Review: This Is What Inequality Looks Like

Inequality has been flying off the bookshelves and for good reason too. An article in The Straits Times mentioned that it is one of the best-selling local books, with 20,000 copies sold so far. This collection of essays by Teo You Yenn about inequality in Singapore is brilliant. It humanises individuals who have been swept under a collective term such as 'the poor' and sheds light on their daily struggles. It also exposes many of the widely-held prejudices against them, such as how people living in rented flats are often scorned at for owning a television. (The subtext being that they aren’t being savvy if they choose to spend money on a television set when they are already struggling financially, or that they aren’t as needy as they claim to be if they can afford a television.)

The essay that stood out most for me is Dignity Is Like Clean Air. In it, Teo points out that to access financial aid in Singapore is stigmatizing and makes a case for an individual’s worth and esteem to persist in the face of diverse and changing life circumstances. I would encourage everyone to read Inequality and end my review with one of my favourite passages in the book:

"It occured to me then that the examples I have of myself feeling esteem, respect, self-worth — they are fleeting. The respect I am accorded are conditional on my participation in society as an economically productive and relatively wealthy person. It has little to do with my inherent right to respect as a human being and member of this society. That it is conditional is palpable because I see that those who do not meet the conditions I currently have do not get it. It is also palpable when I look at people with more power and/or wealth than me and I see how they are treated with what looks like more respect... Respect that is conditional on narrow practices can easily be withheld. I think it is different, qualitatively, from the respect that is given and received between people who believe in the inherent worth and integrity of other human beings.

This is a book about inequality and poverty. It is not a book about poverty. I hope we can manage as a society to bring the poorest of our fellow members out of poverty and to a situation where they can meet their basic needs, have a decent life. And there are things that can be done to aid-dispensing systems so that they are not so stigmatised. There are things we can and must do to address the problems of those living with low income. When I reflect on the issue of dignity, however, I am reminded that this really is not just ‘their’ problem. The precarity of dignity needs at first glance looks like something that affects only those with low income, but on second scrutiny appears to be a condition everyone is in. As long as our well-being as persons are deeply linked to economic productivity, income, a specific way of doing family, then every person’s dignity is essentially at risk. In this ethos, no one has inherent worth as persons."

by Dawn Tan

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