I was first introduced to this book when I chanced upon an article in the Straits Times in Singapore months back which featured excerpts from this book. I had just started my HEN Charity in March 2018 and I wanted to read this book to understand what inequality in Singapore is like.
At first glance, one may be perplexed as to why a translucent cover accompanies this book. The top translucent cover has the words in black 'This is What Looks Like' Only when one flips this translucent cover, can one see the word 'Inequality' in grey. It dawned on me after a few seconds that the author Prof Teo You Yenn was trying to convey a message to the readers that one has to uncover to find inequality in Singapore. A well thought of ploy by the author to make us think deeper.
Poverty is indeed well hidden in Singapore. It is present but the Singapore government 'hides' them by putting up poor and homeless people in highly subsidised rental flats scattered all over Singapore. The government cannot afford to have homeless people sleeping in bus stand shelters/void decks/beaches or have beggars on the streets. It has to maintain a squeaky clean image to attract investors and tourists to our green city. I understand its concerns as a proud Singaporean. In fact, I so admire and have a huge amount of respect for Mr Lee Kuan Yew for transforming Singapore from a third world country to a first in such a short span of just 50 years.
But I wanted to find out more. If we are an economic miracle that blew critics minds and if we are a first world developed country, why do we have 20% of our citizen population suffering in poverty? Yes, I admire that the government has come up with a slew of programmes to help the needy, but why such a large percentage? What is lacking? What can be done to reduce this number? (For your info, to qualify for assistance in Singapore, one must not be earning more than $1,500 in total combined monthly household income or less than $650 per capita per household.)
This book was written by Prof Teo who works in the Sociology Department in NUS. She had spent hours in households of these low income families in Singapore, sometimes sitting on the floor to have candid conversations with a real thirst to understand their situation better. On the opening page, this caught my attention,
'When I get in the car, I am still usually thinking of the people I just met, recalling the stories they've shared. Sometimes I am sweaty from walking around for a few hours; if the topic of bedbugs had come up, I feel phantom itches on my arms and legs.'
Having had a first hand account of stepping into a low income household because of delivering food donations from donors under HEN, I could totally relate to what she was saying. And she goes on to say
'...where I can easily say to my family ,"I'm too tired to cook tonight, let's eat out"; where I can walk into any shop, museum or a restaurant and be greeted as a potential customer' (Page 18)
The people from the low income households just can't. They simply do not have the means to. Where there is a constant worry where the next meal is going to come from. What about the schoolfees, uniforms and textbooks? How can you help your children if they are not doing well in school? The fact that you can't afford to arrange for tuition for them. The fact that you avoid bringing your children to malls because of the guilt you feel because you can't buy whatever the kids are asking for. I read all these with such a heavy heart. From a yong age, these children have not been blessed.They have to make do with what their parents can afford to give them.
'Wants are often Needs' (Page 184)
Very well said, Prof Yeo. When we want the latest gadgets or the children want a pair of soccer boots, its because they need it to help them fit into their social circle. To want to feel belonged to. To feel the need for respect, love and acceptance.
'Dignity is like clean air. You do not notice its absence unless it is in short supply. ' (Page 194)
People from low income families are often treated everyday with disrespect because they are mostly employed in jobs that are in the lower rungs of the job type. The cashiers, the cleaners, the road sweepers, toilet cleaners... one doesn't make eye contact with them. They are treated as invisible.
Lastly, it features accounts or quotes from social workers themselves who work closely with the underprivileged community. These selfless saints who work to make the lives of the others better feel personally that mindsets have to change, which I agree to as well.
I absolutely loved this book even though I took so long to read it. It is a personal touching account of the everyday struggles faced by low-income families in Singapore.
Published by Ethos books and comprising 285 pages. Get it at Kinokuniya for $25. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about the invisible but who still exist low-income community in Singapore.