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Today, October 17th, is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (IDEP). To mark the occasion, we sat down for an interview with Assoc Prof Teo You Yenn, author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like, and Dr. Ng Kok Hoe, who led Singapore’s first homelessness survey last year, about poverty and inequality in Singapore today.
This interview was edited and condensed from a longer conversation.
This interview is being held to mark the IDEP, or International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. How achievable is this? Is poverty inevitable in Singapore, or is it a failure of imagination to think so?
Kok Hoe: We only have to look to the evidence, which is that there is significant variance in levels of poverty and inequality across countries. It’s clear that you can do something about it. You can push it to very low levels—or, if you don’t do the right things, let it get out of hand.
You Yenn: I think if poverty was not seen as inevitable in 1960s Singapore, with all our plans and dreams of development, certainly we should not see it as inevitable today. And if we think of IDEP as an international goal, shared by humanity in all its different contexts, we are in a very good position to make more headway on this as a small and wealthy country.
Neither extreme wealth nor extreme poverty are natural phenomena. We know from looking at trends around the world that much of it has to do with laws and policies. Poverty and inequality come about through specific decisions about our societies: what we reward and what we punish, who gets to make decisions on behalf of the collective, and so on.
“We must close loopholes and take away incentives for people to act a certain way… the major levers which control poverty and inequality have to do with governance and institutions.”
Traditionally, poverty and inequality have been seen as ‘unspeakable’, ‘invisible’ topics, but I do think there’s been a shift. These issues have stayed in the spotlight for the last few years. What changes have you observed in public discourse since This Is What Inequality Looks Like was published, or the homelessness survey findings were released?
YY: I’m not sure I’m the most objective person to comment on this, because I’ve been immersed in this for the last few years! But I think there have been two interesting and promising shifts.
The first is that when poverty is invoked, so is inequality; they are mentioned in the same breath. I think this signals a growing consciousness that there is something relational about poverty and wealth, that poverty is not ghettoised as ‘poor people problems’, and it has something to do with the way wealth is distributed across our society.
I also see shifts—particularly this year, with Covid and the GE—that poverty and inequality are being invoked in different domains. In education and healthcare, certainly, but also in discussions of migrant workers, the justice system, and the climate crisis. There is a growing recognition that you have to see these seemingly different domains as interconnected.
KH: Feedback comes to us in very interesting ways, sometimes from people whom you wouldn’t consider traditional consumers of academic research. When people who are not naturally within your network, who normally have no interest in your professional life, know what you’re doing, it makes me feel more confident that we’ve managed to go beyond the usual circles.
Our research has come up in conversations with neighbours in the lift, with taxi drivers, students, even banks have written to us because they see applications for our research in their actuarial services. And You Yenn will know this, she sometimes hears phrases that sound very familiar …
People quote your own book back to you?
KH: I do think there is a growing community of people who are concerned about poverty and inequality, and this is precious progress. But there’s still a long way to go.
So what has not changed? Which sacred cows have you found most resistant to being slayed, and why are these so troubling?
KH: Public discourse and narratives exist at different levels. State-sanctioned discourse, in particular, is often the last to shift decisively. But what’s also hard to shift is people’s underlying explanations for why the problem exists.
Singapore’s public housing is held up as one of our biggest success stories. But through research, I found that the reality is not so one-sided. I also learnt how damaging the denial of people’s hardships can be, particularly when those people begin to internalise narratives about themselves. Then, there’s a different kind of danger when policymakers begin to believe their own narratives.
In my research, one of the beliefs which has been most resistant to change is this: that you deserve the housing you can afford. It feels so natural that you don’t even question it, let alone consider the possibility of an alternative.
Dominant narratives are complete packages. They don’t just contain a problem statement, but a proposed solution. If people do not own flats, the explanation is probably that you haven’t been wise with money or worked as hard as you should have, so the solution is therefore to be better with money and work harder.
These narratives are damaging and divisive. They tear at the fabric of society by rejecting collective responsibility in favour of individual rehabilitation.
“Participants pointed out: you wouldn’t just want to be alive, right? Just being alive is not a life.”
As You Yenn mentioned, it’s been a big year, what with Covid and the GE. Back in March, you jointly wrote a piece for AcademiaSG saying that now is the time to go big with structural changes to tackle poverty and inequality. I wanted to ask how you think things have played out since—say, in the Covid budgets, or in some of the proposals and speeches from the GE and the new Parliament.
KH: I think we need to observe some more, but at the moment, I would say there are few signs that we are drawing the right lessons from this crisis.
So far, most of the significant schemes have been time-limited. We’ve seen a huge emphasis on skills and training, and a strong reluctance to move on wages. And in terms of financial assistance, conditionality has made a swift return even though the economy is still completely out of shape. All these signal reliance on familiar strategies, business as usual.
YY: I would agree. There are no real signs that the fundamental principles are being rethought. I think the general approach to try to protect jobs is sensible, but broader social protections have to be on the table. And the outright dismissal of minimum wage as a possibility, when eight years after its introduction, the Progressive Wage Model still only covers three sectors making up only about 15% of low wage workers, that’s something I don’t understand.
This crisis has prompted us—not just in Singapore, but globally—to think about what it means to have flourishing lives. Reconsidering this cannot be the job of a small group of elites.
It’s ironic that Covid has caused us to rethink so many things we’ve taken for granted—physical contact, offices, essential work— but not others. This is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, the year that changed everything, and yet we only seem content to make tweaks within the margins of what we already know.
This was meant to be the tipping point, and if not this, then what? What would it take to move the needle on poverty and inequality?
KH: We have to look at whether the rules for making rules are changing. If the same type of people are making decisions, according to the same metrics of what is desirable, using the same priorities, with the same ideology and entrenched mindsets, how can we expect the outcome to be different?
YY: The rules by which we make the rules—that gets to the heart of it.
Evaluating policy cannot be restricted to a narrow ideological or technocratic approach, nor to a narrow elite. It needs to be opened up.
So there are changes to processes, and you’ve also given practical suggestions in terms of policies which should be considered, like better wage protections and delivery of public goods like care services. What needs to change in terms of principles?
KH: At a fundamental level, I would say two things. The first is a greater focus on primary policy goals rather than secondary criteria.
Social assistance, like Comcare, is a good example of this. Its primary goal is to help people meet basic needs and achieve a certain standard of living. Then there are the secondary criteria, like fiscal prudence and efficiency.
Both these things are important, but the system has become extremely skewed towards secondary criteria, sometimes even at the expense of the primary goal.
There is so much talk about gatekeeping that one could be forgiven for thinking that the goal of Comcare is to gatekeep itself. You often hear about the possibility of benefit fraud and so on—without evidence, I should point out—but I have never heard any clear discussion of what changes we would like to see in people’s lives, or what standard of living it’s meant to lift people up to. We hear almost nothing about this, but a lot about costs.
This is the other thing: we should be more transparent about social costs. We tend to be very mindful of fiscal costs, but if the system doesn’t work as it should, people end up sacrificing basic needs like food and shelter. We’ve heard so many accounts of people experiencing food insecurity recently. In Singapore! In 2020!
The social sustainability of welfare systems—cohesion, mobility, equality—is as important as fiscal sustainability. If we want to have a serious conversation about social policy reforms, I think these need to be taken into account.
YY: We also ought to have some clearer benchmarks as to what the targeted outcomes are. Having standards is critical to evaluating whether something is working or not.
This brings me to your Minimum Income Standards research, which adopts an expansive definition of ‘minimum’: not just getting by at a subsistence level, but including access to opportunities and options, and the security, dignity, and independence these bring.
Traditionally, the latter might be thought of as what we need to thrive, not merely survive. Why is it important to reframe ‘need’ in this way?
YY: Our focus group participants consisted of people across socioeconomic lines. The definition, as well as the budgets, are reflective of a broad consensus across members of society. It’s not low-income people’s wish lists or high-income people’s sense of entitlement. It is, by definition, not radical—it is what ordinary people believe is reasonable for everyone in Singapore today.
It is participants who pointed out: you wouldn’t just want to be alive, right? Just being alive is not a life.
KH: Undergirding the MIS research is an understanding of deprivation and well-being as specific to a time and place, as well as relative to what others in that context have. Participants kept saying: this is Singapore in 2018, not the 1960s or 1980s. To expect us to live without X is not acceptable. That is how everyone in Singapore lives today.
YY: It’s true that you see some diversity in people’s preferences. What might matter to someone might not matter to me and vice versa. I don’t think we have much of a book budget, for example. And if I didn’t have books, I don’t think I could live.
Perish the thought.
YY: So there are differences in what people want and like, and these differences, I’m sorry to sound cliche, are what make life interesting! But the underlying needs, which made the definition, are so profoundly universal.
You might not be able to reduce the need for respect to a number, but what we are trying to show is that there are certain monetary preconditions which allow for participation and belonging and respect. Money cannot directly buy these things, but money is absolutely a precondition to achieving those needs.
KH: This is why standards are important, because until you accept that there are basic levels below which people’s lives will be affected, how can we begin to think about the generosity of social welfare schemes? How can we say that we are interested in helping people meet their needs if we are reluctant to define those needs?
Many people are deeply concerned about poverty and inequality, but don’t see what they as individuals can do to change things. What can the average RICE reader—as an ordinary member of society who is not an activist, social worker, or policymaker—do in their own sphere?
YY: We’ve been asked some version of this question many times, and I think there’s a way to read that pessimistically and optimistically.
The pessimistic version is that it makes me wonder what it says about us: about our fear of collective action; of action that could be seen as political; and perhaps about our sense of disempowerment and alienation from civic engagement, such that there is a presumption built into the question that people cannot act collectively, and all we can do is to make choices as individuals.
I think this is a mistake. It is REALLY important that we don’t have illusions about what our individual choices, particularly consumer choices, can do to change inequality. Individual choices, made in isolation, cannot change rules and systems.
I think we tend to look to individual choices, because—ironically—having identified the issues as structural tends to make people feel powerless. If the problem is so much bigger than me, then what can I do? How can we exercise our power?
To that end, isn’t there something to be said about how our own choices might perpetuate inequality? For example, the eternal question of whether to send your kids for tuition?
YY: Maybe it’s not helpful to think about it as exercising power, and better to think about it as exercising our civic rights and obligations.
At the individual level, if we need to feel powerful to act, no one will. A lot of times, we do feel powerless! But if you feel it is your right and your obligation, perhaps that’s a lower bar for motivating action.
KH: We will not get rid of poverty and inequality by telling people who are anxious about falling behind, or have a mind to get ahead through personal advantage, not to do so. Tackling inequality must involve closing loopholes and taking away incentives for people to act a certain way. So for example, instead of fixating on tuition, why not look at the school admissions system, and see if it gives certain sections of society unfair advantages?
“This crisis has prompted us to think about what it means to have flourishing lives. Reconsidering this cannot be the job of a small group of elites.”
So we should direct our attention at the correct places, at the correct levers of power.
KH: The major barriers to tackling poverty and inequality, and the major levers which control them, have to do with governance and institutions. We must block unfair advantage and make sure we don’t suppress people who are already disadvantaged while trying to help them. So in terms of what the individual can do, it’s to tell policymakers to do these things.
Sometimes people say Singaporeans complain a lot. Well, I think Singaporeans don’t complain enough!
Exercise your right as a citizen. Go see your MP. You’re their constituent, they’re supposed to represent you in Parliament. So if you’re concerned about inequality, go tell your MP you’re not happy with the way things are and ask them to do something about it.
YY: “Complain more” is great shorthand, but I would like to reframe it a bit. There is a serious message here, which is: citizenship is a duty and a right.
So, complain more, yes, but don’t let your complaints be limited to those things that are in your narrow self-interests. Direct complaints to the right people. And partake in community—from time to time, complain collectively!
Is that your optimistic reading of the question of “what can I do”? This feels challenging, given that a lot of what we might think of as collective action—unions, mass demonstrations—are not avenues we have access to.
YY: That’s certainly true, but demonstrations are only the tip of the iceberg even in the places where they exist, and activists are doing much more besides. I think when the average person hears ‘social movements’ we think of demonstrations because that’s what we see in the news, but it’s only a part of collective action and not the whole.
Attending one talk is not going to change anyone’s life, and you might not see a line from showing up at a meeting to getting a politician to act on something. But many small encounters, building trust, can build up to more significant collective action. Speaking up and working on an issue together can, in turn, put pressure on people who can make decisions and set the agenda.
Showing up is important. Engaging is important. Building community is important.
“If poverty was not seen as inevitable in 1960s Singapore, certainly we should not see it as inevitable today…Poverty and inequality come about through specific decisions about our societies.”
In the afterword to the 2nd edition of This Is What Inequality Looks Like, You Yenn suggested that we are experiencing a moment, not yet a movement, where poverty and inequality are concerned. This was in 2019.
First, could you elaborate on the difference between the two? Second, where do you think we are now? And third, where do we go from here?
YY: I think it’s far too soon to say where we’re at, but also, the journey of how we arrive at the goal of greater equality is supremely important. No single individual or group should have a monopoly on deciding what an ideal society should look like.
I don’t really know how to answer ‘where do we go from here’, because I don’t look at it in terms of a next target. I don’t think of democracy and justice as just end goals, but processes. You have to keep building, and contribute to this thing that is larger than the individual. In that process, you build human connections and ideas and ethics that are the basis of solidarity. That’s what I mean by a movement.
KH: It does feel like there is a lot to do. Just gathering evidence and making sense of the world is hard. Then there is evaluating, critiquing, and finally, articulating an alternative. This last part—articulating an alternative—is something that I hope, in the coming years, we can do together.