Shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2020 (English, Creative Nonfiction)
Features a new Afterword by the author, and a Foreword by Kwok Kian Woon, Professor of Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
What is poverty? What is inequality? How are they connected? How might they be overcome?
This book—an ethnography of inequality—addresses these questions. Formed by a series of essays, they are written to be read individually, but have been arranged to be read as a totality and in sequence. Each aims to accomplish two things: first, to introduce a key aspect of the experience of being low-income in contemporary Singapore. Second, to illustrate how people’s experiences are linked to structural conditions of inequality.
The way we frame our questions shapes the way we see solutions. This book does what appears to be a no-brainer task, but one that is missing and important: it asks readers to pose questions in different ways, to shift the vantage point from which they view ‘common sense,’ and in so doing, to see themselves as part of problems and potential solutions. This is a book about how seeing poverty entails confronting inequality. It is about how acknowledging poverty and inequality leads to uncomfortable revelations about our society and ourselves. And it is about how once we see, we cannot, must not, unsee.
"This book is a remarkable rarity—a vivid ethnography of the lives, dreams and disappointments of low-income Singaporeans, skillfully intertwined with the implicit and explicit mental ideologies, social structures and bureaucratic institutions that both bind and separate us from each other. Delivered in slender, evocative prose with insight and empathy, yet informed by analytical distance and infused with theoretical rigor, it shows that the lives of our often-forgotten fellow citizens reveal larger truths about ourselves and our society, and the nature of humanity in our affluent post-industrial state. The highly accessible narrative both touches the heart and engages the mind, and deserves to become the basis for a wide-ranging public discourse on the soul of our nation."
—Linda Lim, Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan
"This is what inequality looks like is a masterfully crafted text. Consciously avoiding academic frames, Teo You Yenn’s ethically and politically grounded narrative unfolds through vignettes of lived experiences that stand in sharp, stark contrast to the dominant imaginings of Singaporeans as mobile, cosmopolitan, free, agentic, affluent global citizens. Drawing on everyday lives of individuals and families, privileging their voices through the choice of ethnography—the book’s ten chapters communicate the pathos and experiences of being poor and living under conditions of inequality in a cosmopolitan city-state. The book's lens is focused critically on popular, academic and state discourses about Singapore society. The book is a much needed intervention in hitherto un-problematised, taken-for-granted conclusions about poverty (its absence and then its causes), about inequalities, about responsibilities of the state and social structures in Singapore—regnant amongst Singaporeans—academics included. The book will no doubt resonate globally and has obvious analytical reverberations that are delivered through the empirical richness of a veiled segment of everyday Singaporean lives. The book disturbs deliberately, asking difficult questions that demand considered moral responses, highlighting above all the role of institutional structures in producing the context for the unfolding of experiences of poverty and inequality. Teo’s voice, heard powerfully and honestly throughout the text, is a provocation; each page is etched with an inspiration and moral compulsion to engage—an invitation that is impossible to resist."
—Vineeta Sinha, Professor of Sociology, National University of Singapore
"Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like is probably the year’s single most valuable intervention in Singapore’s public discourse, in any medium (yes, including politicians’ speeches). It is changing the way mainstream Singapore thinks about our society. Before political leaders dismiss it as idealistic, lefty thinking, they should pay attention to how well the book has been selling. Clearly, Singaporeans are ready to talk about the uncomfortable issue of inequality."
—Cherian George, professor of media studies and author, in "My Book of the Year 2018", Singapore Unbound
"It's unconscionable that in a wealthy country like Singapore, up to 500,000 residents live in absolute poverty. As former GIC Chief Economist Yeoh Lam Keong calculated back in 2016, Singapore has a budget surplus of well over SGD20 billion, and to eradicate poverty, all we needed to do is to redistribute 3.9 billion of this surplus to the poor. Bureaucrats will contest these numbers, but even an institutional figure like Chua Beng Huat admits that Singapore has the financial means to eradicate poverty; what's missing is the political will. Which brings us to Teo You Yenn's This Is What Inequality Looks Like."
—Jason Soo, filmmaker, in "My Book of the Year 2018", Singapore Unbound
"Years ago, when I asked Michel Deguy what poetry was to him, he responded, "Poetry is not about seeing the invisible or the very visible. Poetry, instead, is about seeing the slightly visible." This is What Inequality Looks Like helps us to see what we should always have seen — and, whether she knows it or not, Teo You Yenn might well be our most important contemporary poet."
—Jeremy Fernando, reader and writer, in "My Book of the Year 2018", Singapore Unbound
"I also found a lot to admire in Teo You Yenn's This Is What Inequality Looks Like, which shatters the myth of Singaporean meritocracy with precision and hard facts."
—Jeremy Tiang, translator and author of State of Emergency, in "My Book of the Year 2018", Singapore Unbound
"My Book of 2018 is Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like. This is a rare book that has managed to significantly shift the terms of public discourse in Singapore, to suggest how systemic social policies that promote inequality are linked to private and public stories of human worth. Teo’s writing is personal without being confessional, and implicates readers in a more complex and troubling way than through simply inciting empathy. It’s sociology at its best, reaching out to a broad audience through the quality of its writing, but refusing to compromise on its argument. For readers in North America, it provides a stark contrast to the imagined world of Crazy Rich Asians, and asks unsettling questions about a global politics of representation. For readers in Singapore, the close focus on inequality at Singapore’s recent Institute of Policy Studies 30th anniversary conference indicates just how important the conversations Teo’s book has opened up have become."
—Philip Holden, literary scholar and author of Heaven Has Eyes, in "My Book of the Year 2018", Singapore Unbound
"[...] Elites may seek to help those who are disadvantaged by the system, but they will not make fundamental changes to the market-friendly, "meritocratic" arrangements which keep them on top. We should not expect genuine change from our elites. Genuine change to create more fair and egalitarian institutions can only be accomplished from the bottom up. Along those lines, I will recommend three Singaporean books: This is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn; The Naysayers Book Club by Simon Vincent, (which features an interview with me); and Singapore, Incomplete by Cherian George. I enjoyed the parts I read of all three, in different ways."
—Pingtjin Thum, historian, in "My Book of the Year 2018", Singapore Unbound
"To be honest I only read the first couple of chapters, before sending it to a Singaporean student in New Zealand who needed it for his research. It's been a big hit here in Singapore, with Teo's decision to personalise the story clearly striking a chord. The one worry is that reading the book might become an end in itself rather than a spur to actually change things... but hopefully it will become a touchstone for everyone in thinking about the issues involved."
—Sonny Liew, graphic novelist and author of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Winner of 3 Will Eisner Awards in 2017, in "My Book of the Year 2018", Singapore Unbound
"My book is This is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn. This is What Inequality Looks Like deserves all the acclaim and bestselling status that it gets. The subject matter is of course very topical and pressing, the writing is evocative, precise and direct. But what stays with you is the writer’s compassion that permeates every page and makes an irrepressible call to action."
—William Phuan, arts administrator, in "My Book of the Year 2018", Singapore Unbound
"Teo You Yenn’s This Is What Inequality Looks Like. In a recent New Naratif podcast, Dr Stephanie Chok and Debbie Fordyce were having a conversation with Dr. Thum Pingtjin and Kirsten Han on the "invisible population" of migrant workers in Singapore. Towards the end of the session, they begin to speak about how solutions by well-intentioned Singaporeans often exacerbate the situation by aiming to correct the inevitable outcome instead of questioning systemic forces at work. It is in moments like this that the significance of Dr. Teo You Yenn’s book come to mind. It is a necessary volume that equips us with the language to negotiate our complicit relationship with the infrastructure of power in Singapore. This book is significant because it is written to be read, her rhetoric scaffolded with approachable anecdotes, persuasive in its economy. The middle chapter on “differentiated deservedness” is one of the most cogent dissection of the Singaporean condition that I have encountered. This is my book of the year because it reminds me not only to question, but interrogate how and what these questions are. This book rips off the blindfold with such lucid clarity, and once we know, we can no longer plead ignorance."
—Loo Zihan, artist, in "My Book of the Year 2018", Singapore Unbound
Cover Type: Softcover
Page Count: 312
Year Published: 2019