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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / Democracy and Governance

Measuring with the Heart: How We See and Speak About Inequality

Some time ago, Dad and I were discussing his latest bedside read (sociologist Teo Youyenn’s bestselling ethnography of low-income families in Singapore, This Is What Inequality Looks Like) when he offered the following pearl of wisdom. “We can measure the equality of opportunities, of outcomes, and many other areas of life,” he said. “But ultimately, inequality is measured with the heart”.

He did not mean, of course, that conventional metrics for inequality are unimportant. Instead, he saw such metrics – with their focus on material conditions as a proxy for wider distributional inequalities – as only telling half the story. My father, a psychiatrist, has spent his career examining the impact of lived experiences on our inner selves: how we respond to crisis, relate to others, and understand our worth. In Teo’s sensitive portraits of life in two public rental housing estates, we recognized the empathy and professionalism of a sociologist who had resolved not only to document the facts of inequality, but also their psychological, social, and cultural impacts on people’s hearts and lives.

His remark came back to me this week as I read several official statements on inequality in Singapore. Most recent was a report released recently on Improving the Lives of Low-Income and Vulnerable Families in Singapore, the first comprehensive statement by any public agency on how the government has sought to address issues of “income disparity and social stratification” here. Though published under the aegis of the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), the paper highlights efforts by multiple agencies to respond to the needs of the vulnerable, and describes a government-wide imperative to deliver social assistance that is “flexible, coordinated, and responsive”.

Divided into five sections, the paper begins by tracing the history of Singapore’s social compact, from what it characterizes as the “very basic” social assistance schemes of the post-independence years to today’s expanded system of social support. The present framework, the paper explains, is designed to help individuals “work hard and look after themselves and their families”, while providing “safety nets” for those who are unable. The rest of the paper presents policy outcomes in five areas – education, employment, healthcare, housing, and social mobility – before outlining further plans to increase social mobility, insure citizens against “life’s uncertainties”, and improve social services.

To its credit, the paper sheds light on how different government agencies work in concert to tackle pertinent issues, thus alleviating somewhat the frustration of ordinary citizens trying to navigate “the system”. Also impressive is its consolidated presentation of findings on various social outcomes, a rarity in our often data-scarce social sector. Yet what troubled me as I read it were not the policies themselves nor even the problematic framework of luck egalitarianism they seemed to be founded on. Rather, I was struck by a deep dissonance between the upbeat “outcomes” contained in the paper and the street-level perspectives which, thanks to the dedicated work of Teo and others, have finally gained currency in public discourse.

To me, the MSF report is symptomatic of a wider problem: the occasional misalignment between the policy lens of the technocratic state, and the naked human eye through which its constituents must view the same issues. Though facts and figures are supposed to offer clarity of vision, the perspective they offer is often only accessible to those who make and implement policy, not those whose lives are shaped by it. And though this approach is supposed to bolster statements of help or security, it inevitably rings hollow in the ears of those who must live through the “problems” being “solved”. As Dad might have put it, such statistical reassurances can only speak to the mind, and not the heart.

Two decades ago, the anthropologist James Scott argued in his influential study Seeing Like A State (1998) that the modern state apparatus had evolved increasingly sophisticated methods of “seeing” its own people. Making a population “legible”, however – by collecting information on income, education, living expenses, and other metrics – comes at a cost. The state loses touch with the ways in which people look at themselves, especially the rich resources held in communities and traditions that Scott called “local knowledge”. Scott’s point applies at an individual level, too. People generally do not view themselves as statistics, and official statements that reduce their experiences to numerical trends obscure that which is experienced up close as “daily life”.

The point seems obvious, but in the case of the MSF report, such partial vision (on the part of the well-intentioned authors) plays itself out in two subtler ways. For one, though the paper reaffirms the government’s commitment to a society “where every person is respected and valued, and no-one is left behind”, the manner in which it substantiates this claim may well have the opposite effect. Despite the wealth of large-n quantitative data, there is not a single quote from a member of a low-income household, nor a single anonymized case-study that might capture their experience. Among all the statistics offered, there are no surveys of the concerns or opinions of citizens encountering the policies described. Even statistics reflecting these policies’ take-up rates are few and far between. Doubtless, the government’s efforts have been designed to meet many real needs. But it is hard to get a sense from this report of what those needs are, and how effectively they have been met.

This omission means that the report’s reassurances may come across as cold comfort to citizens currently in difficult situations. To the older worker who has been retrenched from decades of skilled labour, and is persistently unable to find new employment, the fact that Singapore’s “older worker employment rate is in the top 10” among OECD countries is unlikely to bring much consolation. Likewise, for the single working mother with teenage children who must compete against their more well-resourced peers throughout their educational journey, the fact that 15-year-olds from “disadvantaged backgrounds” in Singapore do better at PISA assessments than those in other developed countries is hardly a relief. Unfortunately, such broad brushstrokes of success presented in the report are more likely to signal that these individuals’ struggles are anomalous, and worsen their fears that they are an unwelcome minority in the rich, prosperous and competitive city-state.

The second implication of how the report approaches the question of inequality is this: that while the facts and figures listed may go some way to challenge the portrayal of inequality in modern Singapore, they are toothless in grappling with the narratives of inequality that have taken hold in the public mind. By the “narratives of inequality”, I mean the stories and beliefs – built on real-life experiences of hardship or success – that reveal and reinforce the effects of class stratification in Singapore. Take social mobility as an example: even with state-led efforts to “open up more pathways to success”, powerful assumptions prevent many from even finding out what opportunities are available to them, let alone pursuing them. While various policies may be implemented to level the playing field, narratives that dictate what ambitions each person “should” or “should not” entertain can remain stubbornly in place.

Perhaps an ethnographic sketch of my own is appropriate here. Just weeks into my National Service posting, I sat down with friends who were approaching their operationally-ready dates to ask about future plans. Some shot me blank looks, not having given the question much thought before. Others spoke of the future as a source of anxiety. With average academic results and no work experience, neither stable jobs nor further education seemed within reach. I soon realized that what I, throughout my relatively privileged schooling years, assumed to be a universal process (planning for the future, based on a “best fit” between my aspirations and abilities) was not, in fact, something my peers were accustomed to. One comment proved the most revealing. “Actually,” said one colleague, “nobody has ever told us that we should aim for these things”.

A report packed with statistical data – setting forth how the state perceives inequality, and describing how it has tried to tackle the problems it sees – is unlikely to gain any purchase in tackling such narratives. One could argue that this is because the narratives themselves are not based on data; they are irrational assumptions that fly in the face of facts. But this takes too narrow an interpretation of “data”, and gives too little credit to ordinary citizens. Our deep-seated narratives of inequality (and correspondingly, of merit and mobility) are based equally on data: just not the kind used by the state to measure the success of its own policies. They are based on what those in policy circles easily dismiss as gripes, anecdotes, or hearsay; more accurately, these are the first-person experiences of adversity, aspiration and assistance. If the state seeks to change or capture these public narratives about socioeconomic inequality in Singapore, then our tables of official figures can only be a start.

Some might be tempted to conclude that what is needed, in effect, is for the state to improve its public messaging capabilities. And indeed, the state has made some moves in that direction, from appointing a private-sector “master media agency” to hosting a series of “youth conversations” on the issue. One politician has even hosted a (controversial) documentary on the question of Singapore’s class divide. But lasting and more effective change will require two, more far-reaching, shifts.

First, any official attempt to document, discuss or deal with the issue of inequality in Singapore cannot afford to ignore citizens’ experiences of it. Even if the focus of a study (as with this MSF paper) is the state’s framework of social support, measuring and addressing inequality from the bird’s-eye view of the policymaker is to fundamentally misperceive the problem. Changing this will require humility on the part of the policymaker: the willingness to accept that one’s tools may not be appropriate to measuring inequality’s impacts on the ground, and to admit that despite what seems like positive policy outcomes from the state’s perspective, a significant number of people may still face structural obstacles. This does not mean discarding conventional metrics altogether; obviously, statistics on the cost of living or affordability of healthcare are still relevant figures. But there are ways for the state to start with “the measure of the heart”, by pursuing user-centred policy, in terms of prioritizing how Singaporeans perceive their own circumstances and prospects. And such statistics, when we use them, should complement policies that are structured first around citizens’ voices and claims.

Second, all this is moot without a deeper examination of our guiding principles. Once again, there have been steps in the right direction, such as the introduction of the Silver Support Scheme (Singapore’s first non-contributory pension) and the Progressive Wage Model (a sector-specific minimum wage arrangement) in recent years. Yet, some fundamental and widely-used approaches to social assistance remain in place, which prevent more egalitarian structures from taking root even as piecemeal progressive policies may be put in place. Commentators have pointed out, for example, that the use of household means-testing for subsidies in healthcare and other forms of social assistance is not only intrusive and detrimental to the dignity of poor families, but has the potential to exacerbate gender inequalities. Yet, because of its perceived role in promoting an ideal of self-reliance among Singaporeans, household means-testing is still used to determine eligibility for social support. As long as these ideals – of self-reliance, private responsibility and state frugality, among others – are not revisited from a ground-up perspective, citizens will perceive social policy as something done to, not for them.

If debates over inequality have begun to democratize public discourse by foregrounding the voices of the vulnerable, they will only take lasting effect if we understand the importance of measuring society’s most pressing issues with the heart. Practically, this involves nuancing state-level perspectives with street-level experiences, to gain public trust, change public narratives, and shift public policy. Otherwise, for all the data in the world, what lies in front of us will remain impossible to see.

 Image Credit: Image by The Straits Times