Decades from now, people will look back and mark this book as the beginning of a change in Singapore society. Teo You Yenn has given voice to a whole body of academic work – both hers and those of her peers and predecessors – that has categorically demonstrated that the way we treat the poor – the way we treat ourselves – must change. And this calm yet persistent voice is a voice we should all recognise; for it is the voice of our nation's conscience.
Teo says early in the book that inequality is the logical outcome of meritocracy. Yet children are taught every day in curriculum infused with National Education that we Singaporeans 'must uphold meritocracy'. This is a 'desired' outcome of our education; but it upholds a system that makes inequality an inevitability. The system we have in place banishes poverty to the periphery (to the point of invisibility) while at the same time precipitating elitism in the centre. And Teo explains why. Once you see what she makes plain, you cannot unsee it. You see that we live in a society that finds it acceptable that some are more deserving of dignity than others, that finds it acceptable that race is essentialised (CIMO), that finds it acceptable that kiasu-ism is lauded as a national trait, that finds it acceptable that citizens interact with each other as customers.
But what has all this got to do with urban poverty and inequality? Well, everything, really. Because once we get into the subject of inequality, it is no longer about the poor (‘them’) but about society as a whole (and this means: ‘us’). So long as we see that the poor are to blame for their predicament, longer still will we rely on compartmentalised efforts, putting off the day when we come to realise that systemic policy and social changes have to be made. And as we see in the news, as country after country is brought to its knees as a result of unrest stemming from issues of disenfranchisement, we do not have the luxury of time if we want to maintain any coherence to what it means to be Singaporean. Things would fall apart. Moreover Teo says, 'as populations age, family sizes shrink, capitalist crises intensify, and jobs across the board become less secure, we have to face the fact that people's needs for social security have expanded.'
Yet the leaders that tell us that Singapore is not a welfare state are the same people that assure us that a Swiss standard of living for Singaporeans is around the corner. That this is a contradiction hardly needs to be pointed out. You cannot unsee.
So what are we to do? Handily, Teo ends her book with the essay 'Now What?' in which she says that we should do what we can from where we are (as writers, artists, teachers, nurses, business owners), know that we are not alone, and know that others will do what they can from where they are. Inequality can only be quashed by its antithesis: people working together in fairness and mutual respect. Wouldn't this be something to see.
This is What Inequality Looks Like
Essays by Teo You Yenn