“This is What Inequality Looks Like”: Almost two years later, what does action look like?

Hallway of a HDB flat in Singapore

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Book: “This is What Inequality Looks Like” (2018, Ethos Books) by Teo You Yenn

“This is What Inequality Looks Like” (2018) by Teo You Yenn galvanised a national conversation on inequality and poverty, yet almost two years later – of no fault of the author – the extent to which the rhetoric has translated into sustainable action is less clear. While the government has introduced policy changes, community groups have started initiatives, and academics have taken greater research interest in these issues, the underlying assumption that Singapore should “lift the bottom, not cap the top” has gone unquestioned.

Not giving the “not cap the top” narrative equal attention is also a weakness of the ethnographic book, since it is a book on inequality (and poverty) which draws exclusively from the perspectives of lower income persons. Teo does juxtapose her everyday middle-class life with those of the low-income parents whom she interviews, explaining at the same time what it means to “lift the bottom”, but what is absent is a more thorough examination of the responsibilities of middle- and high-income Singaporeans to narrow the inequality gap or to alleviate poverty.

The implications for the broader national conversation, along this tangent, are that engagement sessions still often revolve around privileged Singaporeans talking about those who are less privileged (and how they should be helped), and less about how the former could change their personal lives or circumstances. That we have not found a way to involve low-income families in these discussions without objectifying them or their experiences or presuming to speak for them. And that the socio-economic and experiential gap between the bottom and the top persists, because these groups of Singaporeans could essentially go through their schools, workplaces, homes, and other common spaces without interacting meaningfully with one another.

Because to cap the top does not literally or necessarily entail disadvantaging or even penalising academic high performers in the country, but to take into consideration their resources and social capital vis-à-vis their less privileged counterparts. In fact, the courses of action available to them are not restricted to just volunteer contributions – which in a perverse manner might even benefit the privileged volunteer disproportionately compared to the less privileged beneficiary – and should include an evaluation of one’s privilege, one’s social networks and interactions as well as the structures or systems, and ultimately one’s potential complicity in inequality and poverty in Singapore.

Put otherwise: Being plugged into the national discourse and attending events are great. Volunteering and starting initiatives are good next steps. Activating sustainable social change, however, is more likely to start with an examination of our own background and privilege and how they relate to our limited communities and our lack of understanding.

Be that as it may, and in addition, “This is What Inequality Looks Like” not only elevated inequality and poverty as national issues, but also highlighted their connection and their reciprocal reproduction. In one of the most commonly cited excerpts:

“To study poverty without inequality leads to tendencies to misrecognise structural issues for individual failings. On the other hand, to study inequality without poverty, particularly through focus only on trends and numbers, is to allow research devoid of human insofar as we merely cite phenomenon without naming the injustices as enacted on real persons”.

Teo adds towards the end of the book too: “The invocation of motivations, of mindsets, of agency – they are powerful distractions from looking at poverty as linked to inequality. They are bait-and-switch moves to avoid acknowledging poverty as that which is reproduced within a system”.

While the narratives or stories of the lower income persons will not be unfamiliar to those who work for and with these individuals – such as youth and social workers – the strong public reaction highlighted the collective lack of knowledge and distance from those who are unlike us. Given that “children are at the centre of people’s lives, identities, efforts, and decisions”, in the first half of the book, the most powerful essays revolve around how parents balance employment and the needs of their families and children, how children and adolescents have complex care demands which their low-income parents may find hard to fulfil, as well as how the fact that they “make the best of their circumstances does not mean that their circumstances are acceptable”.

In the second half, Teo’s attention turns to government policies and programmes – and the principles which undergird such assistance – and, more interestingly, how social service organisations and workers navigate an environment where programmes are residual and narrowly targeted, not universal. There is a sense of empathy when recognising the difficulty of balancing their professional mandate with how they might perceive the issues:

“Working in an environment of scarcity – where aid is limited, finite, and highly contingent on narrow criteria – social service providing organisations and workers operate fundamentally within a world where resources are understood and experienced as limited. In this context, it makes sense that they look out for signs of deservedness as manifested in performances of ‘mindsets’ so as to decide how to distribute scarce resources … These are the bases to the belief that poverty should be resolved by people changing their sensibilities, their ways of thinking about themselves, and how they relate to the world”.

As with any scholarly work, the limitations of “This is What Inequality Looks Like” are duly detailed. Notwithstanding the comparatively short and less substantive chapter on race and its relationship to inequality and poverty in the country, Teo acknowledged that perspectives from the children and adolescents – not just the parents – would offer useful knowledge about their development and well-being. Information about the social networks of low-income families would be productive for policy discussions and interventions too. And in addition to broadening the discourse to include the aforementioned responsibilities of middle- and high-income Singaporeans, considering how the state might respond or has responded to the narratives, and stories, and criticisms will help move the conversation forward.

And for academics, in this vein, the call to action should be even clearer. “A book like this should be a regular outcome of our knowledge-production system, not an accident, a blip”, and in the fields of inequality and poverty – and beyond – more work remains.

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