Singapore Roundtable: Discussing Inequality in Singapore

Singapore Roundtable: Discussing Inequality in Singapore

by Atikah Amalina

APC members and guests gathered at Quantedge Foundation on 7 May 2018 to discuss inequality in Singapore, together with Professor Teo You Yenn, Associate Professor and Head of Sociology at Nanyang Technology University.

Dr Teo’s book, “This is How Inequality Looks Like”, was published earlier this year, and includes real case-studies that flesh out the day-to-day experiences of the low income, gleaned through her years of on-the-ground research on the issue.

The discussion around inequality is a necessarily brave one as it is one of relativities.  It is about looking at the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted.

“It is not a problem about “them” but a problem for “us”,” Dr Teo reminded.

Why should we care about inequality?  Former Lead Economist of World Bank and leading scholar on income inequality, Branko Milanovic, argues that the social stability and social fabric of a society are torn apart if there are very large income differences.  As a nation, social stability is something we need to be concerned about for long-term sustainability and progress.

Setting up the discussion, Dr Teo acknowledged that the world is “impatient for solutions”, but has found that as a society we have some “deep prejudices”.

One such example of prejudices and lack of insight that needs to be addressed is the myth that the circumstances faced by the low income are only a result of their deviance from the self-reliant mindset or poor personal choices.  She argued that their problems cannot be talked about as merely psychological, but they are of real outcomes of policies and circumstances.

“People lack actual ability to control their lives, they lack bargaining power, they lack enough money, lack adequate space to nurture family lives… thinking about their lives different will not change their lives,” she asserted.

The attendees then engaged in a vibrant discussion with Dr Teo, as issues on education, access to aid and dignity, and private funders’ role in addressing inequality were tabled.

Particularly, issues on the Singapore education system saw passionate discourse as attendees confronted their personal ideals on the meritocratic system and its promise as a social equaliser.  As parents themselves and social observers, it was clear that education has not delivered on its promise for greater social mobility.

Dr Teo clarified that with regard to caregiving and education, everybody within the system regardless of class pays in different ways. The way the education system has played out has made it harmful and costly to children and parents across the board.  Primarily, the increasing reliance on tuition and pre-school education to supplement the mainstream education in school, of which people with limited income have little to no access to, further fuels inequality.

APC CEO Laurence Lien, who was moderating the discussion, then moved to propose several actions that philanthropists could take the lead in, including raising capacity of the future generation and advocacy.  Laurence shared his experience chairing an advocacy campaign, “Singaporeans Against Poverty” in 2013, a campaign that aimed to raise awareness about poverty in Singapore, which cost around $100,000 (with much pro bono work) and received much traction.

In relation to the proposal, Dr Teo shared her thoughts about what to keep in mind when moving forward with such initiatives, including the needs of parents to support them in giving the best for their children and in maximising the strengths and social skills the low income already have.

A key sentiment that was also repeatedly raised by Dr Teo was the need to question personal assumptions and beliefs about problems before jumping into solutions.

It is crucial to understand that the way problems are framed lends heavily into the way solutions pan out.  If philanthropists, such as APC members, want to take a step into the equation to co-create solutions, it will be important to avoid narrow understandings and explore the multi-faceted nature of the problems.  Research needs to be done so people can carry out work based on rational and sensible data.

Attendees walked away from the timely discussion enriched by important insights into inequality in Singapore.

It was admittedly not the easiest of conversations to have, as one needed to examine one’s privilege and role in reproducing inequality, and also of the pristine image of Singapore.  However, it is a necessary conversation as Singapore continues moving forward as a society.

Note: Dr Teo wrote an article after the meeting, which also reflected on the Singapore President’s inaugural address to parliament, where she focused on social inequality: Why investing in early childhood education cannot be the primary solution to inequality.