Interview with Teo You Yenn

by Jolene Tan

This is what inequality looks like (Ethos Books, 2018) was a long time coming. You Yenn first fell in love with sociology because it helped her to understand and place her own life in context. Fast forward to 2018, the month of February: her book was launched to complement the lead-in to the Budget Speech as well as the discussions that would follow. The book entered the second print run within two weeks, and looks to be a gamechanger for discourse on public and social policy.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

In 2013, I began research on what I thought of as “the experiences of low-income persons in Singapore.” I visited people in HDB rental flats, talked to them about their everyday lives. I learned how cramped their living space is, with overcrowding and bed bugs; how hard they work, for very little pay; and how much they worry about their kids struggling at school. Over the next three years, I gradually realized I couldn’t think about these experiences as disconnected from mine. After each visit, I drove away, back to my own life. I saw important similarities and stark contrasts. We share the same needs and similar hopes. We work hard and care about our families. But we have very different opportunities and face such different outcomes.

The book came into being because I had to ask: why these differences? Too often, people think it is about individual choicesif people “choose” to work hard or be lazy, they will be rewarded or fail accordingly. But we live in a society where people have vastly different options. In the book, I look at our systemsrules, regulations, criteriaof education, labour, care, welfare. And I show how class inequalities are embedded in them. Within our systems, some people have more options, more space to make choices, than others. That is what inequality is, what it looks like.

Ultimately the book also poses this question: what can we do about our current state of inequality? I have some answersabout thinking through policy principles, about looking to empirical data, about asking the right questions, about getting over our biases and blindspots, about setting goals for ourselves to do better. But the book is also an invitation to all readerseveryone making a life in this country should have a stake in asking and answering this question.

If no one is really poor in Singaporeas long as people have somewhere to live, and enough to eathow much does inequality really matter?

To know whether someone is “really poor”, we have to ask if their needs are being met. The answer is no: there are many in Singapore whose needs are not being met, whether that is their material needs, their social needs, or their dignity needs.

It is not possible to separate poverty from inequality. Once we try to understand poverty, and we start to recognise some people’s disadvantages, we must also confront other people’s unfair advantages. The story of poverty isn’t about exclusion in a flat world, it is about injustice in a hierarchical one. And this should concern all of us deeply, because what is at stake are the founding ethical principles of this countryof justice, of equality, of prosperity for all.

This is not just a matter of abstract values, it is also about our real, and very much shared, well-being. Inequality in education, for example, affects us all: we will all grow old in a society populated by other people’s children. We should care very much that every one of these future adults has the opportunity to learn properly rather than be demoralised or told they are not capable of more. We have shared interests in nurturing a multitude of talents among all of our young, not just a small elite. We should be tremendously troubled that a tiny subset of children may emerge as adults who think they are smarter and more deserving than everyone else.

You’re a professor. Is this a textbook? Is it meant for students?

This book is for everyone. It has been written to give any readernot just students, or sociologiststools for looking at the lives we live, for understanding how we are connected to others around us, and for discussing public policy. The most important questions about public policy are not technical ones but moral and ethical ones. They are questions about who we are and who we aspire to be. They should not be asked and answered only by a small elitewhether politicians, policy-makers or academicsbut by everyone. We all have a part in taking action for equality and change.

Do you think inequality is getting better or worse in Singapore?

Over the past three decades, inequality has gotten worse in Singapore. Among wealthy countries, we rank among the most unequal.

Beyond this,the more important question is how committed we are to addressing inequality. In the “Commitment to Reducing Inequality” Index compiled by Development Finance International and Oxfam, we ranked 86 out of 152 countries. We are ranked so poorly because: our social spending as a proportion of overall spending is low compared to other countries with similar capabilities for spending; our tax policies do not sufficiently redistribute the wealth generated by the country to the broad population; our labor policies are not conducive to increased wages for low- and middle-wage earners. This Index is something we should keep our eye onwhere we can learn from countries that do well, and where we can set targets and aspire to do better.

What other books about Singapore would you recommend?

There are so many! In non-fiction and published in recent years: Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh’s Hard Choices; Jeremy Lim’s Myth or Magic; Living with Myths, edited by Loh Kah Seng, PJ Thum, and Jack Chia; The Art of Advocacy, edited by Constance Singam and Margaret Thomas; Lai Chee Kien, Koh Hong Teng, and Yeo Yeok Chuan’s Building Memories; Cherian George’s Singapore, Incomplete.

The stories we tell about ourselves are so important and valuable. While I was writing the book, these are some of the writers whose stories I found powerful: Tania de Rozario (Tender Delirium); Alfian Sa’at (Malay Sketches); Jolene Tan (A Certain Exposure); Sonny Liew (The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye); Balli Kaur Jaswal (Inheritance); Amanda Lee Koe (The Ministry of Moral Panic); Philip Holden (Heaven Has Eyes); Haresh Sharma (Off Centre).