Voicing the White Elephant: Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like

“… state policies are not merely discriminating but produce certain categories, individualized orientations and sensibilities… What we have in this mode of governance is not just a state against a cohesive society, but a society split apart by varied and possibly competing interests; a society made up of members who are deeply individualized and embedded in a context where citizens accept that some people are more deserving and others less so. The process of reform, then will not be an easy path toward welfare expansion partly at least because of the ‘society’ that current welfare practices have produced…/ Our bifurcated consciousness—greater-goo-society-before-self on one side; survival-of-the-fittest-care-for-my-family-first on the other–must be brought into coherence.” —Teo, 176-177

For such a prosperous nation, Singapore has one of the highest Gini coefficients, or inequality rates, in the world. Despite that, an Oxfam report released just last year (2018) showed that Singapore is one of the bottom 10 countries in tackling inequality. 

Singapore’s bustling landscape and meritocratic manifestos hide the country’s hushed underbelly well—one where can be found Singaporeans who can’t even afford their next meal, and to whom the much taken-for-granted Central Business District (CBD) skylines are as foreign as a whole other nation. 

Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Likeis a long-awaited response to the taboo culture surrounding the severe inequality present in our society as well as the many problematics in the Singapore system which serve to perpetuate it. 

The book makes for a bit of slow reading—and for good reason. Teo systematically cracks open the many factors that contribute to keeping the low-income low-income. 

Although extremely detailed for the layman, reading this book is as arduous as it is necessary. 

This is What Inequality Looks Likebrings forth multiple, overlapping arguments as to what creates and perpetuates the existence of the low-income in Singapore. From my reading of the book, there are three main contributing factors.

Keeping the Low-Income at the Bottom

Firstly, Teo delineates the ‘normal, average’ standard Singaporean. That is, the middle-income, BTO-buying, CPF-paying Singaporean. Definingthat as the norm is problematic for multiple reasons. The main one, which Teo focuses on, is that anything and anyone who falls outside of this norm, since by definition is now ‘abnormal’, gets consequently ‘punished’ in that the system, which creates and maintains the norm, does not adequately provide for and protect ‘abnormal’ individuals. 

Second is the two values in society at odds with each other: one which calls for altruism, the other which tends towards self-preservation when crunch time hits. 

Third is the Singapore system itself, which creates, and then rewards, self-sustenance. One in which its citizens can apply negative connotations to ‘welfare’ with a clear conscience. Like all systems, this one comes with blind spots: it cannot recognize real need when it arises. As such, those at the bottom who truly are in dire need of help need to jump through hoops and undergo the scrutiny of unnecessarily extensive bureaucracy in order to ‘qualify’ for the minimum level of aid. At the same time, the low-income, who albeit are at the bottom, are still part of the system perpetuating these values. Hence, many of them also buy into the narrative which dictates that no matter how severe their problems are, they still need to ‘prove’ that they ‘deserve’ help, no matter how ridiculous this may seem to an objective viewer.

Addressing the White Elephant

Like most forerunning research, Teo poses more questions than she can answer. However, her no-holds-barred dissection of systemic problematics in Singapore gives readers a plethora of places to begin with if the nation as a whole would be willing to start fixing what is broken.

For a Singaporean, many of the points discussed in Teo’s book are unsettling in that they are revelatory as much as they are familiar. Taboo has a way of alienating a country’s own citizens from extremely prominent issues right in front of their eyes. Or should I say, just the next block over. Similarly, normalizing what actually are constructs has a way of rendering systemically determined outliers ‘abnormalities’ and ‘naturally’ wrong, and therefore unquestionably less-than.

Given the tight censorship and culture of taboo in Singapore, the frankness in This is What Inequality Looks Likeis both a surprise and a much-needed breath of fresh air. 

As Teo admits, writing and theorizing alone cannot change anything, but it can serve as a call to action. As cheesy as it sounds, the fact remains that individuals make a system. It is books like this which dare to give a voice to and detail the white elephant where improvements can begin. Or at the very least, it gives us the map and an invitation to change, if we will only respond.

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