We The People is our August column commemorating Singapore’s 55th birthday. In it, we speak to a diverse slate of personalities, from heritage warriors to environmentalists, entrepreneurs to filmmakers for their vision of society. These are the voices that make Singapore home. For more on the column, click here.

The idea of masculinity and its definition has been thrust under the spotlight lately, as fashion brands from Ermenegildo Zegna to Bottega Veneta re-examine what it means to be a man in 2020.

Singapore is not exempt from this conversation. In fact, local fashion name Livingwear, which produces T-shirts and undergarments for men made a refreshing statement in their most recent revamp. The brand was founded by Desmond Pheh and Jon Max Goh, both of whom — according to their website — have an aim to make “clothes that fit more people, real people—not just standard shapes and sculpted models.”

Instead of casting models, the brand put a call out for men of every shape, size and ethnic background. The result? A series of images that captured a diverse slate of men where no curve, fold nor fuzzy patch was airbrushed away. It signalled one thing: There was an underlying brand philosophy and a desire to weave their vision of a better Singapore into the conversation.

Here, we quiz the gentlemen on their thoughts on breaking established gender norms, whether toxic masculinity is a thing in the Singaporean context, and how they think — in a world where political and race discourse has shifted — that society can emerge for the better.

Left: Jon Max Goh. Right: Desmond Pheh. (Image credit: Livingwear)

What to you is the prevailing image of masculinity in Singapore?

Desmond: I am not going to sugar-coat it. Growing up in a more traditional Asian-values family and capitalistic country driven by the need to attain certain economic status and objects, the prevailing image that I personally hold is that men must be successful economically and become the ‘alpha’ male – aloof, cool, doesn’t give a damn, emotionless, and a player who gets what he wants.

Jon: For me, I think the prevailing image of masculinity in Singapore is the heteronormative ideal of the provider, bread-winner, professional degree or career holder, if not climbing the corporate ladder at least having an iron rice bowl. He probably has a girlfriend, or wife — with the intention of having a family — and be able to support his ageing parents. He presents himself as strong, driven, stoic, and confident. In our cultural mindset, he might be a star athlete, or an officer cadet, needing to have both achievements in brawns and brains.

How have you tried to redefine it with Livingwear?
Desmond:
As founders, it was important that I redefined what that meant to me. To be honest, what masculinity or being a man means to me today is very different to what it used to be when I was 20. Through my own learnings from conversations with a diverse group of men from different backgrounds, there was a shift to what that meant. With Livingwear, we wanted to normalise different facets and angles of who a man is or what a man could be.

Jon: I’ve always held that the fashion narrative and fashion image is an important medium to consider in its ability, reach, and power to shape perspective and affect minds. So an important way this comes through in Livingwear right now is by the small step towards opening up the conversation that says that all men of all bodies, colour, ages and shape have a seat at the table.

We want to make sure that as a brand, we’re communicating that this tee or underwear is indeed made for and meant to be worn by all bodies alike. It’s not just one type of body that needs underwear. All men need underwear, and so they should all be able to be seen and represented.

Why is this important to you?

Desmond: Growing up, as a ’90s kid, I was only exposed to a few sources of masculinity: The different generation of men in my family, big global brands and media from sources that weren’t social media. That, in a way, did warp my definition of what a man is, and it perhaps affected me in some subconscious way. For example, a successful man wears Calvin Klein – he’s always in perfect shape, and has beautiful women surrounding him.

It’s not just one type of body that needs underwear. All men need underwear.
Jon Max Goh, Livingwear

And I think I was lucky that those values and images shown motivated me to want to get in better shape and be more driven, but I cannot speak for the rest who were not in my shoes. No one is exactly the same, but we are all real people.

So, I think in this era, it is important that brands play a role in shaping multiple faces and angles of what a man is and could be. Fashion is such a strong influence. It’s about using what we have and eventually will have to showcase different facets of masculinity. For example, it is ok to be a house husband if that is what you want to do for your family and that is worthy of respect because you are sacrificing what you could have, for something that you value beyond a career.

Jon: Growing up gay, it’s always been a struggle to constantly define and redefine the negotiation of masculinity, both in a bid to convince myself and others based on how I present it outwardly, of whether or not I’ve met the criteria of being “masculine enough”. As I’ve learnt to reconcile aspects, and be empathetic and compassionate with my own journey and perspective, it was a natural progression that I wanted to make sure this came through in the creative direction for the brand. For me, I think the call for Livingwear to embody a modern man that we believe is more aligned for the present era, and stems from the passion to make more stories visible, seen and real.

Is toxic masculinity in Singapore a thing, for you personally? And if so, why, or why not?

Desmond: It really depends on the definition. Firstly, I believe toxic masculinity exists. Which is by my definition, traditional cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women, and society.

I don’t think I am the best person to speak about it because I don’t believe in this label of toxic masculinity. This is because the name itself essentially condemns the whole spectrum of masculinity as toxic and that starts people off at the wrong point of discussion and it also tells our next generation of men that masculinity is toxic and if they display traits which are, generally more masculine-norm, they might be put in a position that they feel uncomfortable displaying even the good/positive sides of masculinity.

Any attribute or trait brought to an uncontrolled level is toxic. For example, the need to win – which is generally attributed to a masculine trait. But a need to win that leads to the action of winning at all costs, regardless of what is sacrificed, is a toxic thing and attribute in itself and that could manifest in anyone.

Any attribute or trait brought to an uncontrolled level is toxic.
Desmond Pheh, Livingwear

Why toxic masculinity exists is definitely society’s archetype and media representation largely at play but also, we cannot single out a man’s environment growing up and personality at play. We cannot attribute that solely to one single factor but the most crucial factor to really stop toxic masculinity is one self’s own ability of introspecting their beliefs, behaviour and to challenge societal stigmatised norms through awareness and reasoning.

Jon: Toxic masculinity in Singapore shows up differently than what we might understand in a Western context. It’s a personal opinion, and we each see the world very differently.

I think the overarching understanding of toxic masculinity is this idea of a man who is not in touch with his emotions because he fears them and is unable to express vulnerability. He turns instead to aggression or vices in order to put on a strong front, at the expense of potentially harming or hurting those around him by either keeping them out emotionally, or becoming abusive towards themselves or others. Another trope of toxic masculinity I believe falls under the archetype of the “fratboy” – I think we’ll sum this up as a masculinity that has aspects of misogyny, lack of accountability towards others, and an assumption that their actions and words can go unchecked, no cause and effect.

And so for the sake of this topic, I think it is important to acknowledge that we do have versions of toxic masculinity in Singapore. Maybe we are not taught to be as aggressive as our western counterparts because aggression is more frowned upon?

Whatever it is, I think it’s important to acknowledge that it exists, so that we can have the important conversation which is: What is the better way to be raising our young men (straight, gay and queer alike) and showing them what healthy masculinity means.

At this point, I think it’s also important to make a distinction that masculinity shouldn’t be gendered. Masculinity is a trait that both men, women and genders on the spectrum play out. And so we need to start the conversation on recognising that all genders can and should embody a healthy balance of both masculine and feminine traits. Then, as we identify masculine traits or energies that are negative towards ourselves and others, we might go further also to introspect the negative aspects of feminine traits and energies that also need rebalancing.

So when we approach imparting a healthier notion of masculinity for ourselves today, and for future generations, let’s look at it not from a point of view of gender. Let’s start to understand characteristics of masculinity that we value as a society that we believe all genders need to live by. I think some of these things look like: Drive, passion, action-oriented, warrior (standing up for what is right), confidence, responsibility, integrity, leadership, selflessness. And remove the ideas of violence, aggression, inability to emote.

It’s also important to make a distinction that masculinity shouldn’t be gendered. Masculinity is a trait that both men, women and genders on the spectrum play out.
Jon Max Goh

To me what this might mean is asking men, how we can be healthier men. Which is to say, let’s embody those healthy characteristics of masculinity we want to keep, and work on bringing out the healthy aspects of feminine traits and energies which might look like: Community, vulnerability, communication, empathy, grace, understanding, healing, forgiveness.

And so, I think at this point it’s me clarifying that “masculinity” and “men” are not synonymous. And perhaps where things have gotten so confused over the millennia is the unfortunate confluence of both concepts. How do we take the concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity” out of gender?

Diversity seems to be a massive part in the imagery that you guys are putting out — what is the thinking behind this?

Desmond: It is really about showcasing real people in our work and brand imagery.

The media and fashion industry typically only portray certain images in the past and that was the only reference that I could get growing up which led me to believe in certain norms and forgetting that other people of colour and representation also actually exist and is part of the world and they are as real as those who are represented more.

And I think this norm or construct is wrong, everyone should have the opportunity to be represented and shown to the world, through fashion and media which are very powerful mediums and I am very passionate and strongly believe the work that Livingwear is putting out here is a game changer in the local and Southeast Asian scene.

Jon: Like Des, I agree. So much of how we experience and understand, even accept, our gender expectations and impositions on our body, are affected by the conditioning of popular media. I want to make sure we are contributing to that in a way that I wish I had seen myself being represented as a young boy and teen growing up.

What would a world that shows us enough images of men from different walks of life, different body shapes, skin conditions, abilities, sexual orientations, look like? What would it have looked like if I saw more Asian men represented in the western media we consumed? How much more confident would I have been in the 2000s if I saw more (Asian) men who were as hairy as me? How much more affirmed would I have been if I had seen more representations of queer men in advertisements?

For kids and youth who are still understanding their gender, or perhaps a queer youth starting to understand they might be trans without having the words for it, wouldn’t it be powerful for them to be affirmed if they saw a transgender man represented and mirrored to them? What if models had eczema, or scoliosis, or prosthetic limbs? What if more models we saw had depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, herpes, HIV, and we were able to see and understand these individuals as normal, instead of ill, marginalised, or stigmatised?

I think we would live in a very different world.

(Image credit: Livingwear)

What’s your personal vision for Singapore?

Desmond: My personal vision for Singapore comes in two forms which can be linked to 1) Our economy and country and 2) our societal culture and evolution.

For our economic growth and position, my vision for Singapore is to for us to continue being a competitive nation amongst all our peers and improve our standards of livings for our citizens and those who are here. To also grow our value to the world and to continue being a great country, governed by the right people with the correct vision and intentions.

My vision is that Singapore becomes more liberal in the sense that we provide equal opportunities to everyone here, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, and skin colour.
Desmond Pheh, Livingwear

For our society, culture and people, my vision is that Singapore becomes more liberal in the sense that we provide equal opportunities to everyone here, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, and skin colour. To have more open and honest conversations with people with differing viewpoints and stances, to let us find that equilibrium between idealism and pragmatism so that we can continue to grow culturally and economically.

business lunches in Singapore
Singapore Financial District skyline at dusk.

Jon: My hope for Singapore is that we continue to discover who we are as a young cosmopolitan city. It is no secret that we have a lot of catching up to do in our cultural and societal conversations, but it is heartening to see that it is happening. I hope we continue to discover slowly, but surely, aspects of society and humanity we need to care about, and be passionate about, and come forward to address and talk to each other about.

I hope that young Singaporeans don’t lose hope and grow tired and jaded. The work is not meant to ever be finished, and so we must continue to inspire generation after generation to show up and speak up bravely about what they believe in and what they desire. And as the generations before, we must ready ourselves to be shocked, shaken, and shooketh to the core. But to listen intently, actively and humbly about what the hopes of future generations want and need for their vision of the world they see before them.

We must keep leading by example to pave the way, and never be blindly accepting that the status quo is enough.

My hope is that Singapore grows to become that.

In what areas do you think the country can improve?

Desmond: Life is a continuous journey of improvement and growth. There is much that our young country has to improve on and I can’t say what we need to improve on at this point of time, because what we focused on and improved drastically has placed us in the position that we are in the last 55 years.

If I had to answer instead, I would say what we need right now to improve the country is firstly, leadership that is strong, on the ground and with vision. People in the leadership roles of the country must have little agenda of their own, be willing to ‘get their hands in the mud and dirt’ and have an innate passion to lead the country.

[We need] leaders that are open and relevant to the times. Because 2020 is really different from 1970 where the people have different goals and aims as well as open and honest conversations between people and parties of different stances.

(Image credit: Chua Chin Hon)

Jon: I’ll just start with some that seem like no brainers to me. I’ll accept that it’s skewed my view of where I think things need to be.

We can start by repealing 377A, so that we can get to more important conversations for the larger LGBTQIA+ community that addresses issues of housing and healthcare, and all around just finally recognise us as equal and visible parts of what makes Singapore, and contributors to the growth of our nation, who deserve equal rights and privileges.

Secondly, let’s stop saying things like “we’re not ready for a non-chinese PM”. Because we know this is utterly ridiculous. Where majority or privileged communities are involved, a big improvement that can happen is if we start to see that when we increase the welfare or benefit for a minority group, it does not equate to an imposition or an inconvenience to the majority group.

Let’s stop saying things like “we’re not ready for a non-chinese PM”. Because we know this is utterly ridiculous.
Jon Max Goh, Livingwear

Let’s stop this mental leap, and start realising with greater understanding that a benefit to a minority does not need you to feel threatened. It most probably will not affect your life, but it sure will affect theirs. If it does affect your longstanding privilege, what is it that is holding you back from leaning towards a more equitable model of doing things?

Azimin Saini
Editor
Azimin Saini is the Editor of Lifestyle Asia and manages the team in Singapore. He has been told the sound of his backspace is like thunder through the clouds. On a regular day, he has enough caffeine in him to power a small car.