Bare Life

Pattana Kitiarsa, The “Bare Life” of Thai Migrant Workmen in Singapore

Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2014. Pp. xiv, 187; memorial note, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Ong Yanchun.

The book under review is a compilation of Pattana Kitiarsa’s essays which appeared in their earlier versions as working papers, journal articles and book chapters between 2005 and 2012. These essays are now published posthumously in loving memory of the ethnographer who researched and taught about the marginalised migrant labourers of Thai-Isan origin, as well as offering his assistance and leadership to the numerous Thai men and women labouring in Singapore whom he befriended over the course of more than seven years.

The “Bare Life” of Thai Migrant Workmen in Singapore converges on the central theme of what transnational experiences entail for Thai men who toil as marginalised low-wage labourers in Singapore with the impossibility of citizenship in the host country. Pattana harnesses three analytical concepts in his ethnographical study of the multifaceted aspects of realities endured by the workers and of their coping strategies: (a) the concept of the “bare life”, which, in the context of international labour migration, highlights the institutionalised patterns behind workers’ precarious status and everyday hardships; (b) “social suffering”, which underscores migrant workers’ collective rather than individual plight and which stems from these complex power relations; and (c) “gendered agency”, which reflects migrant workers’ autonomy to recraft their masculinity on the basis of culturally conditioned norms. Living a life “stripped bare of the powerful sociocultural, economic, and legal processes that govern their existence at home and govern the citizens of their host countries” (page 3) is the price that migrant workers pay for their overseas venture. This “bare life” entails social suffering and even tragic death, in addition to the intensive process of recreating gendered identities in order to regain self-confidence and identity as men and workers.

Chapter Two – “Lyrics of a Laborious Life” – explores the representation of Thai-Isan male migrant workers’ gendered identities in lyrics of popular musical genres from Northeastern Thailand. Pattana observes that these lyrics, a relatively unexplored source in migrant labour studies, celebrate “the male heroism of overseas migrant workers” and “poetically reaffirm and reassert traditional gender ideology and cultural practice” rather than challenging them (page 19). Pattana further traces the changes in the migratory patterns of male workers from Isan and the representation of their identities in popular song lyrics – from the poorly educated and underprivileged men of the 1950s, who left their villages to work as wage labourers in Bangkok, to the “migrant romanticism” (page 32) of the 1990s, which saw lyrics feature the distinct identity and aspirant lifestyles of overseas migrant workers. In all, the acknowledgment of migrant workers in the lyrics of contemporary hits as

“socially, economically and culturally distinctive persons and as specific members of the Thai working class” (page 45) reflects “how Thailand has been deeply drawn into the problematic of local-global trajectories due to the intensive movement and displacement of its labor force” (page 47).

Chapter Three – “Village Transnationalism” – investigates the process by which migrant workers harness the skills, knowledge and networks with which they leave home as cultural resources, symbolic capital and trans-border identities that mediate their new experiences abroad. Through ethnographic studies of Thai-Isan male workers in Singapore and participant observation of their social activities and study of the spaces in which these activities are conducted, Pattana examines the realities that these workers endure in the transnational context. He uses four examples to highlight workers’ attempts to recraft notions of home and masculinity in a foreign land: (a) the Isan workers’ ethnic enclave in Singapore; (b) the reinforcement of masculine prestige and ties to home through monetary contributions to Buddhist “merit making” projects; (c) the celebration of masculinity through the annual migrant labour football tournament; and (d) trips to fish, hunt and gather in Singapore’s abandoned farming areas and forests, which showcase masculinity skills and activities modelled upon those that characterise Isan village life. Pattana rightly notes that the workers not infrequently undermine the disciplinary gaze of the state and employers as they recreate familiar practices in their host country. He further contends that workers’ practices, which seemingly transgress Singapore’s laws and customs, could be interpreted as a “‘symbolic slap-in-your-face,’ registering a kind of protest against the strictly regulated nature of everyday life in Singapore as well as a way to reflexively apprehend one’s own marginalized life and hardships ” (page 55).

Absent from this chapter, however, is any significant discussion of Thai migrant workers’ interactions – or lack of – with the local citizenry and other migrant labour communities. It would have been useful to remind the readers at this point that the Singapore state has excluded migrant workers from mingling with local society through various laws and regulations, and why it has done so. Yet this important issue is only touched upon briefly in the chapter’s conclusion. It is explored more substantially in the following chapter, perhaps in a reflection of the organisational challenges typical of assembling a book manuscript from individual chapters initially prepared for other purposes.

The next two chapters of The “Bare Life” turn from analysis of the social, communal activities of Thai construction labourers in Singapore to focus on their private, sexual lives. “State, Intimacy and Desire” begins with a discussion of the Singapore state’s discriminatory practices concerning migrant workers’ sexual practices and desires and the state’s and employers’ use of “disciplinary technologies of regulation and gaze” (page 77) to prohibit intimacy between members of its transient population and citizens. However, the author does not distinguish among the state’s practices relating to the intimate lives (and rights and privileges) of various categories of non-citizens. Exploring such distinctions might suggest that class, rather than the local-foreigner dichotomy per se, serves as the basis for such discrimination. The discussion then focuses on enabling factors, such as Singapore’s permeable borders and state-engineered migrant-only socio-cultural enclaves, that facilitate sexual intimacies between male migrant labourers and women migrant sex workers within various “permissive zones” (page 77). Drawing on biographical accounts of the sexual lives of Thai male labourers and female sex workers from Thailand, Pattana thus argues that such commercial, consensual sex highlights migrant workers’ agency to “rework, redefine and negotiate the state’s regulations and controls” (page 89).

The author also turns to the concept of “gendered geographies of power” (page 76) to highlight the unequal power relations between male and female migrants in transnational spaces, particularly as women migrant sex workers are more vulnerable to risks of arrest and scrutiny at checkpoints than are the men who seek their services. Interestingly, Pattana notes that migrant sexual intimacy “provides a case study of the representation politics of Singapore as a global city” and suggests that the “image and reputation of Singapore as a monolithic and severely regulated state is somewhat overemphasized” (page 89). Indeed, this is an important topic, raised in various parts of the book (see pages 55, 129, 139, 140). Yet Pattana neither elaborates on his own insight into the topic nor draws on existing scholarly discussions – that of “neoliberalism as exception” (Ong 2006), for instance – to explain the discrepancies between the city-state’s extremely orderly image and realities on the ground and their implications for the “bareness” of the migrant workers’ lives in Singapore.

“Male Workers Talking Sex” details Thai-Isan male migrant workers’ negotiation of masculine self-identity as revealed in their personal stories of sexual practices as recounted to the author-researcher in focus-group discussions. Pattana posits that the male migrant labourers’ sexual lives need to be interpreted as essential components of their self-reflexivity, as they explore cross-cultural life “beyond the confines of familial responsibility and within the context of a new-found freedom and anonymity, despite strict control and regulation of their social lives by Singaporean authorities and their employers.”(page 91). He further articulates the idea that the very act of discussing sex is “strangely meaningful”, and one might add cathartic, in “the laborious and backbreaking everyday life of Thai workers in Singapore” (page 110). Indeed, the reader gets the impression from the workers’ narratives that in the process of sharing their sexual desires, experiences and frustrations freely in ribald, boastful tones – never mind the truthfulness of these tales – the socio-economic, political and legal inferiority that these men experience as marginalised migrant low-wage workers is temporarily but consciously removed from their self-identities.

The workers’ accounts also reveal sexual relationships beyond commercial, casual sex. These complex intimacies – common to male migrant workers across nationalities – are forged with female migrant domestic workers in Singapore and reflect the “distinctive features, patterns, and processes that are embedded in and conditioned by transient employment and migrant livelihood situations” (page 108). What is particularly striking, as revealed in the male workers’ narratives, is their empathy towards their migrant worker girlfriends, who are even further marginalised than the male workers, and the fact that such emotions guide male workers’ mode of interaction in the intimate relationships.

Death and other tragic suffering take centre stage in Chapter Six – “Death, Tragedy, and Ghosts” – as the starkest reminders of the precariousness of migrant workers’ lives amidst romanticised perceptions of international labour migration as a means of fostering labour-sending countries’ economic development. Pattana examines the unusually high mortality rates of Thai workers in Singapore and demonstrates his resourcefulness in data collection – given the Singapore state’s tight-lipped approach to statistics on the migrant labour population – by referring to the number of death certificates issued by the Thai embassy to Thai nationals and to data on work-related incidents and fatalities published by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower to make his case. He notes that Thai workers’ deaths demonstrate “the consequence of border-transgressing acts, poor self-adjustment in displaced situations, or engagement in high-risk jobs and other dangerous activities Singapore” (page 119). Strangely, though, Pattana does not consider the state of migrant workers’ access to health and medical services in their host country, discussion of which might bolster his argument that workers’ deaths, particularly those which are “tragic, unnecessary and entirely preventable” (page 114), underscore their extreme vulnerability and marginalised position in the complex process of international labour migration.

The rest of the chapter examines the imagery of migrant workers’ deaths. Pattana details how media attention to Thai workers’ plight and deaths in Singapore, particularly those controversial cases of sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome (SUNDS), triggered diplomatic spats between Thailand and Singapore in the early 1990s. He does not, however, elaborate on whether or how these political sensitivities could translate into concrete attempts to improve workers’ conditions. Pattana then turns to discuss reported incidents of ghosts of migrant workers haunting Thai government officials. Rather than regarding these merely as typical Thai ghost stories, Pattana highlights their often-neglected socio-cultural and political significance. From an ethnographical perspective, the ghosts of migrant workers symbolically direct their grievances at the Thai state for its inability to protect citizens labouring overseas. The book then concludes with a short discussion on the impossibility of Thai migrant workers’ settling permanently in Singapore, and various contrasting scenarios of workers’ homecomings to Isan.

Two improvements to The “Bare Life”, one minor and the other more substantial, would result in a stronger volume. The first pertains to copy-editing. The names of the ethnic enclaves in Singapore ought to be “Geylang” instead of “Geyland” (page 86) and “Katong” rather than “Kan Tong” (page 146). The second would be more analysis of the logic of the powers and processes that render migrant workers’ lives precarious. In this context, Pattana perceives the Singapore state and its multitude of laws primarily in terms of their restrictions on migrant workers’ rights and liberties, which render workers marginalised on the socio-economic and legal fronts (pages 41-43, 71, 78-80). Yet such a simplified perspective unwittingly reinforces the myth of Singapore’s tightly regulated, squeaky clean image – one which Pattana questions but does not explore further – and conceals the Janus-faced nature of the state and its institutions. Instances in which the law has not caught up with errant employers and employment and migration agents tend to be attributed to the sheer “technical” impossibility of enforcing the law to a tee. In contrast, labour activists and researchers point to the rampant illegality marking the employment of migrant workers. They argue that the state’s lack of the means and the will to rein in rogue employers and agents and compel them to honour the limited rights of migrant workers reflects its pro-business orientation and resultant reluctance to tackle illegality that greatly facilitate employers’ access to low-wage migrant labour (Chan 2011; HOME and TWC2; 2010; Ong 2014).

Overall, this book is a valuable resource for scholars of anthropology, subaltern studies, labour studies and transnational labour migration, and social justice activists, as well as anyone concerned about migrant workers’ lives. The essays are highly commendable for their in-depth analyses of the multifaceted aspects of migrant workers’ lived realities. Particularly impressive is Pattana’s effort to broach and present the deeply sensitive topic of workers’ sexual lives, which reflects the trust between author-researcher and the workers that stemmed from their common geographical and ethno-linguistic backgrounds as well as from Pattana’s years of interaction with and service to the Thai migrant labour community in Singapore. Equally admirable is the absence of any humblebrag about the author-researcher’s credentials as an “insider” or variations of the assertion that Southeast Asian studies is best conducted by Southeast Asians. Instead, Pattana’s strengths as an ethnographer are clearly demonstrated in this volume through his empathy for the workers and his sensitivity to their rural, working class origins.

Ong Yanchun is an independent translator and researcher with a strong interest in labour issues. She read Pattana Kitiara’s anthropology course in the master’s degree in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.


Chan, A. 2011. Hired on Sufferance: China’s Migrant Workers in Singapore. Hong Kong: China Labour Bulletin Research Reports.

HOME and TWC2. 2010. Justice Delayed, Justice Denied: The Experiences of Migrant Workers in Singapore. Singapore: Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics and Transient Workers Count Too.

Ong Aiwah. 2006. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press

Ong Yanchun. 2014. “Singapore’s Phantom Workers.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 44, 3: 443-464.