Diversity and representation, or lack thereof, have been persistent problems for the many panels and workshops organised around Singapore’s inequality and class divide problems (including the youth discussion we organised): That low-income and disadvantaged Singaporeans are rarely involved in these sessions, and the risk of objectification if they are involved; and that a large segment of the population does not perceive the policy challenge of inequality to be as acute or extensive, and therefore chooses not to participate. Tied to the challenge of broadening the inequality discourse, in this vein, is perhaps the country’s broader narrative deficit, of sharing diverse stories and of hearing stories which deviate from the main national narrative.
In fact, it can be argued that the ongoing discourse over personal social services and social welfare is also a contestation of narratives: What does it mean to be poor or disadvantaged in Singapore, and what is the lived experience of applying for and receiving government assistance or financial aid? When we turn to our own stories – or familiar anecdotes – for comparison, how do we discern between perceived hard work and good fortune (and where do we get our stories from)? And why has the state characterised its approach through terms like “self-reliance” and “many helping hands”, and what then are the implications?
Three speakers at two events I attended in the past two months alluded to the importance of narratives: Poet Alvin Pang (at Professor Kenneth Paul Tan’s book launch, which I hope to review in the next few days) as well as lawyer, poet, and ReadAble co-founder Amanda Chong and Professor Irene Ng (at our “Bridge the Gap” youth discussion, on inequality and the class divide). Mr. Pang challenged the conception that Singapore’s progress is somewhat predetermined – or foreshadowing, in literary terms, that we could have predicted in the beginning how the Singapore story might have eventually panned out – and instead mooted the notion of “side-shadowing”, of considering other plot-lines and narratives. He added three questions, for the future: Why Singapore (“reason for being”), whose Singapore (“to whom the narrative belongs to”), and how Singapore (the “nuts and bolts”).
Along this tangent, at another event, Ms Chong – after sharing her personal story of privilege, as a product of the meritocratic generation – stressed the “crisis of story” in Singapore, of where the country should go from SG50, and also of the sense of whether individuals (from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds) are the protagonists of their own stories. Her call to action, hence, centred on the building of communities and networks to create a new narrative of an inclusive Singapore, and to see individuals as agents, not just problems. At the same event, Professor Ng emphasised the social experience of inequality, pointing out the sites of social stratification such as neighbourhoods and schools, while discussing issues of social mixing.
This focus on narratives and shared social experiences is important, because they ought to be starting points for policymaking. For instance: What does “social welfare” mean today, especially for Singaporeans who have never been poor (or have been poor at a different point in time, when past circumstances were different), or who have never received government or financial assistance? What then justifies judgements or even aspersions of the poor in the country? It can be further argued that despite an aversion to seemingly unrepresentative anecdotes, this collective need for stories and narratives partly explains why “This is What Inequality Looks Like” by sociology professor Teo You Yenn – which used an ethnographic approach, describing the experiences of the poor in Singapore – has gained some traction, and has advanced the national conversation on inequality and the class divide.
What then are the remedies, at least if organisers of the aforementioned panels and workshops wish to address the narrative deficit. For a start, with the informed and the impassioned:
– Layered initial participation with those who work directly with the low-income and disadvantaged, before cross-vocation or cross-sector conversations. In other words, talk to and talk with those who interact most directly with the beneficiaries, and who hence have a better understanding of the circumstances confronting some of the families.
– Switch up the format of panels and workshops, while paying attention to the profiles of the facilitators and the accessibility of the substantive information shared. Traditional formats pander to Singaporeans of specific backgrounds.
– Progressively thereafter, the direct involvement of low-income and disadvantaged Singaporeans – who can directly tell their stories – is much-needed (even as others, such as social workers or researchers, help with facilitation or documentation).
And with the segment of the population who does not perceive the policy challenge of inequality to be as acute or extensive:
– Some research will be helpful, to understand where these perceptions stem from. Anecdotally, many may have their own rags-to-riches story – albeit under different conditions, during a different time – and thus think that the poor remain low-income because they have made poor decisions or are not working hard enough, as they think they did.
– Examine how exposure to present-day narratives – presented in ways which involve but do not objectify the low-income – may shift perceptions. Or if other modes of communication or conversations could be productive too.
In the bigger picture, however, the state’s role in facilitating this narrative deficit or privileging particular narratives should also not go unnoticed. In the context of Singapore’s inequality and class divide problems, ground-up discussions – by increasing the diversity and involvement of their participants – can continue to plug these gaps.