“Like many Singaporeans impatient with too much talk, I too hope the debate can move on to solutions. But there also has to be more agreement on what the problems are, so we can go on decisively to propose better solutions” (In the Debate on Inequality, Is It Time to Move on to Talk about Solutions?, Chua Mui Hoong).
Despite the anxiety to moot solutions so as to advance the inequality debate (and I am guilty as charged), what has instead emerged in the past few months is a research and narrative gap, across which interlocutors draw from their own work, personal experiences, or even anecdotes, without necessarily engaging one another substantively or agreeing on the fundamental questions or problems. The research gap persists, because beyond broad statistical indicators such as the Gini coefficient or intergenerational mobility, we still do not know enough about the needs and challenges of low-income Singaporeans. And the narrative gap emerges, because the low-income are rarely directly involved in the face-to-face discussions, discursive forums, and opinion pieces. Instead, they are represented through proxies speaking for them: Researchers, politicians, and journalists.
What is lost, therefore, is the social experience of poverty and inequality in Singapore. Ms Chua Mui Hoong makes the excellent point that “the debate on inequality is happening in two spheres that do not have a lot of overlap” (ST, Sept. 1), that the academics on one end as well as the government workers and the social workers on the other are drawing from different research and narratives, and each not quite reflecting the complete picture. That the discourse has nonetheless advanced is encouraging, though in this vein the focus should shift to concerns over diversity and representation in these sessions: The involvement of the low-income and the disadvantaged, without objectifying them or their past; the mobilisation of those who may be apathetic or lethargic; and the iterative accommodation of conflicting views.
In other words, no one should claim to know or to represent the experience of being low-income in Singapore. It will also be a messy process of negotiation, and of learning how to listen amidst dissonance.
And these can happen independently of the government. Notwithstanding the challenge of plurality (getting a range of opinions) and sustainability (keeping the conversation going over a period of time), talk of the problems and the solutions go together. At the moment, the problems highlighted often revolve around education, even though it may be a sphere through which the ramifications of deeper socio-economic or political tensions are mitigated. Some of these can include Singapore’s labour policy, the constraints of a capitalist economy in the context of a globalised world, and changing demographics or family structures. Along this tangent too, the solutions proposed – or rather, the discussion around these solutions – are oftentimes too generic: Whether financial assistance should be conditional or unconditional, targeted or universal, for instance. In the absence of more research to evaluate the efficacy of existing policies, and in the absence of more narratives to help shape more well-rounded perceptions, very little headway will be made.