic Revival: Gender, Rights and State Moral Projects in Malaysia,’ Women´s Studies International Forum 19 (2006), 357. 11 Cecilia Ng, Maznah Mohamad, and tan beng hui, Feminism and the Women´s Movement in Malaysia (New York: Routledge, 2007), 141. 12 Field journal, written by the author, October 30, 2008. 13 Judy Giles and Tim Middleton, Studying Culture (Malden: Blackwell, 2008), 232. 14 Yvonne Niekrenz and Matthias Witte, ‘Zur Bedeutung des Körpers in der Lebensphase Jugend,’ in Jugend und Körper, ed. Niekrenz and Witte (Weinheim: Juventa, 2011), 7. 15 Giles and Middleton, Studying Culture, 235. 16 Field journal, written by the author, December 23, 2009.


  1. Department of Statistics, Malaysia. Buletin Perangkaan Bulanan, Mac, 2008.

  2. Giles, Judy, and Tim Middleton, Studying Culture. Malden: Blackwell, 2008.

  3. Glick Schiller, Nina, Linda Basch and Cristina Szanton Blanc. ‘From Immigrant to Transmigrant: Theorizing Transnational Migration.’ Transnationale Migration, edited by Ludger Pries, 121-140. Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1997.

  4. Hefner, Robert. ‘Introduction: Multiculturalism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.’ In The Politics of Multiculturalism. Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, edited by Robert Hefner, 1-58. Honolulu: University of Hawai´i Press, 2001.

  5. Ng, Cecilia, Maznah Mohamad, and Tan Beng Hui. Feminism and the Women´s Movement in Malaysia. New York: Routledge, 2007.

  6. Niekrenz, Yvonne and Matthias Witte. ‘Zur Bedeutung des Körpers in der Lebensphase Jugend’. In Jugend und Körper, edited by Yvonne Niekrenz and Matthias Witte, 7-20. Weinheim: Juventa, 2011.

  7. Ong, Aihwa. ‘State Versus Islam: Malay Families, Women´s Bodies, and the Body Politic in Malaysia’. In Islam, Gender and the Family, edited by Bryan Turner, 262-288. London: Routledge, 2003.

  8. PuruShotam, Nirmala. ‘Between Compliance and Resistance. Women and the Middle-Class Way of Life in Singapore’. In Gender and Power in Affluent Asia, edited by Krishna Sen and Maila Stivens, 127-166. New York: Routledge, 1998.

  9. Singapore Department of Statistics. Census of Population 2010 - Statistical Release 1: Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion, 2010. Viewed February 28 2012.

  10. Stivens, Maila. ‘Family Values and Islamic Revival: Gender, Rights and State Moral Projects in Malaysia.’ Women´s Studies International Forum 19 (2006): 354-367.

  11. van Ess, Hans. ‘Ist China konfuzianisch?,’ 2003. Viewed August 2 2010.

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