Narratives, Inequality and the Church Part 1: Reflections on Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like

No book has so taken Singapore by storm as Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like; perhaps not since LKY’s Hard Truths has a book by a local author been sold out so rapidly. I am perhaps late to the party in registering my reflections on the book, but I offer them up here. As usual, I am interested in bringing a Christian perspective to the issues raised here. I eventually hope to show that Christians have much learn from Teo’s insights: her discussion of how narratives are ultimately socially embedded can be a starting point for us to think about how evangelism, community and social justice can be intertwined. More importantly, I believe her analysis reveals that the Church uniquely can and ought to play a crucial role in Singapore society, but that she should focus her energies outside of the usual institutional structures Singaporean Christians have been fond of working in. In this first post, however, I want to simply examine Teo’s analysis and raise some related issues in thinking about how we can respond to it.

Step 1: Disrupt the Narrative

Teo covers much ground in her work, drawing from extensive interviews with those from low socio-economic backgrounds, providing an ethnography of inequality that describes how the state and societal structures of Singapore are differentially experienced by those from such backgrounds. However, there are two interrelated insights that are crucial to her work and that I want to comment on in this essay. The first concerns the intertwining of the national narrative and the individual narrative and the second concerns how these narratives are socially embedded and instantiated and reproduced in our everyday lives.

The emphasis on narrative is evident from the title of Teo’s evocative first chapter: “Step 1: Disrupt the Narrative” and Teo begins by pointing out the relationship between individual narratives and the national narrative. The essence of our national narrative Teo sees as captured by progress and meritocracy. Singapore is a nation that prevailed against the odds to reach the prosperous state that we are in and we must continue to strive forward if we are to survive. Part of what explains our excellence and success is the system of meritocracy we have instituted. This is a system that purports to provide equality of opportunity to all citizens but which produce, by design, unequal outcomes of credentials, status and wealth. This narrative is furthermore value-laden, 

“What the education system does when it selects, sorts and hierarchizes, and when it gives its stamp of approval to those ‘at the top,’ is that it renders those who succeeds through the system as legitimately deserving. Left implicit is that those at the bottom have failed to be deserving.” (p. 26, Original Emphasis.)

This narrative does not remain at the national level, however, but are concretised in individual narratives. The values reflected in the national narrative are imbibed by us and inform the stories that we tell about ourselves. Teo cites the example of two men who proudly talk about having once been in a state where they have had to take cold showers and sleep with bed bugs. She notes that “with the national narrative of miraculous progress serving as backdrop to their personal stories, these persons can lay claims to a kind of dignified triumph.” (p. 21.) Those who have not been able to progress within this narrative, however, have no such recourse to dignify their hardship. Instead, they are understood as symbols of inferiority and unworthiness.

The stories that we tell ourselves, however, do not exist in a vacuum. Instead it is impressed unto us by our interactions with societal structures and our social relations:

“Individuals do not live on islands (even when we literally do!). We are connected through rich, complex, and intricate ties to others in society. What we do and do not do are shaped by our sense of how others are — shared understandings of right and wrong, good and bad, valuable and worthless. The pathways and practices we end up taking are rendered meaningful by shared scripts and narratives that permeate our society.” (Pg. 32.)

Teo then goes on to show how various aspects of Singapore society structurally disadvantages the poor: availability and type of housing, the kinds of employment that the low income have to undertake and the highly competitive education system serve to mire them in their situation despite their best efforts. But not only does it keep them poor, it perpetuates their sense of inferiority and unworthiness. Because they lack the qualities which our meritocratic system rewards, they are made to feel incompetent. Understood from within the perspective of the national narrative they imbibe, they are not ‘normal’ and have been left behind. 

That these narratives are socially embedded is crucial. One cannot simply choose to tell oneself a different story. As Teo notes in her discussion of parenting:

“Parenting is a socially embedded activity… First, it is linked to other elements of everyday life … Second, it is shaped by and rooted in the broader expectations, demands and habits of society. … Many of us like to imagine we are independent — how many times have I heard people declare “I just do what I want to do and I don’t care what other people say”? — but the reality is that what makes for a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent is shaped by circumstances and informed by criteria beyond any given individual’s control” (p. 144-145.)

For example, the expected outcomes of parenting are informed by societal interaction and norms: it is not possible for a parent to simply do something else and pronounce their parenting as equally valid. Low income parents end up imbibing these values and ultimately reproduce the image of inferiority in their interactions with their children. As Teo notes, many low income parents find themselves in the unenviable position of telling “their kids to listen to them and yet also send them the message ‘don’t be like me’”. (Emphasis mine, p. 139.)

What is Step 2?

Such is the picture Teo paints of Singapore society that I hope to have captured in broad strokes. If this is the diagnosis, however, what is the solution? Recall that the problem really has two parts, (1) the oppressiveness of the national narrative and its effects on the individual narratives of Singaporeans and (2) the fact that this narrative is embodied in the community and state structures and instantiated and lived out in everyday life. If we wish to solve the problem, we must ask ourselves two corresponding questions:

    1. If we cast off the old narrative of meritocracy, what is the new narrative that we are going to tell ourselves? 
    1. How do we create the new community that embodies this alternate narrative?

Teo’s book does not offer any concrete answers to these questions and much of how I reconstruct her here is somewhat speculative. To be fair to Teo, her book does not pretend to offer comprehensive solutions to the problems and I may be seen as attacking a straw woman here. In fact, however, my intention is not to criticise Teo at all, whose main task in the book was after all merely to give an analysis of the problem. Instead, I merely wish to point out some crucial difficulties in responding to these two questions. Let’s think about the two questions in turn: 

    1. If we cast off the old narrative of meritocracy, what is the new narrative that we are going to tell ourselves? 

With regards to this first question, Teo seems to suggest two different approaches. (1) At times, Teo talks as if the problem is the entire system of meritocracy, the idea that worth is accrued to persons based on some action or virtue they have. (2) At other times she speaks as though it is not meritocracy that is the problem but the specific form of meritocracy that is present in Singapore. In these passages, she says the problem is that some forms of human virtue (especially those displayed by the those from poorer backgrounds) are not “legible” within the current meritocratic framework, suggesting that perhaps what we need is to tell another kind of meritocratic story where merit is accrued to different kinds of values or virtues other than academic or bureaucratic excellence. 

Both responses are, in my view, unsatisfactory. The first response continues to leave the question unanswered. If not meritocracy, then what? How can we have a narrative that does not have norms that privilege some qualities and so some persons over others? Besides, how are we to ex nihilo create and tell ourselves a radically different story from the one that is so deeply embedded in our culture? The second response appears more feasible, but I believe that any such alternative narrative would generate the same problems that Teo identifies. If we divert the award of merit to perhaps more ‘moral’ virtues we may essentially create a kind of moral meritocracy. Who gets to decide which kinds of qualities are the ones that are to be commended? Would it create other kinds of inequalities? How do we prevent those other inequalities from becoming oppressive? For all the talk of Singapore being a Confucian society, the idea of a moral meritocracy perhaps comes closest to Confucianism. Confucian governments after all used to provide pensions to e.g. widows who exhibited some form of great virtue in raising their family. Some may be uncomfortable with the state or even society having such a large role in rewarding this or that virtue.

It may be objected here: “It is unfair to press this worry, no one is saying that we need to decide for others what kinds of stories they want to tell, and certainly no one is suggesting that the state should have a large hand in rewarding virtue.” This is a fair criticism. Teo appears to be a liberal and if so she probably advocates the idea that each individual should be free to craft their own narrative. It is not for the state or society or academics to tell individuals what sort of story they wish to tell themselves. However, the worry still remains. If individuals decide to cast off the old national narrative, who is to say that the new narrative that they tell themselves is not without defect or that it does not perpetuate oppression? Furthermore, as Teo herself has pointed out, individuals cannot simply tell themselves a different story in defiance of the overwhelming social structures that operate around a different narrative. This therefore brings us to the second question:

    1. How do we create the new community that embodies an alternate narrative?

Teo seems to indicate that this should happen primarily by state reform and individual action. Educational/social institutions need to become more progressive and individuals need to play their part to tell a different story to themselves and to treat those around them differently. She closes the book by (somewhat cryptically) calling on Singaporeans to “refuse” (p. 269.) to accept the status quo but to be a part of the ongoing national conversation. 

Such reform is crucial and not to be sniffed at. However, there are general problems with relying on such reform. The first of which is that the effect of such reform is usually limited. Unless individual mindsets can be changed, institutional reform cannot alter the narratives or ways of life of citizens. For example, if we decide to reduce emphasis on academic excellence and choose to reward students for more holistic achievement instead, ‘kiasu’ parents can always decide to divert their tuition money to all sorts of other enrichment activities that would prepare their children for whatever alternative quality the system chooses to reward. Second and relatedly, the ability of the state to make more drastic reform is limited by individuals who continue to imbibe the old narrative of meritocracy. Having been the national narrative for so long, citizens have become invested not only in the story of meritocracy but in its institutional embodiment. They have learned to play the game by those rules and would resent having them changed. Consider the balancing act the government has needed to play as it put out the new housing policy of buying back old and maturing estates. In the interest of greater equality and intergenerational justice, it may be said that the government should not buy back the expiring leases so that wealth would be re-distributed. However, having bought into the narrative that a HDB flat is one’s hard earned property, a narrative which the government itself has tried to perpetuate, Singaporeans would be loath to allow their leases to simply expire into dust.

There is chicken and egg problem here. For there to be drastic institutional reform, individuals must be willing to forsake their investment in the previous narrative. At the same time, until such drastic reform is complete, the costs that individuals would have to pay are prohibitively high. Teo refers to the example of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who decided to place her daughter in an American public school although she had the means to place her in a reputably better school. (p. 121.) Would any Singaporean take a similar risk? Not many. In fact, most Singaporeans often try to use any means possible to get their children into the better brand-name schools. Recently, I’ve heard that one method many have tried if they are unable to get their child into a brand-name school at Primary one is to ask for a school transfer the next year. I’m told that this fairly popular method can be effective at achieving the desired results.

The problem here is related to those that commentators have raised regarding the problem of being ‘woke’. David Brooks, for example, notes that “The problem with wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it.” (See his article: Teo notes that even among her acquaintances, such a sentiment is common. (See p. 13.) When one is aware of the massive structural problems we face and how little the individual can do, one starts to feel like a small cog in a large machine.

Telling a New Story

What then should Step 2 be? Here is my response in brief. The alternative narrative is the gospel narrative. The gospel narrative is not without norms, but it is one that is undergirded by grace. The gracious nature of this narrative avoids the problems of meritocracy, creating a community where “the first shall be last and the last first” (e.g. Mark 10:31). The community that embodies this relationship is primarily the relationship between the Christian God and believers, which is mediated by the new kinds of relationships Christians have among themselves. This new community which exists outside the realm of the state can avoid the problems related to state action. In the next post I will elaborate on this alternative in more detail.


2 thoughts on “Narratives, Inequality and the Church Part 1: Reflections on Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like

  1. The gospel narrative can also be ineffective if it remains just as that, a narrative of what Christ has done but not we are then to do.
    Rather I’d suggest an obedience narrative, to move the cerebral cognitive consent to an outward expression of it. After all, being sober-minded is to be ready for action isn’t it? being woke is one thing, to stay woke requires actions that keeps us from slumbering back into stupor.
    The right teaching of the gospel must demand an obedience to it. Without which, it remains a soliloquy well performed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree! But I would not put it as a separate narrative, rather the gospel narrative itself demands our obedience. Just as Paul talks about his gospel ministry as bringing about the obedience of faith. To use the jargon I’ve been using here, the gospel narrative has to be enacted in a community for it to begin to make sense. (I’ll talk more about this next!)

      I should also add that its seeing your work and having the many conversations with you and Addy that have led me to think more about this!


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