Not Man Enough

Not Man Enough

Written by: Joseph Koh (Photo by: Lee Wei Jie)

A personal reflection on fatherlessness in Singapore society

“Have you eaten?”

“Have you done your homework?”

These questions succinctly express the foundation of Singaporean parenting: ensuring that the children are well-nourished and are putting in ample effort in their studies (which is seen as the central gateway to success in life).

My dad is in all situations controlled, reserved and proper. Whenever my friends would pick out my zen-ness, I attribute it to him.文 wén (cultured behaviour, refinement, scholarly mastery or economic success) is one of the tenets of Confucian/Chinese masculinity, and I believe that my dad is a prime embodiment of this characteristic.

An unquestioned burden borne by the ‘head of the household’ is ensuring that there is food readily available on the table and that the entire family lives in adequate material comfort. My dad has always carried this burden with such finesse, given that he has singlehandedly fed a house of five since my infancy.

However, something loomed ominously in me as I started secondary school. I started to feel — with increasing intensity — that even though my dad was physically (and economically) present, he was emotionally absent. There was such a laser-like focus on providing financially for the family, to the point that a rift materialised in our relationship. Personal father–son times were almost non-existent, which meant that I hardly picked up anything from him. What came closest to one-on-one times were early morning car rides to school, yet they were mostly silent and awkward, interspersed with one-liners. Our bodies were only separated by a gearstick, yet our hearts were miles apart.

These feelings of frustration were heightened when my younger brother enrolled into the Singapore Sports School as a badminton player. One of my dad’s biggest passions in life is badminton, and I felt that my brother was now able to recover my dad’s misplaced dreams of a career in that sport.

I came to realise that these inner grievances stemmed from a burning desire for my father’s approval. As a son rambles into adulthood, it is God’s divine plan for him to receive the “father’s blessing”. This blessing is a rite of passage for sons in the Old Testament — Abraham (Genesis 25:11), Isaac (Genesis 27) and Jacob (Genesis 49) all took part in this process of validating their son’s worth.

The father’s blessing is wonderfully encapsulated in God the Father’s blessing of Jesus at his Son’s baptism (Matthew 3). As Jesus transited into adulthood and was on the cusp of ministering to thousands of people, the Father spoke intimately into his life: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The tender hearts of sons yearn to know that they are loved dearly and that their fathers are incredibly proud of them as men. When this act of fatherly affirmation is an unconditional one, sons come to realise that their selfhood is unique and there is no need to contend for that blessing.

As Singaporean (or even Asian) fatherhood is characterised by sparse speech and tentative affection, I have come to see how this father’s blessing has long been compromised in our society. This gaping void of fatherlessness in Singaporean society has been entrenched with time, as our fathers themselves have also not grown up in an environment where emotional support was readily available and fathers were never expected to be involved with their son’s upbringing.

Chinese families are particularly known to be inept at expressing positive emotions, meaning that their children are persistently socialised with language that tears down rather than builds up. Even in my twenties, I could still vividly remember the harsh words that catapulted from my dad’s mouth. His words cut deeper than anyone else’s, like the searing of delicate skin, as they were laden with the message: you simply do not measure up as a man. The tapering of emotions and the proliferation of negative speech in the common Singaporean father–son relationship have consequently led to an emasculation of many Singaporean sons as their sense of manhood is often belittled or knocked down. A pernicious wound then festers in the son’s life, and he prowls for that validation in many unhealthy ways.

In search of the elusive father’s blessing, I found three ways that hasten the patching of this wound.

1. Seek to reconcile with your father

This could be the toughest endeavour in your life, as you come clean with your feelings and confront the very thoughts that have been striving to pin your manhood to the cold, hard floor. When I was 21, I decided to write a personal letter to my father, penning the tumult of thoughts and hidden struggles on paper. I constantly wavered between taking one step forward and retreating in crippling fear, but eventually managed to dislodge this out of my system. This led to one of the rare times we engaged in a heart-to-heart conversation. It was a strikingly fearful yet powerful time of sharing and it brought us to a greater understanding of how we perceived this relationship to be. Speaking to your father about this invalidation might not turn your life around in a split-second, however this shall set your healing process into motion. We are all broken people, in need of mending by His grace, so let no fear hold you back any longer.

2. Forge deeper friendships with other men

Most of us are most comfortable with a shallow, quasi-rowdy type of relationship with our male friends as our friendships are pivoted around activities. Talking about our feelings is seen as crossing the line of acceptability, akin to entering a female toilet. We need to make a concerted effort to take our friendships deeper, as it habituates space for brotherly support in our lives, especially through the cavernous valleys. As you share about your secrets, your weaknesses, your hurts, your dreams with your buddies and pray for one another, healing shall surge in like a river on parched land (James 5:16).

3. Let God bestow you the father’s blessing

Our perception of God, our Heavenly Father, is frequently tainted by our interactions with our earthly father — our minds hold a certain invisible mirror that is positioned upwards. As I spend more and more time with my Father, I have realised that His arms are ever ready for an embrace. As you approach your Father as his beloved child, allow him to drench your heart with His immeasurable love and ask Him to affirm your manhood. May He remind you of times where you demonstrated such unfaltering courage, moments where you displayed a quiet confidence or the multifarious ways in which He has honed you as a man of undeniable destiny. I believe that our Heavenly Father’s blessing can triumph over any curse that our earthly father has struck upon our sense of manhood. May you be reminded that our God is a Father of all, and is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:6 ESV).

As I thought about fatherlessness in Singapore, something sparked within me: I can actively partner with God in overturning this trend by restoring the “hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6 NASB). He convicted me of the precious need to mentor males about five years ago, revealing to me that I can instil this profound sense of belief in them; that in the times spent guiding them, my words and actions would embody the father’s blessing in their lives.

Mentoring has birthed a zealous desire to witness Singaporean men rise up to better father their children. Whether your earthly father has played an instrumental or idle role in your life, may your personal experience of the Father’s infinite love provide you with rich, first-hand knowledge in bestowing the father’s blessing to young sons in Singapore today. May you join me in reversing this trend of paralysing invalidation, one young man at a time.

N.B. This article has adapted some salient points from Patrick A. Means’s ‘Men’s Secret Wars’ for the Singaporean context.

JOSEPH is in the running for the “smallest bladder” award and believes in applied Sociology. He values minimalist design and clean lines, even in the littlest things. Socialise with him @firesandtimbers.

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