“Ah Umm” and our collective, persistent inability to talk about poverty, inequality, and social welfare in Singapore

Farrer Park, Singapore

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Stories about low-income or low-wage Singaporeans who struggle to make ends meet or receive inadequate financial assistance follow familiar patterns. First, they are documented and shared without consent. The ensuing social media conversations are a mix of outrage, scepticism, and resignation. There are concurrent attempts to identify, to verify, and to follow up with the individual. The speedier the story goes viral, the government (frequently fronted by MSF) hurries to investigate and to clarify, concluding with the assurance that assistance has been or will be extended.

And in the aftermath of the story, right now, the same social media users trade tired tirades. “See la, I told you the story, confirm some things not true.” “Singapore, you only get help if you make noise or if posts go viral.” “These people who are outraged, don’t know ground realities / trade-offs / how to contact MSF SSO, never volunteer, all keyboard warriors.” “Why are we importing this American ‘leftist’ and ‘rightist’ rhetoric into Singapore?” “How can you trust these stories!”

Yet in the end, while I have no doubt that social workers will provide the promised assistance to her and her family, it is the individual – “Ah Umm” – who suffers the ramifications of the overwhelming public attention and threats to her privacy. Not only that. Instead of centring on her lived experiences and understanding her perceptions of her perceived life difficulties (MSF’s account corroborates the loss of her son, a traumatic event, and like many Singaporeans she’s also experiencing wage loss because of the pandemic), her narrative is extracted, scrutinised, and weaponised beyond her wishes and control.

We are all the poorer for it, and episodes like this underline our collective, persistent inability to talk constructively about poverty, inequality, and social welfare in Singapore. I offer four quick justifications.

First: Where are the (discursive) spaces for the disadvantaged and marginalised in Singapore? If the status quo prioritises exclusive reliance on intermediaries (social workers and organisations, activists and advocates, academics and researchers, journalists and public intellectuals) to convey these stories as proxies, and if the precariat are unable to make themselves heard – beyond interactions with state or assistance agencies – then our work should be to create and maintain these spaces.

An immediate counter-argument is that with the stigma associated with poverty or being poor in Singapore, individuals would justifiably be wary of speaking out. If so, the burden falls on the intermediaries to design these safe spaces, or to directly invite their participation without threatening their privacy or confidentiality (a point I elaborate later).

Second: Informed consent is important. The gentleman who shared Ah Umm’s story was probably well-intentioned, but did so without permission. He too could’ve contacted MSF directly, but I see no problem with anchoring criticisms of Singapore’s social welfare policies by stories and narratives, even if such endeavours could be more sensitive, rigorous, and systematic. Individual cases, especially when taken together, can inform systemic evaluations and change.

(Incidentally too for (1) and (2), I think Singaporean academia should play a much more proactive role. Prof. Mohan Dutta eloquently describes how we should prioritise those of the margins, of the margins.)

Third: There is some irony in MSF’s statement that “posting and sharing their circumstances on social media may lead to further distress for these vulnerable groups of people and their families”, when it seems plausible – in the very same post – to use the given information to identify the individual. I understand MSF’s anxiety to show that it is responsive and proactive, and it’s also a case of damned if you do (“Government trying to prove its work!”) and damned if you don’t (“What is the government hiding? We need answers!”). Yet, the importance of informed consent goes both ways.

Those who are disinclined to trust the state will maintain their reservations regardless of the amount of information provided. And I think there is sufficient public trust in MSF and social workers to dispense with their responsibilities, such that over-explanation and over-sharing feels unnecessary.

Finally: At the risk of excessively quoting Prof. Dutta, he shared the following in the episode, which has guided my work since. We can actually have “Everyday negotiations of the structures, in terms of just trying to get by, and on the other hand [we] can try to change the structures and bring about the narratives that change the structures.” Social workers and the social work profession in Singapore do critical everyday work for the disadvantaged and the marginalised, yet this work does not preclude discussions and activism about how we might fundamentally or structurally improve socio-economic circumstances in the country. So, so many of them do both at the same time.

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