Later: An unanticipated year of autoethnography
Afterword to This is What Inequality Looks Like, January 2019
When I filed my last edit in December 2017, a month before This is What Inequality Looks Like was first released, I fully expected to begin a gradual backing away from the book. That is what academics do: we work on a research project, draft articles and books reporting our findings, revise them over a couple of years. By the time they are reviewed, revised, and published, we are already working on some other project. After publication, there may be a handful of opportunities to speak about the work; five to ten years later, we may discover that our work has been read when it is cited by a few other scholars in their publications. That is all. It must seem incredibly strange to people not in this world, but academics write even though we do not expect many people to read or comment on our work. From this perch, I was unprepared for what was to come after the release of TIWILL.
Ethos Books released This is What Inequality Looks Like on January 5, 2018. It hit the bookstores and went straight onto the nonfiction weekly bestseller list, where it remains one year on. By the time of the book launch event on February 2, about 800 copies had been sold. There was enough traction that about two hundred people showed up for the book launch, the vast majority of them unfamiliar faces. In the Budget debates in February, parliamentarians cited the book in their speeches, some quoting direct passages.1 The mainstream media quickly picked up on the book—editorial reviews appeared and references to it were made in various articles about inequality and social mobility in both the English and Chinese press.2 Outside of The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, other articles also appeared.3 Between January and July, I received regular requests from journalists asking me to comment on articles and to be profiled in newspapers and magazines. I turned down most of these. One I did accept was an interview by Bharati Jagdish, because she sent me in-depth questions about the book that I thought would clarify certain issues, and hers was a radio program with sufficient time to flesh out some complexity.4 That interview ended up being widely circulated and created another spike, in May, in sales of TIWILL. Between January and July, I wrote seven op-eds directly engaging in some of the conversations and debates.5 It was of course not all rainbows and sunshine. Several critiques also appeared.6 Friends sent me texts when they thought it was probably I who was being called a “bleeding heart” and probably I who had triggered the negative use of the words “theory” and “academic.” I watched, slightly disoriented, as other people’s articles and talks took “This is what…” as their titles. Sometimes I was directly named, other times I was Voldemort. Around August or so, requests from the local press stopped. I thought it was time then to take a break. But no rest for the wicked, because the movie Crazy Rich Asians was released and much to my surprise, commentators of the movie critiqued it using the lens of inequality; TIWILL stayed in national discourse, including on social media, because other people were refusing to unsee.7 International press picked up on this and contacted me; I didn’t comment since others had made such incisive interventions that I felt I had little value to add. Soon after, Channel NewsAsia produced a television program titled “Regardless of Class.”8 Again, other voices spoke up to critically evaluate it and TIWILL stayed in the news on the basis of other people’s—strangers’—refusal to stop invoking it.9 Between August and December, I watched closely and with mixed emotions as inequality continued to dominate public debate—sometimes in ways that seemed progressive and other times in ways that deflated me because it felt like the needle had hardly moved and we were back to speaking in circles and whispering in shadows. December rolled around and I found myself on The Straits Times’ Power List and then nominated for their Singaporean of the Year Award. TIWILL was among the year’s best-selling non-fiction books, having moved about 20,000 copies in 11 months. In various year-end commentaries, inequality-TIWILL was mentioned as a major thing that happened.10 I ended 2018 confused about how to make sense of the year TIWILL, and I, had just lived.
While all of this was unfolding in the public arena, at eye-contact level a separate set of encounters were taking place. Letters arrived. Week after week after week, emails requesting meetings and invitations to give talks. Dear Professor Teo. I do not have a secretary so I communicated directly with people’s personal assistants. Being an obsessive record keeper, I discovered when I looked that my “no list” in 2018—to invitations to speak, write, or collaborate—was an astounding 73. And this after I thought I had said yes to more things than I really could manage. I drank more tea than I had expected to, and saw the insides of buildings I had never been in. I ended up doing 12 talks, probably a modest number to some people but a lot to me. I prepare new material each time I speak, so it was non-stop writing—working out new ways to present the same work, searching for the right tone to address questions. It was deeply satisfying to be able to engage with other people’s questions, to observe where various audiences were seeing TIWILL, but also unsettling to feel “unproductive” because I was writing page after page that I knew would never be published. At the speaking events, seats were taken up and waitlists formed the moment registrations went live; on a few occasions, organizers switched venues to accommodate more people.11 I started carrying a pen with me because people were asking for autographs; I was touched as much by the brand-new copies they intended to give friends as I was by the dog-eared, highlighted copies that some sheepishly put in my hand. I smiled for wefies—a professor accidentally living someone else’s life—wondering where on social media my face was going to end up. I tried to be cool, hoping my complexion hadn’t betrayed me, when young people openly declared that they were fangirls/boys. There was a frenzy to these activities, as if I was running, running, running, anxious that I was about to run out of time. Surely, sooner rather than later, everyone would walk off, look away, forget. Because I could not say no without a tinge of regret, I became slightly relieved and uncharacteristically half-glass-full when some invitations became easier to turn down as keynote invitations awkwardly morphed into panel plans so that other speakers could “balance” me out.
But I digress. The letters. The letters I intend to someday reread arrived with no asks. Thank you. You’ve said something I have been feeling but couldn’t put words to. Thank you. Your book was hard to read because it spoke to my experiences. Thank you. Your book changed the way I look at Singapore and my own life. Thank you for writing. Please keep going. Thank you. As a young Singaporean. Thank you. As an older Singaporean. Thank you. As a relative newcomer. Thank you. I hope I will also be able to do something to change things. Thank you. A cascading sea of gratitude that goes on and on as my replies, too, are thank-yous. What magic is this response, wonders the academic accustomed to sending letters in a bottle.
From the early days after the release of this book when people started to thank me for speaking on behalf of the low-income, I have maintained that I cannot claim to be speaking on anyone’s behalf. What I present in the book is what I see—from my vantage point of a sociologist living in this society. The book bears both the strengths of my sociological expertise as well as my limitations as a human being with her own standpoint and biases. That is how it should be read. I put myself in the book, contrasting my class position to my respondents’, precisely to emphasize that we have vastly different experiences, different vantage points. I emphasize our shared humanity and what I think should be our inherent worth and inherent dignity. But I hope I have been clear: the voice speaking is me speaking, the story I tell is the story I am telling from a sociological standpoint. In the year since the book’s publication, many other voices have emerged, and a few of these have been from people who have experiences of living with low income; these should be taken seriously, because those are indeed the voices which do not often get heard nor amplified.
As a sociologist, the story I tell is aimed at amplifying social phenomenon more than it is about giving voice to individual lives. 12 Another way of putting that is to say that my aspiration is for the book to speak of those things which are, for various reasons, unspeakable in our society. In this view, the voiceless is not only those who are low-income but everyone living in this society. When there are things we find difficult to say out loud about our society, that we cannot clearly and explicitly acknowledge and debate, that we do not have mental tools and vocabularies to properly describe, we are, all of us and collectively, voiceless.
It is true that I have never received so many unsolicited letters from ordinary members of the public before TIWILL. Judging from the letter-writers’ sheepish, sometimes apologetic, tones, it is equally right to note that they had probably never looked up a writer’s email address in order to thank them. I was not as aware a year ago as I am now that I have spoken some unspeakable things. I did not fully anticipate that the book would trigger so many nerves and strike so many chords. Because I am a sociologist, I try to think through this as a social phenomenon. The interior of my life has been intense and idiosyncratically so, but what I have described can ultimately be detached from me.
People’s responses to TIWILL reveal something about where our society is at. The book finds resonance because there is existing experience, understanding, discomfort, wisdom, that it resonates with. For there to be things people recognized, there had to be existing knowledge. For there to be things that people found relief in having spoken out loud, there had to be unspeakable things.
TIWILL was produced while I lived in this society and absorbed its tones and tensions, wisdoms and pains. TIWILL entered into this society and became what it became through its multiple encounters with the concerns and idealisms of its people. My voice in the book meets the reader’s voice as she or he reads. In that magical moment, something emerges that is a little louder than usual. Yet, still, I think we remain a murmur, not quite a song; experiencing a moment, not yet a movement. What happens next?
Toward the end of 2018, I was asked by several journalists how I felt about the impact of the book. I mumbled vaguely that it is too soon to say. TIWILL has sold a lot of copies for something written by an academic. But only a fool would think she has changed the world with a book. I look up from my desk and around, and it is clear that inequality has wreaked havoc—on material well-being, social solidarity, and political stability—in many parts of the world. The old-fashioned or disingenuous continue to reference “globalization” to mask actors and asymmetries, but evidence mounts that it is inequality that has done the job. The increasing sense that elites—political and economic—have hoarded with no limits, at cost to everyone else, has paved roads for populist demagogues to rush into the vacuum of trust and hope. Populism is not, of course, democratic, but we continue to witness just how deeply inequality had already damaged democracy in democracies in recent decades before populism and authoritarianism could swoop in and take root.13 To presume, in the absence of strong evidence of robust social solidarity ties and deep democratic habits, that Singapore will automatically be exceptional, is to be a damned fool.14
Yet, still, my mind wanders back to those letters and the responses to the call. A certain wide-eyed desire, to build a better country, lives. A sincere earnestness seeps through. Civil society—small, body full of injuries—sticks around. The book has surfaced deep tensions, and TIWILL’s year-long journey revealed a populace sensitive to and willing to address those tensions. There is work to do.
This is a book with space, gaps, lightness, possibility. Questions raised, not fully answered; answers sketched out, not colored in. The book is, should be, a gathering—with an open invitation. An invitation only works if people accept, show up, stay, mingle, converse, connect. In the process of making this book, I found my voice. I added it to the voices that existed before mine. It remains, I think, for the book to continue doing the work of enlarging the space in which others, too, can find their voices. My invitation stands. I hope people will keep showing up to the gathering. And I hope they, you, will stay.
Teo You Yenn
1 Seow, Joanna. March 8, 2018. “Parliament, Marathon 52 hours,” The Straits Times.
2 Ng, Wai Mun. February 11, 2018. “那些看不到的平等 (Unseen Inequality),” 联合早报 Lianhe Zaobao.; Chua, Mui Hoong. February 28, 2018. “Inequality is a threat—name it, face it,” The Straits Times.; Han, Fook Kwang, March 18, 2018. “Inequality looks like this? Help!” The Straits Times. ;Yap, Pheng Hui. April 15, 2018. “不平等的逆向思考 (Unconventional Ways of Thinking about Inequality),” 联合早报 Lianhe Zaobao.
3 Wong, Chee Meng. February 14, 2018, 谁了解新加坡贫困问题？(Who understands Singapore’s poverty problem?), Malaysiakini. ; Han, Kirsten. March 6, 2018. “Tax and not spend in Singapore,” Asia Times. ; Tan, Corrie. May 18, 2018. “Underclass” twists the knife in your middle-class guilt,” Arts Equator.
4 Jagdish, Bharati. May 19, 2018. “Author of This is What Inequality Looks Like: Teo You Yenn.” On the Record, Channel NewsAsia. ;Jagdish, Bharati. May 23, 2018. “Universal welfare and saying ‘no’ to tuition: Teo You Yenn goes On the Record about inequality,” Channel NewsAsia.
5 Teo, You Yenn. February 4, 2018. “When kids say ‘I lazy what,’” The Straits Times. ; Teo, You Yenn. February 23, 2018. “The economy as a means to an end, not an end in itself.” The Straits Times. ; Teo, You Yenn. May 9, 2018. “Why investing in early childhood education cannot be the primary solution to inequality,” Channel NewsAsia. (Also translated to Chinese and published in Lianhe Zaobao on June 1, 2018); Teo, You Yenn. May 11, 2018. “Don’t silo inequality into a low-wage or education problem,” The Straits Times. ; Teo, You Yenn. May 30, 2018. “Let’s talk about meeting needs, not just equality of opportunity,” The Straits Times. ; Teo, You Yenn. June 7, 2018. “Lack of social mixing is a symptom of inequality, not a cause,” The Straits Times. (Also translated to Chinese and published in Lianhe Zaobao on June 29, 2018); Teo, You Yenn. July 16, 2018. “What Singapore’s fertility debate teaches us about inequality: More schemes won’t work unless we look at big picture,” The Straits Times.
6 Nair, Sudha. June 23, 2018. “$500 a month on cable TV and cigarettes and this family still wants aid?” The Straits Times. ; Maliki Osman. June 27, 2018. “This is what helping families looks like,” The Straits Times. Sudha Nair’s piece in turn sparked a reply co-signed by 40 social service practitioners which did not explicitly cite TIWILL but reaffirmed its structurally-focused analysis: Ng, Kok Hoe. June 27, 2018. “Social workers also tackle structural conditions that lead to poverty,” The Straits Times.
7 Haynes, Suyin. August 14, 2018. “The Ultra-Wealthy World of Crazy Rich Asians is a Real Thing. Here’s Why,” Time Magazine.; Huang, Judith. August 23, 2018. “In a Singapore full of crazy rich foreigners, inequality is becoming ingrained,” South China Morning Post. ; Zubaidah Jalil. October 26, 2018. “Poor in the Land of Crazy Rich Asians,” New Naratif.
8 Channel NewsAsia. September 24, 2018. “Regardless of Class.”
9 Pan, Jie. October 3, 2018. “CNA’s ‘Regardless of Class’ is Everything That’s Wrong with Singapore’s Inequality Debate,” Rice Media.
10 Ho, Olivia. December 10, 2018. “Money and memoirs: the local nonfiction bestsellers that Singapore snapped up this year,” The Straits Times.; The Straits Times. December 15, 2018. “The 2018 Power List: Top 10 names in entertainment, lifestyle, and arts.”; Rashimah Rashith. December 18, 2018. “Bringing inequality to the forefront of discussions,” The Straits Times. ; Chua, Mui Hoong. December 29, 2018. “Education, inequality, and sexual harassment: The Straits Times best read opinion pieces of 2018,” The Straits Times. ; Zakir Hussain. December 30, 2018. “Inequality under the spotlight,” The Straits Times. ; Tai, Janice. December 30, 2018. “Mad about Crazy Rich Asians,” The Straits Times.; Welsh, Bridget. December 31, 2018. “Singapore’s PAP managing uncertainty,” East Asian Forum.; Chan, Stanislaus Jude. January 2, 2019. “Inequality a rising challenge for Singapore’s policymakers,” The Edge Singapore.
11 One of these events, a public lecture titled “Growing up in an unequal society” delivered at the Singapore Children’s Society on September 15, was video recorded. I thank the Singapore Children’s Society for sharing the recording and Jolene Tan for skillfully editing and turning it into an animation video.
12 I elaborate on this methodological point in an essay, “Seeing a story to get to a case,” in They Told Us to Move, edited by Ng Kok Hoe and the Cassia Resettlement Team, 34-41. 2019. Singapore: Ethos Books.
13 For an analysis of the rise of populism in the U.S., see Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About our Future. UK: Viking.
14 For an analysis of Singapore’s political context, see Cherian George’s book, published just weeks before TIWILL: George, Cherian. 2017. Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development. Singapore: Woodsville News.
About the Author
TEO You Yenn received her PhD in Sociology from the University of California at Berkeley. She is Associate Professor and Provost's Chair in Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She has written journal articles, book chapters, and op-eds. Her work has been published in journals such as Economy and Society, Signs, Social Politics, and Development and Change. She is also the author of Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How family policies make state and society (Routledge, 2011). Apart from academic writings, she has over the last decade contributed to public debate through public lectures and media commentaries. Her writings have been published in The Straits Times, Today, Channel NewsAsia, Lianhe Zaobao, and New Naratif. She is recipient of NTU’s Nanyang Education Award (2013) and the American Sociological Association Sex and Gender Section’s Feminist Scholar Activist Award (2016). In 2018, for her contributions to igniting a national conversation on poverty and inequality with the book This is What Inequality Looks Like, she was named a Finalist in the Straits Times Singaporean of the Year Award. More information at: https://teoyouyenn.sg