First the disbelief. Then the memes. And in the end, it is still business as usual.
It is a familiar ritual of outrage, which in this context also masks our complicity in the face of Singapore’s inequality and growing class divide. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has confirmed that the Secondary Three Social Studies guidebook published by MarketAsia Books – which drew criticisms for its “description” of individuals with a lower socio-economic status, or SES – is not on its approved textbook list, and the guidebook has also reportedly been dropped by Popular bookstores. But the controversy persists, with many purportedly “frustrated by the impact it could have on young readers” and lambasting the MOE for its supposed oversight. Through tongue-in-cheek advertisements, even companies such as low-cost airline Scoot have hopped on the “higher SES, lower SES” bandwagon.
Yet our collective response reveals a poor understanding (or perhaps wilful disregard) of SES as a comparative measure to understand structural, socio-economic policy problems in Singapore, and the response is especially problematic when the “lower SES” label – either erroneously taken on by individuals who do not belong to that level or foisted upon different activities or behaviours – is somehow perceived as a badge of honour. Instead of acknowledging that there are Singaporeans who struggle to get by and for whom “lower SES” or poverty is an everyday reality, the disbelief and the memes have not translated into substantive discourse. In fact commentaries such as “So what if I’m of a lower SES?“, published by the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM), epitomise our complicity and apathy.
The real conversation on what it means to be “lower SES” or impoverished in Singapore, in other words, has been pushed aside.
Could the guidebook have been better written? Definitely. But many of the knee-jerk reactions were premised upon a fallacious reading that a person is necessarily of a lower SES, for instance, because he or she eats at hawker centres or at home; that is, if you eat at a hawker centre or at home, you are deemed to be of a lower SES. Rather, the more accurate reading is that low-income Singaporeans, on average – compared to their middle- or high-income counterparts, who are more likely to have “regular fine dining at expensive restaurants” – are more likely to have home-cooked meals or meals at hawker centres. Imagine if the table had been specified with:
- How SES is defined, together with information about income brackets and distribution in Singapore (though the guidebook does already explain that “income is usually used to measure a person’s SES”, alongside education level, occupation, and ownership of wealth);
- Membership data of country clubs;
- Expenditure data comparing the spending patterns or habits of Singaporeans, disaggregated by income levels or brackets; as well as
- Survey data showing that youths from high-income households have the financial means to travel overseas more frequently, compared to youths from low-income households who are more likely to take on “part-time jobs during vacation time to meet basic family needs”?
Would the faux outrage – focused selectively on a single table, taken out of context in circulation – have been as resonant?
As a good friend wrote on Facebook: “‘Lower SES’ is not an insult. It is reflective of how institutional structures and cultural norms shape our perceptions and valuations – which is what some people are demonstrating”. He goes on to elaborate that the use of Singlish is oftentimes reflective of a lower SES, “but this does not mean that if you have spoken Singlish sometime in your life, you are from a ‘lower SES’. In fact, code switching between ‘higher SES’ class markers and ‘lower SES’ class markers is a sign of being ‘higher SES’. The rich man can choose to go to the hawker centre if he wants because he has the wealth to have the breadth of choices availabile to him. Likewise, if you have had a good education, you can easily switch between Singlish and proper English”.
The aforementioned SKM commentary makes the same fallacious mistake. The writer says: “If, for example, you have a ‘higher SES’, yet enjoy playing football, should you give that up to play golf instead because it is considered a rich man’s game and therefore more appropriate for your status?” Yet the underlying premise in this example is that a high-income Singaporean has the luxury of choice. Not everyone does. The writer’s subsequent arguments that “Your character and morals, too, are more important factors than your SES, and arguably provides a clearer indication of the person you are”, and that “SES is merely a measurement tool”, are wide of the mark: The SES indicates how Singaporeans of different income levels are endowed with different resources and how starting points in a proudly meritocratic country are widening, and without confronting these uncomfortable issues head on no meaningful progress will be made.
In this vein the counter-arguments that the jokes and the memes are in jest and that there is no need to be so uptight (and frustrated) hold no water. The SKM writer concluded with the throwaway line, “What’s so bad about having a lower SES again?”, when the serious answer should have been: Everything. Without confronting the structural challenges of inequality here, we should not be content with platitudes.
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