This Is What Inequality Looks Like, Teo You Yenn


[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?”

Contesting Normalcy

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.

Unlearning Myths

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”.

Systemic barriers

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.


Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Arundhati Roy


I had expected this book to be bigger, and the title is quite ambitious. Nevertheless, Roy’s language, the way she writes, is so compact and punchy that these 96 pages are dense with impact and power. Especially for me, someone who only knows nominally about the politics of India. I know just about enough about the rise of the right-wing there, but of course, the right is rising everywhere with the current global wave of populism (perhaps the most startling thing I found out was the popularity of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf in India..).

The preface alone is worth reading this. Let me quote a little:

“The Minister says that for India’s sake, people should leave their villages and move to the cities. He’s a Harvard man. He wants speed. And numbers. Five hundred million migrants, he thinks, would make a good business model. Not everybody likes the idea of their cities filling up with the poor. A judge in Mumbai called slum dwellers pickpockets of urban land. Another said, while ordering the bulldozing of unauthorized colonies, that people who couldn’t afford it shouldn’t live in cities.

When those who had been evicted went back to where they came from, they found their villages had disappeared under great dams and quarries. Their homes were occupied by hunger, and policemen. The forests were filling up with armed guerrillas. War had migrated too. From the edges of India, in Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, to its heart. So the people returned to the crowded city streets and pavements. They crammed into hovels on dusty construction sites, wondering which corner of this huge country was meant for them.”

I found the full preface reproduced here and you can have a read as well. Please do!

As the preface suggests, the book is a lacerating punch back against the severe inequality and violent injustice due to the effects of capitalism. And of course just using the word “capitalism” can seem general and vague, but the demands of capitalism as we know entails a great amount of intervention into aspects of social and political spheres in the interest of corporate profit. It’s sinister. And when we look at the human cost.. it’s frankly evil.

She starts off with an image of the biggest house in India, called Antilla, that’s owned by the richest man in India called Mukesh Ambani. It cost US$1 billion & has a staff of 600 to upkeep. It has six floors of parking space, 27 floors in total, three helipads & nine lifts. I went ahead & got a picture, this is what it looks like:

It doesn’t look nice. But of course wealth of this scale makes everything look vulgar. At the same time this building exists, 80% of people living in India subsist on US$0.50 or less.

She reveals the intricate connections between endowed organizations, NGOs, and the effect they have in politics. All of the power being enacted here is done through the exchange of money, and the tacit, soft power approach of deciding what gets to be considered as “acceptable” in the realm of political stance and charity. Foundations like the Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation are some that she talked about. NGOs or groups that are working on more “radical” projects or causes do not get funding, are marginalized, and some eventually are unable to continue. All the while, the limits of conversation or how we think about resistance is being shaped:

“Armed with their billions, NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation, ushering them in the direction of multi-culturalism, gender, community development—the discourse couched in the language of identity politics and human rights. The transformation of the idea of justice into the industry of human rights has been a conceptual coup in which NGOs and foundations have played a crucial part. The narrow focus of human rights enables an atrocity-based analysis in which the larger picture can be blocked out and both parties in a conflict—say, for example, the Maoists and the Indian government, or the Israeli Army and Hamas—can both be admonished as “human rights violators”. The land-grab by mining corporations in India or the history of the annexation of Palestinian land by the State of Israel then become footnotes with very little bearing on the discourse. This is not to suggest that human rights don’t matter. They do, but they are not a good enough prism through which to view or remotely understand the great injustices in the world we live in.”

Earlier on I mentioned that the wave of populism is global, but why is that? Her book reveals how India itself fell in line with American corporate values and its insidious form of philanthropy. Their strong grassroots movements, ones that comprise of the poor and lower-caste, have to contend with the importation of western liberal values that disregard them.


The numbers in this book are staggering and something that struck me hard. I could not believe the human cost of capital. There is also the figure of 250,000 farmer suicides due to the detriment of their livelihoods. Then the tens of thousands of people who commit suicide due to the debt they accumulate due to credit. Adding on to the issue of class is the fact a lot of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed are Dalits and Adivasi. But they & the figures related to their lives (or deaths) are inconsequential to the rapid growth of capitalism, the rich, & the government. These are not the numbers they care about. They and the very land they stand on are only valuable if they can provide profit. So we read about things like this:

Having signed over vast tracts of indigenous tribal homelands in central India to multinational mining and infrastructure corporations in a series of secret memorandums of understanding, the government has begun to flood the forests with hundreds of thousands of security forces. All resistance, armed as well as unarmed has been branded “Maoist” (In Kashmir they are all “jihadi elements”).

As the civil war grows deadlier, hundreds of villages have been burnt to the ground. Thousands of adivasis have fled as refugees into neighboring states. Hundreds of thousands are living terrified lives hiding in the forests. Paramilitary forces have laid siege to the forest, making trips to the markets for essential provisions and medicines a nightmare for villagers. Untold numbers of nameless people are in jail, charged with sedition and waging war on the state, with no lawyers to defend them. Very little news comes out of those forests, and there are no body counts.

This was about Kashmir. And the full story can be read here. Please read it as well.

She goes on to talk about corruption as well, and the corruption featured here has a lot to do with the way the government wants more privatisation, something that will not end well for those who are basically not rich. The way geo-politics of India and Pakistan are handled is featured strongly as well — The way evidence is blatantly fabricated to falsely indict an innocent man, and how the courts do not punish police found to have made false evidence; the thousands that have died in undignified ways; civilians killed and then simply called “terrorists” so their murderers can escape unscathed. The border of Kashmir is patrolled by 500,000 soldiers — the most highly militarized place in the world.

I can’t believe how much is said in such a thin book. And of course she knows she can afford to say it due to her position. She’s visible, has international standing, is middle-class, and knows that she can stick her neck out, so she does. In fact she mentioned that there is a law that made it an offence to say anything about the state’s illegal activities that would result in “disaffection,” against the state (and of course a lot of illegal activities by the state is in relation to Kashmir) & she has certainly willingly decided to break this absurd law. She knows very well that she has to speak in part because of her position. I still remember this paragraph near the beginning:

In India the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-International Monetary Fund “reforms” middle class –the market – live side by side with the spirits of the netherworld, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains, and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty Indian rupees a day.

I ended up quoting a lot from this book because honestly I think she explains it best. It is a compact punch, and I recommend it.