by Teo You Yenn
What is poverty? What is inequality? How are they connected? How are they reproduced? How might they be overcome? Why should we try?
This book—an ethnography of inequality—addresses these questions. Formed by a series of essays, they are written to be read individually, but have been arranged to be read as a totality and in sequence. Each aims to accomplish two things: first, to introduce a key aspect of the experience of being low-income in contemporary Singapore. Second, to illustrate how people’s experiences are linked to structural conditions of inequality.
The way we frame our questions shapes the way we see solutions. This book does what appears to be a no-brainer task, but one that is missing and important: it asks readers to pose questions in different ways, to shift the vantage point from which they view ‘common sense,’ and in so doing, to see themselves as part of problems and potential solutions. This is a book about how seeing poverty entails confronting inequality. It is about how acknowledging poverty and inequality leads to uncomfortable revelations about our society and ourselves. And it is about how once we see, we cannot, must not, unsee.
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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. Her work has been published in journals such as Economy and Society, Signs, Social Politics, and Development and Change. She is the author of Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How family policies make state and society (Routledge, 2011). 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 contribution to igniting a national conversation on poverty and inequality with the book This is What Inequality Looks Like (2018), she was named a Finalist in the Straits Times Singaporean of the Year Award.
This book is a remarkable rarity—a vivid ethnography of the lives, dreams and disappointments of low-income Singaporeans, skillfully intertwined with the implicit and explicit mental ideologies, social structures and bureaucratic institutions that both bind and separate us from each other. Delivered in slender, evocative prose with insight and empathy, yet informed by analytical distance and infused with theoretical rigor, it shows that the lives of our often-forgotten fellow citizens reveal larger truths about ourselves and our society, and the nature of humanity in our affluent post-industrial state. The highly accessible narrative both touches the heart and engages the mind, and deserves to become the basis for a wide-ranging public discourse on the soul of our nation.
—Linda Lim, Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan
With courage, integrity and scientific tools, Teo You Yenn enters the hidden abode of inequality. Immersing herself in the underside of Singapore society, she makes the invisible visible – contrasting the hardships and precarity of family life, schooling, parenting, housing among low-income residents with the taken-for-granted comforts of the middle class. She disrupts widely-held national mythologies, calling attention to the defects of Singapore’s welfare state and how these might be repaired. Sociology at its best!
—Michael Burawoy, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley
This is what inequality looks like is a masterfully crafted text. Consciously avoiding academic frames, Teo You Yenn’s ethically and politically grounded narrative unfolds through vignettes of lived experiences that stand in sharp, stark contrast to the dominant imaginings of Singaporeans as mobile, cosmopolitan, free, agentic, affluent global citizens. Drawing on everyday lives of individuals and families, privileging their voices through the choice of ethnography—the book’s ten chapters communicate the pathos and experiences of being poor and living under conditions of inequality in a cosmopolitan city-state. The book's lens is focused critically on popular, academic and state discourses about Singapore society. The book is a much needed intervention in hitherto un-problematised, taken-for-granted conclusions about poverty (its absence and then its causes), about inequalities, about responsibilities of the state and social structures in Singapore—regnant amongst Singaporeans—academics included. The book will no doubt resonate globally and has obvious analytical reverberations that are delivered through the empirical richness of a veiled segment of everyday Singaporean lives. The book disturbs deliberately, asking difficult questions that demand considered moral responses, highlighting above all the role of institutional structures in producing the context for the unfolding of experiences of poverty and inequality. Teo’s voice, heard powerfully and honestly throughout the text, is a provocation; each page is etched with an inspiration and moral compulsion to engage—an invitation that is impossible to resist.
—Vineeta Sinha, Professor of Sociology, National University of Singapore
This is What Inequality Looks Like is a refreshing, provocative, eye-opening book that is written with passion and insight. Highly readable and accessible, it will make for stimulating reading for anyone interested in the problems of poverty and inequality in and beyond Singapore. Teo’s work is grounded in sociological sensitivity and shaped by three years of intimate interactions with Singapore’s poor. This book disrupts the image of Singapore as merely a place of prosperity and progress and points instead to the day-to-day experiences of Singapore’s disadvantaged residents, the challenges they face, and the embedded presumptions about them that undermine their access to assistance with dignity. Teo invites her readers to confront inequality head on and to consider where they fit into the social matrix. Singapore’s overly-simplistic discourses of “social inclusion” and “the greater good,” she argues, serve in fact to valorize the market and self-reliance at the expense of meaningful and transformative change aimed at reducing social inequalities.
—Nicole Constable, Professor of Anthropology and Research Professor in the University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh
This is a remarkable book in so many ways. Teo You Yenn encourages all of us who live in Singapore to ask hard questions about the structural and psychic elements of inequality, and to challenge the comforting and yet ultimately self-defeating stories that many of us who have benefitted from Singapore’s economic progress tell ourselves. This is What Inequality Looks Like is also beautifully written. It is an inspirational model of how an academic scholar can address a popular audience through a deep reflection on her position as a Sociologist, inviting readers to embark on parallel learning journeys commencing in the often overlooked experiences of people who inhabit other social worlds.
—Philip Holden, Professor of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore
In this accessibly written and closely observed new book, Teo You Yenn takes the reader beyond the statistics and into the everyday lives of the less fortunate in Singapore. A timely and necessary book for a city in a hurry.
—Philip Gorski, Professor of Sociology, Yale University
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Dimension: 150mm x 220mm