[review first published in Karyawan magazine]
Singapore is one of the most unequal among wealthy nations. Our gini coefficient has been increasing since the 1980s till the present. However, looking at poverty through the lens of statistics cannot fully capture the reality of social inequality. It cannot tell you about the lived reality of those who live with the constant anxiety of precarity, or what it’s like to bear constant indignities.
In Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like, the dominant way of understanding social inequality, as well as the many myths usually shored up in such a discussion, are tackled with empathy and astute analysis. Throughout the book, while discussing the reality of her respondents, Teo does not remove her personal voice in the essays. Shying away from the tone of an objective, factual account was a deliberate choice; one that abided by her insistence that we cannot think of social inequality as a phenomenon that solely concerns those who live with poverty. Instead, it should be seen as reflecting a systemic failure and a problem that is as much about “us” as it is about “them”.
A question she poses, and the book attempts to answer, is: “What do the contrast in our circumstances and ways of being tell us about the systems in which we find ourselves navigating decisions and building lives?”
The issue of what is considered “normal” is a consistent topic throughout the book that she invites readers to contest. The basic assertion is this — norms are not value- and politically-neutral. They are a result of prior negotiations among Singaporeans about policies and regulations, and they do not benefit everyone. They are also a standard against which everyone is held, and judged, sometimes unfairly, and against which they can be perceived to have “failed”. We therefore need to disrupt the tendency to use the higher-income and higher-educated as the norm, or the belief that such norms are necessarily considered “good” at all.
To question normalcy is to begin to see and make associations that perhaps those in power do not want us to see. For example, early in the book Teo turns our gaze to the spatial politics of the neighbourhoods of rental HDB blocks. For a start, the surroundings are often bleak, with cramped corridors, and dirtier surroundings due to the higher concentration of residents as compared to the HDB flats of homeowners. She mentions how in contrast to images and advertisements promoting the wellness of residents — such as ads encouraging exercise — rental flats are instead plastered with images cautioning residents against loan sharks and other criminal activities. Low-income areas are also disproportionately policed, and as a result, the residents are more likely to be arrested. Dr Teo raises the following question:
“If the signs that we see in our everyday life contribute to our sense of who we are . . . what are the implications for people when the only message they are getting about who they are revolve around crimes and problems?”
On top of the fact that they are unable to own their own homes — in a country where homeownership is viewed as imperative — the very experiential, spatial existence of those living in poverty reminds them through everyday subtle indignities, that they are outside norms.
There are other norms that have to be contested, such as what is considered the “normal” or “Singaporean” way of raising a child, or the educational route and experience that a child should take. Regardless of the norm being discussed, Teo urges us to problematise them for their lack of class-sensitivity through revealing the depth of difficulties that people of lower-income face in their everyday lives.
Part of what normalises the treatment of those who live in poverty, and the tolerance of social inequality, is the entrenched belief in the myths surrounding the topic, commonly expressed in platitudes. It might be the myth of meritocracy, for example, where everyone supposedly has an equal opportunity to succeed through sheer hard work, and nothing else. We might believe therefore that the poor simply are not working hard enough. We might also believe that the poor are guided by different value and belief systems that inhibit their ability to be more productive market participants, therefore perpetuating their poverty. That their parenting is full of bad decisions, and the students lazy and full of bad influences, which explains their lack of progress in education.
None of these myths are true, but in discussing the issue of social inequality, their hold on the imagination of Singaporeans are so strong that they are almost always brought up. It reveals the degree of lack of understanding there is into the real, everyday experiences and challenges that the lower-income face. But perhaps what they share in common is a kind of victim-blaming. The problem of poverty and social inequality is individualised instead of rightfully acknowledged as product of a systemic problem.
Looking to the difficulty of work-life balance for those living in poverty, Teo locates the problem as such: “Their poor employment conditions are central to this. The lack of continuous and unconditional public support for care is another”. The poor are unable to employ financially-demanding salves to close care gaps. While the middle- and upper-class may be able to employ domestic helpers, or send children to camps, activities and even day care, such options are often out of reach for the poor. More importantly, low-wage jobs are low on formal and substantive rights, are less flexible, and far more precarious. This makes it difficult for them to balance their family’s needs, such as being present with their family, supporting their child’s studies, or picking them up from childcare, and maintaining their job at the same time. There is thus a fallacy that poor people are guided by different “values” which influence their parenting, and inclined to “bad choices”. Instead, for Teo, it would be more accurate to say that they have poor options, instead of making poor choices.
On the topic of education, Teo suggests that the main reason why students from low-income backgrounds “fall behind” can be traced to their class disadvantage. Most of their parents are unable to be as involved in their education and learning, or provide the financial support for enrichment activities or tuition. Despite the fact that the education system is complicit in perpetuating inequality within a system that promised democratic access to opportunity, Teo cited Zonyi Deng and S. Gopinathan when they “point out that the early signs of the effects of ethnicity and socioeconomic status on children’s school performance were largely ignored. Differences in outcomes were essentially registered as (natural) ability differentials”.
As aforementioned, the victim-blaming language that the poor face often individualises the problem of social inequality, and flattens it to a supposed problem of individual values, behaviours, or habits. Though they might be well-meaning, even social workers may dwell on the emphasis on individual resilience as the main prescription for getting one out of poverty. How does our country’s systems and narratives itself perpetuate this convenient fallacy?
In perhaps the most “technical” chapter titled “Differentiated Deservedness”, Teo observes how the framing of public intervention in the form of state support as “charity” specifically for the “needy” results in this help being seen as something beyond public responsibility. It is not viewed as a basic form of social security that all citizens deserve, but only for those who are deemed truly needy. This unsurprisingly results in stigmatisation for those who seek such help.
Additionally, this help is heavily reliant on the condition that the poor are employed and seen as productive market, economic participants. The over-emphasis on the individual, instead of the institutional, for the cause of their distress, only serves to deepen the problem. As she rightfully summarises: “The invocation of motivation, of mindsets, of agency — they are powerful distractions from looking at poverty as linked to inequality.” The inequalities generated by the capitalist system thus ends up being perpetuated, and even deepened, by the state.
Conclusion: On Race
If I had a disappointment with this otherwise brilliant book, it would be that Teo is determined not to include race in the discussion of poverty in Singapore. In her last chapter titled “A memo on race,” she mentions how she had to be “strong-armed” by the editors (I am thankful for the editors) to discuss her decision to exclude race. It perhaps reveals the sad state of racial discourse in Singapore, where even a scholar of sociology does not feel like she can talk about something so important without great trepidation.
Teo rightfully points out that the issue of poverty (one that disproportionately affects the Malay community) can be prone to essentialising racist explanations, in line with cultural deficit theory. She does not want to insinuate in any way that a person’s belonging to a particular racial group is reason for their poverty, and points out that people with a similar class background may be able to understand and relate to each other better than with members of their own race from different class backgrounds. Still, to talk about poverty in Singapore without also discussing race is to leave a big gap. The two are so intertwined that any thorough analysis on poverty in Singapore is incomplete if it does not address why it is, particularly, that one race is overrepresented.
Teo mentions that it is difficult, but judging from how brilliant and complex her analysis had been throughout the book, I am convinced that she is capable of handling such a discussion. In fact, her citations show that she has read scholars who have already dealt with the subject of race and the state. It would have been possible to at least acknowledge and discuss already established research on institutional racism and its link with poverty.
Despite my disappointment on the subject of race, I believe that Teo’s book is a valuable sociological contribution on the subject of social inequality. It is recommended reading for all of us, because all of us live within the society and system that has produced inequality. Hopefully it drives forward the conversation, and in time to come, all gaps will be closed.