Step 1: Disrupt the Narrative April 27, 2018 17:00

by Teo You Yenn

Sometimes inequality is portrayed as the problem of a few who can’t keep up — but what if it's deeply built into what it means to get ahead? In this exclusive release of chapter one from the bestselling This Is What Inequality Looks Like, Teo You Yenn details why tackling inequality seriously demands that we change how we think about success — both success as a nation, and the success of those who thrive under "meritocracy".

Singapore Housing Development Board's Rental Flats. Photo by Teo You Yenn

A HDB rental block. Photo by Teo You Yenn, 2015.

When I think about my research, a memory that often returns, and which evokes complicated feelings, is an image of myself driving away from the blocks of HDB1 rental flats where I do my field work. I have done this countless times—got into my car at the end of a few hours of hanging out at various field sites, turned on the ignition, taken a sip of water from my bottle, and driven home.

         Home is a comfortable apartment, barely half an hour away, a world apart. 

         When I get in the car, I am usually still thinking of the people I just met, recalling the stories they’ve shared. Sometimes I am sweaty from walking around for a few hours; if the topic of bed bugs had come up, I feel phantom itches on my arms and legs.

         As I start driving, I transpose myself back into a radically different reality—one where my profession brings me status and recognition; where I can easily say to my family, “I’m too tired to cook tonight, let’s eat out”; where I can walk into any shop, museum, or restaurant, and be greeted as a potential consumer. It is a reality that fits into the image of Singapore as Global City and I its global citizen—footloose, cosmopolitan, mobile.

         The first time I drove away was after a group conversation in which several women charted for me their movements through space on an average week. It looked something like this:

Big island or small island?
Big island or small island?

         That afternoon, as my car entered the highway, it dawned on me that what was for me just another drive, a journey I could take whenever I wanted, was for the people I had just met, an irregular occurrence. It was a surprising revelation.

         When I speak with people who are not from Singapore, one of the things that comes up is how small it is, how it is just an island. I often perpetuate this truism when I describe Singapore to friends who have not been here. Yet here I was, meeting people for whom the island is in fact large and rarely explored beyond a few must-go places—the schools their kids attend; the market to buy food; the bank to deposit money; the post office to top up their pre-paid utilities cards or pay other bills. While people in my social circle go wherever they wish on a regular basis and complain about running out of things to do on weekends, I was meeting people whose experiences of space in Singapore was limited to a radius of a few kilometers. If they traveled longer distances, it was to get from home to work and not necessarily to use leisure or consumption spaces.

         Soon after my initial visit, I would meet many others who have lived in Singapore their whole lives and yet not been to many of the places I give little second thought to.

Mobility and immobility are at once spatial and temporal—they are about movement through places and also changes over time.

         Mobility/immobility are lived realities as well as imagined states of being. They describe our everyday movements. And they shape how we think about where we have been and where we can still go.

         When I present my work on poverty in contemporary Singapore, I sometimes encounter audience members who respond to what I say about material hardships by launching into stories about the hardships they grew up or are familiar with. At one workshop, I talked about a woman whose family was homeless for a few months. Her children had to shower in public bathrooms at 4am every day, in preparation to go to school. As I spoke, a person in his 70s quipped that he takes cold showers every day too. He cheerfully pointed out that it is nice because the weather in Singapore is hot. At another event, I spoke of bed bugs keeping kids up at night, leading them to miss school when they overslept in the morning. Someone then countered that he experienced bed bugs as a child too.

         The remarks were made partly in jest, but their speakers aimed to soften the impact of my claims. What they were essentially implying is that taking cold showers is not so difficult; and bed bugs are not such a hardship. But they are. What these two people imply to be quirky habits or everyday phenomena of a romantic past are, for the people I have been meeting these recent years, uncomfortable conditions of an everyday present. It is their everyday reality to see that everyone else appears to have ‘moved up’ and established some semblance of comfort while they alone are ‘left behind.’

Narratives of the Nation, Stories of the Self

When the two men spoke of their ‘hardships,’ it is rendered legible by a specific narrative. Each year, more material is produced to bolster this narrative: more exhibits, more posters, more movies, more declarations and slogans on websites, more news articles. Layers of a story build on each other, strengthening its overall structure and brightening its ‘common sense’ veneer. For a Singaporean, even a critical-minded one, it is a story that gets under the skin. It is a story that seeps into one’s emotions, and becomes so deeply a part of a story of the self that it is hard to externalize and articulate.

“This is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves... we were poor and now we are rich... what about the dignity of those who have not been and are not mobile?”

         This is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves: Singapore became in a matter of a few decades a shining Global City. We were poor and now we are rich. We had no natural resources and now we can eat whatever we want, buy whatever we want, right in our own city. We were uneducated and now our children score among the highest in the world on standardized tests. We are safe, we are clean, we are amazing. We are amazing. We are amazing.

         To remain amazing, we must keep moving. Movement, motion, mobility—these are not cosmetic; they are about survival. If we stand still, we are doomed.

         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?

Inequality and Poverty

Inequality and poverty are urgent and global issues. They are topics that have received deep and sustained attention by academics, journalists, activists, policy makers, international governance institutions.2 There is increasing recognition that the two issues are empirically linked, and that state actions (and inactions), in tandem with corporate practices, are crucial for intensifying or ameliorating problems.

         The state of global inequality is bleak. Tremendous inequality remains between nations. The legacies of imperialism and colonialism, with attendant monopolization of resources by the global North to the detriment of the well-being of people in the global South, remain very much contemporary realities.3 Inequality within societies too is severe. Where some own abundant cash and capital, many find themselves in more precarious situations; yet others seem altogether out of the game. In cities, where most people now live, we see manifestations of this—in the contrasts between skyscrapers and slums; in the contrasts between shopping malls and ghettoized migrant worker dormitories; in the contrasts between the bodies of people laboring as maids and construction workers and those who work out… at gyms.

         The acknowledgment of and grappling with income and wealth inequalities seems slow to reach Singapore’s shores. It is not easy to fold these realities into the tidy narrative of progress and prosperity.

         In Singapore, inequality and poverty rates are difficult to ascertain as numerical data is patchy. Nonetheless, researchers who work with quantitative data point out that the trajectory of the Gini coefficient in recent decades suggests that inequality was slightly ameliorated in the 1960s and 1970s, and then increased again from the 1980s to the present.4

         In 2016, income inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient stood at 0.458 before transfers and 0.402 after transfers.5 Per capita household income (from paid work) for the top 10% of households was S$12,773, which is 2.1 times that of the 81st-90th decile households (S$5,958); 5.4 times that of the 41st-50th decile households (S$2,339); and 23 times that of the lowest 10% households (S$543). Among wealthy countries, Singapore is ranked among the most unequal countries (second to Hong Kong).6

         The number of people who could be considered poor in Singapore is hard to ascertain because of the absence of an official poverty line. However, if it is defined, as some international organizations and scholars have defined it, as encompassing households whose incomes are less than half the median household income of the population, then roughly a fifth of the resident population7 could be defined as poor.8

         The people I have been talking to in the past three years are at the bottom of the income spectrum. These are households that qualify for rental housing from the Housing & Development Board (HDB). By definition—because this is the criterion set by the HDB—this means that they earn S$1,500 or less per household. While their situations may be particularly difficult, what they struggle with can help us understand some general challenges and insecurities faced by people in the contemporary global city. The point of looking closely at their lives is to shed light not just on the very low-income, but to analyze their experiences as a way of understanding our systems more broadly.

Meritocracy and Individual Narratives of Worth

The Singapore state regime has hedged its promise for equality heavily... the hedge we can think of as "meritocracy"... left implicit is that those at the bottom have failed to be deserving.”

The promise of equality is often described as a promise of mobility. That is, national leaders emphasize that they are focused on delivering opportunities for upward movement, for improvement: we cannot say the outcome will be equal, but we can promise that everyone will get to fairly play the game. The Singaporean state regime has hedged its promise for equality heavily on this qualification. The hedge we can think of as ‘meritocracy.’

         Through the discourse and institutionalization of meritocracy, the narrative of large-scale upward mobility is scaled down to the individual level.

         What are the contours of ‘meritocracy’? Upward mobility is something individuals can achieve; this is a modern sensibility in its implication that one’s fortunes are detached from that of one’s family. Second, mobility can be achieved via hard work within the formal education system; this is in contrast to the model of success through business and enterprise that was the dominant mode before mass education. Third, the formal education system is strongly focused on academic know-how and examinations that test these. Fourth, while hard work is a necessary ingredient, an element of success is presumed to be about natural abilities; while everyone has a shot at success, there is natural inequality among people and the system cannot correct those natural inequalities of intelligence and talent. Part of what a meritocratic system does then is to sort, select, weed out, and differentially reward students, with examinations being the main tools deployed.

         An aspect of the script of meritocracy that is rarely commented on but widely accepted is therefore this: the system aspires to fair competition, but the outcomes of competition are inevitably unequal positions in terms of academic credentials, professions, income, and wealth. In other words, although no political leader anywhere would emphasize this in the terms I’m about to, dreams about ‘meritocracy’ have never been about and do not pretend to lead to equal outcomes. Inequality, in fact, is a logical outcome of meritocracy. What the education system does when it selects, sorts, and hierarchizes, and when it gives its stamp of approval to those ‘at the top,’ is that it renders those who succeed through the system as legitimately deserving.9 Left implicit is that those at the bottom have failed to be deserving.

         Through the discourse and institutionalization of meritocracy, the narrative of large-scale upward mobility is thereby made concrete at the individual level. The connection between national success and individual merit is a powerful public and private narrative that shapes those who’ve arrived, those in motion, and those standing still. To return to the two people who quipped about cold showers and bed bugs, we could say that the national narrative of mobility is powerfully grafted onto their individual narratives of worth.

Meritocracy: Not working as it should, or exactly as it can?

On the afternoons and evenings when I conduct my field work, as I visit families to chat, I sometimes get the feeling that time slows down. I walk into flats to see ways of being that I recognize from my childhood school holidays in the 1980s, when I would spend time at my grandparents’ house in semi-rural Malaysia: a man boils water, on the stove, so that his child can have warm water to scoop out from a bucket at bath time. Tilam (mattresses) are kept away, stacked to one side during the day and laid out on floors at night, because the space for sleep is also the space for living.

         There is so much that is positive in what I’ve observed, reminiscent of a time when relationships between people felt deeper and more central to the rhythms of everyday life: we sit on floors chatting about the past and present, taking our time to build trust and understanding, without a huge rush toward narrow goals and quantifiable ends. People in fact have a lot to do, but they somehow still have the patience and generosity to put their tasks on hold in order to entertain my questions. I find myself viewing my normal rhythms as a university professor and working parent in fresh light—recognizing a profound neglect of humanity in the mad rush that dominates my regular social interactions.

         Children as young as six are capable of caring for siblings and neighbors who are younger, as they all run around the corridor playing games; their independence and capacity for care impress me tremendously.

         It takes a while to move beyond seeing these scenes as either those of a romantic past or an impoverished present. They are neither and both. What they represent is something that requires an alternative set of vocabularies, a separate set of lenses to view clearly.

         These lives can be seen clearly only when I zoom out—when I situate where these flats are in the wider terrain of the city, when I view the kids relative to their peers in Singapore schools. Most importantly, I can see them clearly only when I suspend my internal narrative of Singapore and my own family biography as Third World to First, lower class to higher. I can see them clearly when I force myself to see both the pitfalls and the strengths of all circumstances—theirs and mine. And I can see them clearly only when I invert the naturalized hierarchy that structures our interactions—that I, a professor, is automatically superior to them who are cleaners, cashiers, drivers, laborers—and when I honestly ask: what are the pitfalls in their circumstances, and what are their strengths? What are the pitfalls of my circumstances? What are its lacks? What do the contrasts in our circumstances and ways of being tell us about the systems in which we find ourselves navigating decisions and building lives?

         When we pose these questions, we are saying the problems at stake here are not just about ‘them,’ but also about ‘us.’ We disrupt the tendency to use the higher-income, higher-educated as the norm against which all persons are measured. We cast aspersions on standard, taken-for-granted aspirations—for credentials, for status, for wealth, for rankings—that are so regularly prescribed as universal and beyond question.

         The point here is this: numerous qualities and values, which we presume to be ‘good,’ are neither neutral nor universal.

         It is crucial to think and articulate this point repeatedly. The discussion of Third World to First, lower class to higher, presumes that a certain type of change is good, and that the changes we have experienced are necessary. The script of pathways through the life course in contemporary Singapore—school, employment, accumulation of savings, marriage, housing, kids, caregiving—presumes a narrow set of middle-class practices and values as ‘normal.’ Normalcy here implies that the script is common sense, beyond question, and also normatively right. In discussions of poverty, even among well-meaning people, there is an underlying presumption that the lower-income’s ways are inferior, their life pathways ‘deviant,’ their ‘choices’ bad, their ‘cultures’ problematic, and that the appropriate intervention is to get ‘them’ to behave more like ‘us.’

         There is insufficient attention to the fact that reward and punishment systems are not neutral. Not all qualities, skills, and capacities are equally valued in our society. Inadequate thought is given to the ways in which some of us set the standards against which others are measured.

         Being able to sit still, take instruction from adults, spell English words accurately (even when they make no phonetic sense)—these are crucial for ‘success’ from day one in Primary 1; they are qualities that the wealthier among us spend money to cultivate in our children. In the big scheme of things, there is very little we can say to defend their inherent value. On the other hand, the generosity of neighbors, the capacity of children to do chores and care for siblings, the mutual dependence within extended families who show support for one another—these values and practices I see in abundance among low-income communities are not values that are actively promoted. This ‘community’ in the true senses of the word somehow do not meet KPIs.10 In our system of rewards, their values do not translate into assets that lead to the material and symbolic upward flights of families and individuals. In our national narrative, these are not values that are legible, especially not when they are embodied by the lower-income.

         When we insist that some behaviors should be rewarded, that is often because we have vested interests rather than because those qualities have inherent human worth.

         In a city whose story to itself and to the outside world is one of rapid upward mobility, the people I have been meeting over the past few years are framed as ‘left behind.’ More importantly, since mobility is cast as an individual endeavor, they are also marked as losers in the game, people ‘unable to keep up.’ They are often stuck in these positions by a confluence of educational credentials that do not open doors, jobs that are paid poorly, and care gaps that are not adequately addressed.

         And so it is that we have not one city but multiple cities.

         For people like myself, the city is full of promise—entertainment, safety, solid infrastructure, security, and mobility. For the low-income, it is a city of limited movement—their lives are characterized by physical hardship and a strong sense that they will go nowhere. The qualities they and their children have—of resilience, independence, and generosity—have little legitimacy and standing in this shiny global city.

         The most common critique about meritocracy in Singapore is that it is not working as it should, that our problem is not with the principles embedded in the system but with implementation. Hence, a million and one tweaks to ‘level up.’ In sociological literature, meritocracy is widely recognized as a system for sorting, selecting, and then differentially rewarding people; it is a system for legitimizing the process and outcomes of sorting, based on narrow notions of what is worth rewarding and what is not. And it works well when there is, what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as “misrecognition.”11

         Misrecognition happens when we think that a system is based on a certain set of principles when it really works on the basis of another, when we think it rewards each individual’s hard work when in reality it rewards economic and cultural capital passed on from parents to children. Where there is misrecognition of its real principles and mechanisms, meritocracy is a system that legitimizes those who end up its victors, casting them as individuals who have succeeded on their own hard work and intelligence rather than on any inherited unfair advantages. It is also a system that tells us a specific story about failures, casting those too as individual lacks rather than systemic disadvantages.

         From a sociological point of view, meritocracy in Singapore is working exactly as it can. And it works very well in convincing us that we all—no matter where we are on the social hierarchy—deserve to be exactly where we are. Those who cannot get their children to have qualities legible as merit pay its price.

         As inequality across society intensifies, we see that this is a price paid not just by the very low-income but also by people higher on the income spectrum, who recognize and fear that there is a lot to lose in even a little downward mobility. The tuition industry, the enrichment business, depression and anxiety among youth, the high degree of stress experienced by parents and the time wasted supervising homework—these too are costs to those higher on the income spectrum.

Individuals do not live on islands (even when we literally do!). We are connected through rich, complex, and intricate ties to others in society. What we do and do not do are shaped by our sense of how others are—shared understandings of right and wrong, good and bad, valuable and worthless. The pathways and practices we end up taking are rendered meaningful by shared scripts and narratives that permeate our society.

         It is from our shared scripts and narratives that I come to have a strong sense of myself as a professor, and some of the respondents I meet come to have an inferior sense of themselves as cleaners. The everyday experiences we have of how people look at us, talk to us, treat us, invite or not invite us to partake in social life—these are the materials we draw on to craft our selves. When my educational credentials open doors and opportunities, when I am addressed as ‘Prof’ in every correspondence I receive, and given ‘merit’ increments annually, this adds to my sense of self-esteem as well as to my material wealth. When a low-income person goes to the Social Service Office and is asked numerous personal questions about their family lives or how $40 appeared on their bank account statement, or why they don’t just get a better-paying job, this adds to their sense of themselves as inferior, unworthy, and excluded.

An Ethnography of Inequality

Inequality is often studied as an objective fact, a question of numbers. It is of course that. But the numbers are derivative—they are drawn from patterns of social realities but do not fully describe the realities themselves. Inequality, as a social phenomenon, is experiential. It is a lived reality, felt in everyone’s everyday lives. These lived experiences tell us important things about how inequality is enacted and everyday reproduced.

         As a sociologist, I am interested in structure. What that means is that I am interested in how institutions, rules, regulations, shape what individuals can and cannot do. But the structural is not deterministic; it does not, on its own, drive history. Structural circumstances provide the scaffolding, but it is persons going through their everyday business who enact the daily practices. It is in these daily practices that we can understand the effects of structures.

         My research began as one of poverty, of the low-income, of them. Over time, I have come to realize that the story I have uncovered is one of inequality, of relative wealth and poverty, of us.

         It would be easier to write a book about poverty, to continue thinking about the problems at hand as ones that can be resolved by more attention to them. But it would be less honest. It would be poorer and less complete knowledge.

         Why does this knowledge matter? Because how we see a problem, the questions we ask about it, shape our solutions. If we misrecognize our problems, we cannot be surprised when we cannot come up with solutions that solve.


The study of poverty is not rocket science. What there is to know about it isn’t so difficult to understand.

         The study of poverty is not rocket science. What keeps us from understanding and appreciating it is not its empirical or theoretical complexity.

         I say this not to mean that there is no research work to be done—there is a lot that we still need to learn through systematic and rigorous empirical work. I say this partly because I often hear people claim, “the problem is complex,” and I wait in vain for the rest of the sentence. So, what I’m saying is, yes it’s complex, but really, not so complex that it’s beyond our understanding.

         Why am I inserting myself so much in what I write? This is not typical practice in academic writing. It is actually tremendously uncomfortable. I insert myself because as I get deeper and deeper into this research, I see that this is key to shifting our lenses for viewing inequality and poverty more fully.

         The biggest barrier to understanding and appreciating inequality and poverty is in some ways myself, or rather, my social position and where I place in the Singaporean narrative. A big barrier to accepting the realities, the contours, the experiences, the undeniable realness of poverty and inequality in Singapore is ideological. And it is an ideological barrier that we share as a collective. It is an ideological barrier deeply embedded in our national narrative.

         The biggest barrier to understanding poverty and inequality, for people with varying degrees of power, status, influence, is their, our vested material and symbolic interests in its perpetuation. We are so deeply implicated in our national and individual narratives of growth, development, and meritocracy, that we have trouble confronting and seeing stories that trouble these narratives.

         Narratives are not bad things. We need to tell ourselves stories about ourselves, in order to understand our past, make meaning of the present, and aspire to the future. But when narratives are monolithic and singular, they become fortresses of vested interests, biases and blindspots.

Education and so-called meritocracy, welfare and so-called dependencewe would examine all of these... these need to shift in profound ways rather than repeatedly tweaked at their edges

         To see better, we need to expand our narratives. We must uncover more data but also go beyond merely tracking statistical trends or documenting examples of hardship. An important goal to set for ourselves lies in changing the narrative—our national narrative and our internal biographical narratives. If we can do that—face up to how we are all implicated and entangled, confront how the narrative we hold onto upholds our own privileges at the same time that it maintains the disadvantages of some of our fellow residents in this country—then we can really begin talking about solutions.

         When we shift the narrative, what would we do differently?

         We would not ghettoize the problem of poverty—we would not think of it as a problem of the ‘other,’ that there are those who render ‘help’ and those who receive ‘help.’ We would talk about wealth every time we speak of poverty. We would insist that elitism and marginality are two sides of the same coin. We would stop being coy in speaking about exploitation, about the exercise of power in everyday lives. We would start to deal with the uncomfortable truth that when those of us with more do things that are the best for ‘our’ children, that we are also further solidifying the narrow definitions of merit and creating less space for children who have other qualities that are not legible in our system. We would not shy away from calling this a moral problem, an ethical issue. Importantly, we would look at our systems more broadly. Education and so-called meritocracy, welfare and so-called dependence—we would examine all of these, and we would think about how these need to shift in profound ways rather than repeatedly tweaked at their edges.

         Poverty is not rocket science. Step 1 is to disrupt our narratives.

1   Housing & Development Board.
2   For a very small subset of recent work on inequality and/or poverty, see OECD (2014); Piketty (2014); Inglehart (2016); Credit Suisse Research Institute (2014); Bourguignon (2016); Ostry, Berg and Tsangarides (2014); Development Finance International and Oxfam (2017); Stiglitz (2012); Amin (2013); Ferguson (2006); Garon (2002); Haney (2002); Kohl-Arenas (2015); Mullainathan and Shafir (2013); Standing (2011); Wacquant (2009); Prasad (2012); Ackerman, Alstott and Van Parijs (2006); Ehrenreich (2010); Sainath (1996); Edin and Kefalas (2011); Davis, Hirsch, Padley and Marshall (2015); Song (2009).
3   Ferguson (2006); Roy, Negrón-Gonzales, Opoku-Agyemang and Talwalker (2016); Sassen (2001).
4   Ng (2015).
5   Singapore Department of Statistics (2016).
6   Central Intelligence Agency (2017).
7   Note that official statistics exclude the large transient migrant worker population living in Singapore. In 2016, they number almost 1.7 million, or about 30% of the total population. If their incomes were taken into account, given that most are low-wage workers, then income inequality and poverty rates would probably be even higher.
8   Donaldson, Loh, Mudaliar, Kadir, Wu and Yeoh (2013); Smith, Mudaliar, Kadir and Yeoh (2015).
9   Bourdieu (1989); Karabel and Halsey (1977); Khan (2011).
10   Key Performance Indicators.
11   Bourdieu (1989); Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992).


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About the Author

Teo You Yenn

Teo You Yenn received her PhD in Sociology from the University of California at Berkeley. She is currently Associate Professor and Head of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She has published journal articles, book chapters, and op-eds, and is the author of Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How family policies make state and society (Routledge, 2011). She has received awards for her teaching and for bringing her research into the public domain. In 2013, she was winner of the Nanyang Education Award, and in 2016, she won the American Sociological Association Sex and Gender Section’s Feminist Scholar Activist Award. 

This Is What Inequality Looks Like can be purchased here.

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