Published on 04 Mar 2021

Let's talk about inequality

A collection of essays based on a three-year ethnographic study by NTU’s Assoc Prof Teo You Yenn re-examines assumptions on poverty and social mobility in Singapore.

"This is what inequality looks like", a best-selling book of essays by Assoc Prof Teo You Yenn. Credit: NTU.

Poverty and socio-economic inequality are found in many parts of the world, but does it exist in the prosperous city state of Singapore?

To get insights into the situation closer to home, Assoc Prof Teo You Yenn of NTU’s School of Social Sciences conducted a three-year ethnographic study that reexamined assumptions about poverty and the equality of opportunities for upward social mobility.

Drawing from conversations, observations and in-depth interviews with more than 200 people, including social workers, teachers and low-income residents of public housing neighbourhoods, Assoc Prof Teo found socio-economic struggles, insecurity and despair experienced by some low-income Singaporeans on a daily basis.

By exploring the principles embedded in Singapore’s structures for welfare, school system and labour conditions, Assoc Prof Teo’s work sheds light on systemic issues that make it difficult or impossible for low-income individuals to overcome inequality and advance socially.

Findings from Assoc Prof Teo’s study have since been published as a collection of essays. Her book not only stayed on Singapore’s non-fiction bestseller list for more than 30 weeks, it also sparked a national debate on inequality and Singapore’s self-perception as an equal-opportunity society.

The essay collection “This is what inequality looks like” was published by Ethos Books (2018), ISBN: 978- 981-14-0595-2, and has sold 34,000 copies to date. It was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize (Creative Nonfiction) in 2020. For her contributions, Assoc Prof Teo was named a finalist for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award (2019). She also received a Woman of Insight Award (2019) from Singapore’s gender equality advocacy group, The Association of Women for Action and Research.

The article appeared first in NTU's research & innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #18February 2021).