Real men do cry

Men in Singapore these days seem more open to showing their emotions in public

Crying is a natural reaction to sadness and stress - but as with a lot of behaviours, there is a gender gap.

Men are less likely than women to cry in public.

However, this stereotype of manly stoicism has been chipped off slowly with some high-profile tear-ups.

Former United States vice-president Joe Biden, for example, wiped away tears after then President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in Washington in January.

In Asia, men are also traditionally expected to maintain a calm and composed demeanour in public - but there are signs that some emotions are beginning to trickle out into public display.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say teared up in Parliament recently, in the middle of a long speech at the Committee of Supply Debates.

He was recounting the story of a single-income mother with a brain tumour, who managed to find a job again with the help of the Ministry of Manpower after months of an unsuccessful job search.

Many Singaporeans online wondered why he became so emotional and Mr Lim later told Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao that he was deeply touched by the courage and perseverance of many job-seekers who press on despite their tough circumstances.

He also clarified: "I became emotional not because I was sad."

It was not his first time shedding a public tear.

He cried at a farewell party organised for him when he left Buona Vista ward, where he served for 15 years, to lead a five-man team in East Coast GRC in the 2011 General Election.

Former Cabinet Minister Lim Boon Heng also hit the headlines in 2011 when he became emotional while talking to the media during the general election that year about his struggle with the decision to allow two casinos in Singapore. The incident came just after he announced his retirement from politics.

Psychiatrist Lim Boon Leng from Gleneagles Hospital says that Asian men these days are more willing to let those tear ducts run.

"Traditional Asian values dictate that the Asian male remain composed and measured in public and that any show of emotions such as crying is considered a sign of weakness," he says.

"However, as society becomes more Westernised, public displays of affection from parents towards children are becoming the norm and as these young boys grow up to become men, they are more likely to show their emotions in public.

"Crying then stops being a sign of weakness and instead allows one to show empathy and to connect with others."

Men that The Sunday Times spoke to say that they do not mind showing their emotions in public if there is a "good reason" to do so, for instance, when they are stirred by strong feelings of joy, sadness or regret.

Former national sprinter Gary Yeo, 31, broke down minutes after he won his first individual medal - a silver - at the men's 100m at the South-east Asian Games in 2011.

He was recounting what the win meant to him in an interview with a reporter when he started to tear up.

"I felt finally vindicated after years of hard work. It was not just a simple case of 'I trained then I won,'" he says.

"My career in track had not been all smooth sailing. I came from a low-income family and had to survive on handouts - my shoes, spikes, sports attire were usually sponsored.

"At the time of the SEA Games, I was juggling training, coaching and studies. I was then a business student at the Singapore Management University.

"Hence, the win felt very hard-won and significant to me."

On another occasion, at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore, he was close to tears for another reason - when the Singapore men's 4x100m relay team, of which he was part of, lost the gold to their Thai counterparts.

They had to settle for the silver medal even though they rewrote the national record.

Knowing that "almost the entire team including myself were retiring and this was likely our swan song race", he felt close to tears but this time, he made a conscious effort to keep his emotions in check.

"It wouldn't have been appropriate to shed tears of regret at the podium when people were congratulating you," he says.

He feels that there is nothing wrong with men shedding tears in public if they "feel strongly about something".

"For instance, if an athlete were to win gold and stand on the podium listening to his national anthem being played, I would assume that would be a very emotional moment, one likely to evoke tears."

For Mr Edmund Wee, 45, a sales manager, his divorce a few years ago made him more open to showing his emotions in public.

"I found that crying helps to release emotional stress," he says.

In recent years, he has cried at the wake of a close friend and when he attended a concert and was touched by the lyrics of the songs.

Mr Wee, who is in another relationship now, says: "I am not ashamed of showing my tears. When men cry, they are not being weak and emotional.

"They are just showing their real feelings."

Mr Kenneth Chew, 24, a public relations executive, is of the same opinion. He says: "Men are humans too and have emotions."

He had seen a couple of his male classmates weep when they received their O-level results and found that they could not make it to polytechnic or had to repeat a year.

He would have done the same if he were them, he says.

"I feel that it's fine so long as it makes them feel better and they can begin to think what to do next. Besides, they are not making a scene or creating a nuisance for others.

"I believe that it's braver to show one's emotions than to hide them."

Being a dad made Ben Yeo more emotional

The first time Mediacorp actor Ben Yeo, 39, teared up in public was at his first charity show, the Ren Ci Charity Show in 2003.

"When we hit the target, I was so happy that I couldn't stop myself from crying. All our hard work and team work finally paid off."

Another time when he teared up in public was at a totally different occasion: the cremation of the late veteran actor Huang Wenyong in 2013.

Just before the casket was pushed into the furnace, he and many other colleagues broke down.

He says: "We were overwhelmed with sadness. He was a mentor to me and we had acted together many times."

Yeo, who has two sons aged eight and five, thinks that he has become more "emotional" after becoming a father, especially when watching movies.

Scenes featuring fathers and sons, such as the passing out parade where the recruits reunite with their families in the 2013 Ah Boys To Men 2 film, or stories featuring relationships between the older and younger generation, are the most lethal.

There is no issue with shedding a tear when it is an honest response to a situation, he says.

"We are just being true to ourselves and not trying to be "manly"."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline Real men do cry. Subscribe