Singapore may have come a long way since independence, but yesterday’s puzzles appear to have returned with a vengeance: the old conundrums of culture and geography are here again, along with newer challenges of social cohesion, infrastructural decay, and political renewal. Indeed, more than ever in the past five decades, Singapore’s political sphere – once stable to the point of predictability – seems marked by a surfeit of questions. Thoughtful answers, by contrast, are few and far between.
Enter Cherian George and Teo You Yenn, two familiar names from Singapore’s scholarly circles who have raised trenchant questions of their own. George, Director of the Centre for Media and Communication Research at the Hong Kong Baptist University, is best-known for his earlier volume Air-Conditioned Nation (2000), one of the first sustained attempts to chart the far-reaching effects of establishment politics on Singapore’s media and culture. Teo, who heads the Sociology Division at Nanyang Technological University, is a frequent and nuanced commentator on class issues in Singapore. Her insights on the state’s family policies are collected in her book Neoliberal Morality in Singapore (2011).
Within the space of a few months, both have published new volumes of essays that seek to diagnose aspects of our current political condition. At first glance, they seem to take different approaches to different questions. In Singapore, Incomplete, George offers a sweeping, rights-driven critique of political discourse in Singapore, arguing convincingly that more liberal and tolerant policies will shape a more robust and tolerant public sphere. Teo, by contrast, offers a fine-grained perspective of inequality which attends to the human stories behind our GINI coefficient, and contends that change begins with our paying attention – and not looking away. Put differently, George is concerned with what we say; Teo with what we see.
Read side-by-side, the two books lend us the breadth and depth to piece together a piercing cross-section of politics in Singapore. The social disconnects that Teo explores both give rise to, and are prolonged by, the stereotypes and assumptions that George tackles. And the disjointed public sphere George examines cannot be understood without reference to an increasingly unequal Singapore. Taken together, these volumes speak volumes about who we are, or perhaps more tellingly, who we aren’t.
Unlike commentators like Michael Barr who have focused on unravelling the machinations of elite policy-making, George is a student of politics in its broader sense: how power acts across Singapore’s public and private spheres, and how we relate to it. The witty, erudite salvos collected here range widely over issues of public expression, demographic diversity, and political engagement, and one might imagine their author – surely the knight-errant of Singapore’s commentariat – gallantly tackling the ogres of rampant xenophobia and government repression in the name of individual freedoms. While these concerns may seem far too diffuse, we might better take Singapore, Incomplete as an ambitious attempt to understand a nation’s public sphere in its fascinating entirety. To achieve this, George adopts a refreshingly democratic gaze: the whisperings of Singapore’s keyboard warriors are accorded the same analytical weight as the pronouncements of its paper generals.
At its core, the question that Singapore, Incomplete sets out to answer is precisely that of why a text like this one has taken so long to emerge. Given Singapore’s economic and educational successes, why is its public discourse so infantile; and why, specifically, is thoughtful, critical opinion so hard to come by? George suggests several complementary explanations: the easy quietude of performance legitimacy, the uninspiring conditions for independent journalism, a “fog of fear” emanating from the state’s penchant for covert crackdowns. Though the state is certainly to blame, George’s most rewarding chapters also call Singaporeans out for their reluctance to rock the boat (“Disturbing the Peace”), or their reliance on easy myths of leadership and national progress (“The LKY Legacy”). Mature political debate cannot thrive where freedoms of speech and press are not guaranteed, but neither can it exist in the first place if citizens are unwilling to take uncomfortable risks.
The virtues of this volume lie in the clarity and consistency of George’s vision. If the essays skim the surface in some instances, they are redeemed by the fact that their interrelated arguments tie, across the book, into a single, well-argued point: that political maturity takes political freedom, and political freedom takes political courage. Thanks to George’s characteristic concision, these essays are tailor-made for the busy Singaporean’s commute: the very audience George intends to reach.
If George errs on the side of liberalism in his defense of individual freedoms, Teo takes a distinctively left-of-centre approach in both her concern about the deep social repercussions of entrenched inequality, and her starting-point of basic moral egalitarianism: that arbitrary differences in one’s upbringing and environment should not affect one’s prospects and quality of life, especially in a democratic, developed society like ours. From here, her critique of “differentiated deservedness” – the idea that public policy and class dynamics in Singapore structure a society “where citizens accept that some people are more deserving and others less so” – gains particular currency and persuasiveness.
Teo’s essays contain deep-dive, first-hand accounts of three years’ fieldwork among low-income households who dwell, predominantly, in rental estates. Ever careful to foreground the stories and voices of her informants, she brings her readers into close quarters with their fellow citizens as job-seekers, students, parents and, most importantly, as people going about their everyday lives. In so doing, she helps us understand the many invisible costs levied on them by a profoundly unequal society, as well as the very state that proffers “assistance”. The work of “seeing” these costs is of course a challenging and sensitive one, and Teo relentlessly interrogates the frames within which she works as an academic sociologist, unpacking the ways in which she, like her many privileged readers, are complicit in producing inequality. Her commitment to doing so is what makes the book a disconcerting, but all the more necessary, addition to every reading-list.
Crucially, This is What Inequality Looks Like is not “poverty porn”. Teo does not intend for us merely to stand and stare. On the contrary, her later chapters discuss what we can and should do – in terms of individual choice, and in terms of building cross-class solidarity and seeking collective good. They also record some of her own experiences with sharing her research, and encountering surprise or even negative pushback. There is precious little in Singapore that documents first-hand academic engagement and activism of the sort Teo has done, and certainly not with this level of honesty and reflexivity. This book spurs us to thoughtful action, and reminds us that examining how we think about inequality is, in the first place, both “our democratic right and our citizenship responsibility”.
Commenting on the academic landscape in Singapore, George laments that the nation’s scholars have been “largely absent precisely when their expertise is most needed – when complex and controversial issues call for the kind of clarity, context and research-based insight that we academics claim to be able to provide”. Mercifully, both volumes reviewed here are striking exceptions to this “retreat” from the public sphere: their authors respond to the pressing questions of our time by giving us, with incisive grace, new ways of speaking and seeing.
If maturity comes with growth, and growth with questioning, then these books and the questions they pose point us towards their most worthy and courageous visions of true maturity and equitable growth. That we may be both more complete and more equal: surely that is not too much to ask.
Cherian George. Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World nation’s arrested political development. Hong Kong: Woodsville News, 2017.
Teo Youyenn. This is What Inequality Looks Like. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018.
Theophilus Kwek is a writer and researcher based in Singapore. Having recently completed an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, he has written about migration and other issues for IRIN, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, and the Singapore Policy Journal. Other poems, translations, and essays have appeared in The Guardian, EuropeNow, and The London Magazine. He serves as Co-Editor of Oxford Poetry.