Imaginary Frontiers and Deferred Masculinity: Singapore Working Class Men in Batam > Terence Chong

Imaginary Frontiers and Deferred Masculinity: Singapore Working Class Men in Batam[1]
Terence Chong


Dan lights his cigarette as he climbs to the upper deck of the ferry to Batam. It is a cathartic act that marks his departure from straight-laced Singapore into the imaginary frontier of the Riau islands. In less than two hours he will be massaged, pampered and desired. He will feel like a real man once again. The economic ties between the metropolis and the Riau islands have strengthened and deepened since the early 1990s as part of the sub-regional ‘growth triangle’, which includes the Malaysian state of Johor. The metropolis, however, spills over more than just capital, skills or tourists to the hinterland, but sexual desires and masculine identities as well.

The sex industry on the Riau islands has grown and diversified in tandem with the maturing economic relations to the metropolis. From the early years of catering to the needs of the male labour force in the Batamindo Industrial Park and the Karimun Marine and Industrial Complex, the sex industry underwent a change in the early 1990s with the sprouting of bars, discotheques, massage parlours and karaokes lounges, in addition to traditional lokalisasis (brothel compounds). By the mid-1990s a strong supply of low- to mid-range hotels, together with shopping malls, had been established in Batam to cater to the increasing number of tourists. Meanwhile in Karimun, the town centre of Tanjung Balai Karimun saw a growth in hotels from 2000 onwards because of the sex industry. While Indonesian laws do not explicitly prohibit sex work, it is illegal to participate in the trade of women or to live off the earnings of sex workers, although such laws are seldom enforced.

Though much has been written about women sex workers, there is far less documentation of the men who buy sex. Notoriously shy and elusive, men have become the invisible subjects of the sex industry. The Singaporean men who travel to Batam for sex are predominantly working class, many of whom consume sex not just to satisfy carnal desires but to reassert heteronormative notions of masculinity. In reality, Batam is more than just an overseas sex space but an imagined frontier that conjures up a sense of lawlessness, personal freedom, and relief from the grind of work for these working class men to ‘defer’ their masculinity which has been displaced from the hyper-capitalist metropolis.

“If you’re not rich in Singapore, forget it…”: A Crisis of Masculinity

There is a dark side to Singapore’s shiny global city status. The uneven distribution of wealth and the widening wage gap have led to a crisis of masculinity especially among working class males. Traditional notions of masculinity have been eroded by structural unemployment, the downgrade to lower income jobs, and the perceived failure to adequately play the role of provider. Such crises are certainly not unique to Singapore. One of the side-effects of neo-capitalism in the US, for example, has been the accentuation of the winners and losers in society, often leaving ethnically dominant but economically marginalised men with the ‘angry white man’ syndrome (Levant 1996).

The economic marginalisation of these Singaporean men has had socio-cultural consequences. They are deemed by local women to be less desirable, resulting in many seeking foreign brides from neighbouring countries like Vietnam, Thailand, or China. A whopping 78 per cent of all mixed marriages were between Singaporean grooms and foreign brides, most of them Asians (Asiaone 3 July 2010). Naturally, Singaporean men who married foreign brides were more likely to be older and less educated (National Population Secretariat 2009).

In light of their subordinated masculinities, working class men generally speak of two things when they travel to Batam for sex. Firstly, they talk of being pushed or squeezed from the metropolis. Typical sentiments from respondents include: “it’s hard to make a living in Singapore”; “if you’re not rich [in Singapore], forget it…”; and “…I’m not a foreign talent lah, so cannot make it”. Secondly, they speak of seeking new spaces – both territorial and cultural – as necessary to regain their sense of self. “[I come here to] relax and enjoy, or else go crazy” says one. He goes on to reveal that, “go there [Batam], can cheong [Hokkien, meaning ‘to seek pleasure’] until peng san [Hokkien, meaning ‘to faint’].

It is Batam, an imaginary frontier away from the unforgiving metropolis, where the deferred masculinity of these working class Singaporean men can be articulated heteronormatively. In short, sex in Batam is “an escape into the fantasy of men-as-men and women-as-women, an uncomplicated distribution of roles which provide a refuge from life, because nobody has to step outside the prescribed exchanges and dialogues” (Seabrook 1996:36).

“They are my friends”: Beyond Libidinal Bonds

Dan is a 50 year old bespectacled Chinese warehouse supervisor who has been going to Batam, and occasionally Bintan, for commercial sex for about 10 years.[2] The frequency of his trips varies from once a week to once every three months, depending on work commitments and financial constraints. He is married with two teenage daughters who, he admits, are closer to his wife than they are to him. Dan confides that he and his wife have little in common except for “watching Chinese movies”, having grown apart through the years. He earns about S$2500 a month, only patronises massage parlours and returns to Singapore in the evenings, hardly ever spending the night away from home. Dressed neatly in well-pressed short-sleeved shirts and trousers, Dan prefers to go to Batam alone and dislikes pubs and discos because “they are too loud and noisy, very luan [messy]…. Massage is more relaxing, and got special afterwards, no need to move around… it’s more convenient”. After the massage, Dan may bring the girl out for lunch if he enjoys her company. According to him:

Most of [the female massage parlour workers] come here on contract basis, usually [for] one year. They are employed by the joint to provide massage. Some joints are “clean” [Dan names a few places], some are not. Those who are in “clean” business will have uniform, and they work long hours. Tips are usually given to them, as they earn about RP20,000 per customer. No hanky panky. Usual time is about one and a half hours onwards. Some offer aromatherapy, which costs more, but still much cheaper than Singapore… Those [women working in] hanky panky types earn less, [but make more money] mostly from “specials”. The joints’ entry fees are lower and you can opt for one hour, usually going [for] about RP40,000 an hour onwards. There the gals have to survive on special services. Some of them go by contract basis [and] are recruited by their friends, and others come [on freelance] basis… I know some who worked in factories and got retrenched and end up in massage joints. Not much of a choice, since they have to feed their family back in kampong.

Over the years, Dan has formed a series of friendships with girls lasting for as long as they remain on the island, some of whom he patronises regularly. “Sometimes I visit three [girls] in one day… three massages! [By the] last [massage] cannot perform already… what to do? They are my friends. I visit them to see if they are okay… Sometimes when they go back home [to their home province] I feel sad. I will give them an ang pao and tell them to take care of themselves.” Dan’s feelings of friendship suggest that the sexual encounter, though premised on economic power, may be characterised by more than just “libidinal bonds” (Nagel 2000).

On one hand, Dan’s desire to demonstrate his care and concern has been purged from the metropolis and has spilled over into the hinterlands. The imaginary frontier has allowed the sexual encounter to develop into a more socially complex relationship where money purchases the opportunity for men like Dan to display certain traits like care and concern which may otherwise not be required from his emotionally-distant wife or busy teenage daughters. In such cases, these scenarios of affection are intense and temporal, filled with physical contact like hand-holding, cuddling and playful teasing, but suspended when the man leaves the imaginary frontier in a mutual understanding that the woman’s sex work must continue until he arrives on the island again. For Dan, there is no question of imposed exclusivity, only the belief that she has a special place in her heart for him.

This arrangement, on the other hand, has also been beneficial for Batam sex workers who enjoy treats and gifts from men like Dan. The phenomenon of sex workers developing and nurturing relationships with their multiple long-distance clients is not new. “Indeed older girls often purposely nurse a series of such liaisons with different men, and then derive their main support from remittances, rather than from regular work in prostitution” (Cohen 1986:116). The imaginary frontier is thus a space for the men to play out certain emotional needs and familial desires while the sex worker may willingly subject herself to such male imaginations, either because of the rewards at stake, or because her own imagination of a caring, perhaps even lovelorn, boyfriend offers a comforting counterbalance to the uncertainties and dangers in her profession.

“As a man, you must pay lah”: Playing Provider in the Hinterland

Khairun is a 31 year old Malay Singaporean. As a contract worker with an emergency response team for a private company his income is not stable, averaging between S$1800-S$2200 a month. Although single, he has other financial commitments, like supporting his diabetic mother and younger sisters.  Khairun has been making the trip to Batam for about five-six years. His occasional Singaporean girlfriends never last because, in his words, they “always want more”. Like Dan, he frequents massage parlours but also patronises pubs and discos with his friends over the weekends. In small groups of two or three, Khairun and his friends will dance and drink at discos, chat up girls who approach them, and bring them back to their hotel rooms for the night.  According to him:

After booking the girl [you] must pay for their food, cigarettes if she smokes and drinks such as beer and liquor. The total cost is around RP700,000 to RP900,000 rupiah. Depends how many bottles and food she orders. As a man, you must pay lah. Whether you want to impress her is another thing… but I think you feel better inside when you can treat her, right? But usually, S$200 is enough for two days and one night, inclusive of the cewek [‘girl’]. But this is not inclusive of the two-way ferry way.

For Khairun, activities like drinking, smoking, relaxing and paying for the girl’s expenses are intertwined with sex. Sex is part of a collective experience and cannot be simply isolated as an act of hegemonic masculinity or exploitation of women. Interestingly, Khairun’s ability to treat the girl to meals, drinks and cigarettes in Batam is a simultaneous reminder of his inability to do the same in Singapore. Slightly plump and casually decked out in jeans and T-shirt, Khairun is clearly cognisant of his fluctuating economic status on either side of the border. In Singapore “it’s very hard… you buy drinks and cigarettes, that’s it. No more money. What are you going to tell the girl? Game over, bro. For Batam, with the same money, you can enjoy more things [sic.], and longer some more [sic.]”. He goes on to talk about the cost of marriage. “Seriously getting married in Singapore is costing a bomb… you can cry trying to save up money just in order to marry someone… Do you know at Batam [you can] just throw S$2000 [and] you can get married with grand ceremony?”

It is only because of the strength of the Singapore dollar that the role of ‘provider’ is accessible to Khairun. The border thus signifies the promise of masculinity for Khairun because it restores his ability to provide. Dan and Khairun, however, are not naïve. Given their working class status, they are more wary of being fleeced or taken for a ride by Indonesian women. Indeed, sex workers are often simultaneous sources of pleasure and danger (Hamilton 1997).  Khairun warns against letting one’s guard down with Batam girls. “With money, they treat you well. As we know, they work in this line to find money in order to clear off their debts. Some of the Batam girls try to cheat your money. But [you] must think and be aware of their movement [and] tracks. Do not fall too deep into their feelings. Well like I said, not all the ceweks are the same. If encounter a good gal, you are lucky.” Male fantasies come complete with feelings of vulnerability and the need for constant vigilance in the imaginary frontier.


Batam is an imaginary frontier that cannot exist without the metropolitan-hinterland power asymmetry. And yet, as the cases of Dan and Khairun show, it is not merely a site for the exploitation of sex workers or the straight-forward fulfilment of hegemonic fantasies, as feminist scholars are quick to suggest. It is also a space in which scenarios of affection can be played out and the ability to provide can be exercised. Working class Singaporean men have constructed the imaginary frontier in response to their economic and cultural marginalisation in the metropolis. This marginalisation compels them to defer their masculinity to the imaginary frontier. Their deferred masculinity is the particular and cyclical act of loss and redemption, repression and concession, with the ferry-crossing serving as the double-barrel signifier of economic castration and endowment of the male working class.

Terence Chong is a sociologist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.


Asiaone. 3 July 2010. “Foreign brides the answer for Asian men”. (accessed 4 March 2012)

Cohen, Eric. 1986. “Lovelorn Farangs: The Correspondence between Foreign Men and Thai Girls”. Anthropological Quarterly 59(3): 115-127

Hamilton, Annette. 1997. Primal Dream: Masculinism, Sin, and Salvation in Thailand’s Sex Trade. Sites of Desire, Economies of Pleasure: Sexualities in Asia and the Pacific, ed. Lenore Manderson and Margaret Jolly. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Levant, Robert F. 1996. “The Masculinity Crisis”. The Journal of Men’s Studies 5(3):221-231

Nagel, Joane. 2000. “States of Arousal/Fantasy Islands: Race, Sex and Romance in the Global Economy of Desire”. American Studies 41(2): 159-181

National Population Secretariat. 2009. “Marriages between Singapore citizens and non-Singapore citizens: 1998-2008”. An Occasional Paper.,%201998-2008.pdf. (accessed 23 Nov 2012)

Seabrook, Jeremy. 1996. Travels in the Skin Trade: Tourism and the Sex Industry. London: Pluto Press


[1] This article is a shortened version of a paper written for the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’s ‘Floating Frontiers’ Project.

[2] All respondent names are pseudonyms. Interviews were conducted from July to October 2012.