Was really not looking forward to reading sociologist Teo You Yenn’s ‘This Is What Inequality Looks Like’ (2017). It promised to be painful. And it was. However, ten pages in, I knew I share her project observations and essays’ perspectives, and still, it offers starkly different viewpoints. That was when I decided to read it very slowly. It’s definitely worth two reads and lots of thinking.
I intentionally carried this book around during the Lunar New Year weekend, to places where I was obligated to be at, (rather than happy to be at). The book was meant to be my talisman because I know precisely the kind of people I'd be meeting. And holding on to this wonderful book worked like a charm. Nobody ventured into conversation with me beyond essential greetings.
Organized into 11 little essays, the author shares her professional opinions, some nuggets from her field work, and her personal thoughts. In the preface, the author said, "In situating the lives and experiences of a group within the larger social context, the book is an ethnography of inequality rather than a catalog of poverty." It’s like a thesis, I suppose. Feel free to disagree with it. But there’re points, proof and pertinence, and loads of empirical findings. The book and its research are meant to raise questions within all of us.
Why in inequality and not just poverty? Contrary to popular discourses in Singapore, and other cases where inequality is widening, 'the poor' are not outside of systems, nor exceptions to dominant trends. Their circumstances are key components of shared social realities; their lives and livelihoods exist in direct relationship to those who are wealthier; their constraints reveal the logics of the of the broader social landscape and political economy.
'Work-Life Balance Should Not Be Class Privilege', 'I Want My Children Better Than Me' and 'Growing Up Without Class Protections' were tough for me to relate to. These sizable middle portions spoke about parenting, gender roles, women's dilemmas, childcare, children and aspirations, all of which are not relevant to me. The pure privilege of being able to make this choice isn't lost on me. These are, however, pertinent and fundamental to the society, which is made of families that adhere to the Singapore social construct and national narrative. The early childhood and primary school education are hot topics in any given year.
More generally, many Singaporeans take for granted that the system is merit-based and there are ample opportunities for everyone regardless of their family backgrounds.
These perspectives are not wrong per se, but they are insufficiently precise. In their imprecision, they inadvertently slip into faulting low-income parents for the poor academic performance of their kids. The logic goes that if our systems are fair, then surely, they fail because parents are not doing that they should be doing.
To understand why kids from low-income households do poorly in school, we would do well to understand what their lives at home are like. But we must also step back and state their lives within the broader social context. This includes trying to understand what material conditions are like for parents, what school experience are like for kids, and finally and least often done, what higher-income families are doing for their kids. It is when we do all this that we can have a more complete and accurate understanding of how kids from low-income families, within this system, are compelled to play a game they cannot win because someone else is setting the rules.
The first chapter in the book 'Step 1: Disrupt the Narrative' literally urges readers to do so. It assumes readers already think of 'them' versus 'us'. Living spaces are demarcated into 'poor', 'crime-ridden', 'at risk' or whatever. Poverty in Singapore is really not obvious if you don't quite know what to look for. Our city is so fixated on happy shiny things that we ignore everything else.
I tend to roll my eyes when people ask 'why do the lower-income households have such wonderful television sets.' It's a judgment of sorts, like 'If you're poor, aren't there better things to spend on than a television set?' NO. In lower-income households, the television set is everything to these families. Think harder about why the more privileged we are, the more we don't need to have a television set.
How does this narrative matter? When the two people listening to my talk brought up their 'hardships,' it is this narrative —so taken-for-granted it does not need uttering—that renders their experiences dignified rather than shameful. One can proudly talk about choosing to take cold showers because one knows that one is accepted to have climbed and arrived. One can recall bed bugs fondly rather than with shame because one is assured that one has moved up and is beyond those dark days of being poor. With the national narrative of miraculous progress serving as backdrop to their personal stories, these persons can lay claims to a kind of dignified triumph.
Which then leaves us wondering: what about the dignity of those who have not been and are not mobile? What of those who have, within the structure of this narrative, stood still?