While undoubtedly timely and important, This Is What Inequality Looks Like is written in such an unfocused, roundabout way that the message is diluted amidst the discursive dead-ends and pensive paeans.
Inequality is a reality in Singapore, but far from the popular narrative that no one in Singapore is poor and therefore there is no problem, inequality is a problem when it arises from the narrow meritocratic processes of the state and is codified into shamefulness by the state’s attitude towards it, as well as the sentiment that because they did not conform to a narrow and technocratic definition of merit, they are differentially deserving when it comes to receiving the rewards of the system.
The poor are people too, with their own aspirations, fears, and need for dignity, and the way the system is arranged against them to continually reinforce their so-called inadequacies through that differential, problem-centric, means-tested assistance, can one blame them for resenting it as it wears down their psyches?
Is it enough to tell them to have fewer kids, or not to have the flatscreen TV that they probably scrounged off a Salvation Army thrift store that is the only thing that provides them entertainment throughout the day, or to tell them that cold showers are good for you? When Singaporeans say these things, even in jest, they are merely reinforcing the notion that these people somehow deserve less, that their poor decision making puts them at fault, that since they own a TV they must be ok, then mentally regard the problem as an illusion of socialistic entitlement, mark it as resolved, and go into full-blown haranguing mode when others point out that their internalised narrative of Singapore-as-success-story leaves out the ways that it has failed some of its people. It creates a sense of us-vs-them, and wears down bonds of social trust.
When people read or hear about the acts of love, kindness and devotion that the poor have for each other as they face the adversities inherent in a hand-to-mouth existence, they nod smilingly to themselves, serene in the sentiment that poverty is ennobling, and can bring out the best in people. But this, too often, translates into believing that the kids will be alright. But the structural conditions of inequality that reverberate across generations remain. Those kids won’t be alright – the conditions they grow up in will more likely than not consign them into the ever-propagating cycle of poverty.
It is our self-contradictory system, one that promotes selfish and capitalistic self-reliance even as it exhorts us to come together as one Singapore, that propagates the psychosocial conditions of inequality. The individual social worker, compassionate and filled with the desire to help, is still part of a system that regimentalises assistance in a way that strips it of dignity. Some of these would-be recipients see the emptiness inherent in this, because individual kindnesses aren’t backed by commensurate institutional compassion. It is understandable why they would not be inclined to take the dole, to retain whatever shreds of dignity they have.
I think that the book does not intend to strip the poor of all culpability or responsibility for their own poverty, to reify them as blameless victims of institutional heartlessness. Certainly there are the lazy and inept among us. But I do think that what it is saying is that there are certain structural conditions that aggravate the problem by pushing the concept of differential deservedness based on how well you can navigate the narrow meritocratic pathways to success. When people don’t fit into that mould, or they fall off the wayside, they are much more vulnerable to the effects of that inequality, and their children suffer the consequences. And is it necessarily better to build filters into the system to weed out the bad eggs from receiving government dole, or to make the assistance more universal in order to try to ameliorate these underappreciated systemic effects of structural inequality?
While I think I got most of that from the book, I do feel that the essays could have been much sharper. In wilfully abandoning the academic mode for these essays, Prof Teo unfortunately swings to the other end of the spectrum, dealing out meandering essays that at times read like streams of consciousness. In it, she tries very hard to situate herself into the narrative, talking about her fieldwork, of how she has become aware of the differential frames that people accord to her because of her status as opposed to a poor person. While I think this is important to a degree, she tends to overdo it in a way that comes dangerously close to platitudinous.
It’s not really a surprise, then, that I happen to think that the essay on Differentiated Deservedness, which was consciously written in a more structurally coherent and academic register, was the best of the essays in terms of clarity and message. Followed closely by the last two essays on Airing Dirty Laundry and Now What, because of a clear call to action, and a brave and surprisingly convincing reckoning of the reasons why Singaporeans seem to resent it so much when people point out the flaws in our system, and attempt to shut down discourse by accusing reformers of copying other countries like Sweden.
It is here where, I think, the book comes into its own, after the earlier, somewhat over-introspective essays – inequality is not just a problem with the unequal, but for everyone; part of a larger dysfunction in society that values people largely as economic resources, and loses sight of the bigger picture of the state as a system for human betterment. In changing, we do not desire, or need, to turn into another Sweden, because that would be counterproductive – what she says we must do is to become a better version of ourselves – to look at inequality for what it is and to refuse to bend to its logic.
I give this book: 3.5/5 flatscreen TVs