It is not easy to avoid comparing They Told Us to Move to last year’s breakout success, This is What Inequality Looks Like. In many ways, both books deal with some of the deeper, more difficult questions facing Singaporean society. Both also search for ways to give voice to communities within our society who for too long have found silence more convenient than to have keen attention focused on them. Both books identify the stakes at hand in our public and collective willingness to skirt around the inconvenience of attending to the realities of inequality, preferring to leave it to the wisdom of public policy makers. Both show us the glaring gaps that exist in the standard models of social help – and their manifest inadequacies. Both are timely and urgent.
Call them companion pieces.
In fact, Teo You Yenn also contributes a piece in They Told Us to Move.
This is a book of stories.
It is a story about a community. In many ways, also a story about communities.
Dakota Crescent was an enclave of old and mostly rental flats built in the late 1950s by the then-Singapore Improvement Trust, as a way – as with so much of post-war Singapore – to shelter a population in dire need of safe and affordable housing. Over the decades, the estate acquired an identity unique to itself, with all the hallmarks of neighbourliness, a spirit of care, and so on. The low-income status of many of Dakota’s residents also means that it is the site of substantial ministration – but also self- and mutual help.
They Told Us to Move follows the lives of many of these residents after government plans for the area meant that they had to be resettled to the nearby Cassia Crescent estate in 2016. What for many other Singaporeans would appear to be an upgrade of living conditions masks, instead, the complications of displacing the lives of many who have built theirs deeply in Dakota. One acute observation is of how people used to living in close quarters suddenly found themselves housed further apart in the new neighbourhood, unable to resume their close bonds due simply to new physical arrangements.
Emotional ties aside, the many logistical, not to say financial, obstacles are also a significant aspect of the many stories that emerge from the interviews that form one section of the book. People who have never had to deal with the machinery that is public sector bureaucracy now found themselves confronting legal documents, financial loan contracts, and other such developed nation minutiae.
Enter the Cassia Resettlement Team (CRT), a group of volunteers who formed together to help the Dakota residents negotiate the complexities of the big move, from preparation, to the actual move, to settling down, to helping residents connect with the new, assigned, local service centres.
Each chapter in They Told Us to Move, focuses on one resident or somebody deeply connected to the old estate, such as Roger Neo, the Dakota community’s local go-to person in all matters of social aid. An overwhelming sense of wistfulness underlines the book as many residents slowly reveal their sense of disappointment that Neo’s agency, Tung Ling Community Services, was not to follow them to their new estate.
The interviews are followed by perspectives offered by volunteers who worked with these residents, casting a kind of outsider’s eyes on the experience of being involved so intimately in the lives of these strangers-turned-friends. The volunteers’ narratives tell a different compelling story, often of the frustrations and helplessness that the residents feel, but also the gratification of simply being at hand. Also emerging from their re-telling is an understanding of how social service takes place, both formally and informally. The former is institutionalised, programmatic, categorical; the latter (CRT; Roger Neo) have more fluidity, and are more attuned to the organic complexities of individual needs. Both need to co-exist although in general, formal services tend to crowd out the informal-but-personal.
The third section of each of the book’s chapters turns to an academic who offers a more consolidative turn on the preceding narratives. Their views help the reader to make sense of the deeper implications of the emotional and experiential narratives of the residents and volunteers, setting out how particular aspects explicate or challenge established theoretical frames, or policy assumptions.
And repeatedly, their conclusions point to two crucial aspects of public social help in Singapore: Policies and programmes that specify the nature and manner of help end up being overly specific, categorical, and exclusive, resulting in stigma. Policies that are targeted rather universal end up targeting rather than helping.
You cannot create crutch mentality in a people who are already floundering.
While these are sobering thoughts, They Told Us to Move also tells a compelling story about the hopefulness of the human spirit, spurred on by the sincerity and willingness to care, and to keep a look out for each other. This may be our first peep at what inequality doesn’t have to look like.
Ng Kok Hoe, Ed. They Told Us To Move: Dakota—Cassia. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2019.
Lim Lee Ching