Finally had the chance to read Prof Teo You Yenn’s book “This Is What Inequality Looks Like”. It is essentially a compilation of essays based on her work among rental flat inhabitants in Singapore. What started as ethnographic research on poverty in Singapore quickly turned to study on both poverty and inequality, and how these are perpetuated. It is a powerful book, clear (despite many “long words” used) in conveying her findings and ideas. I liked how she juxtaposed her own circumstances with that the rental flat inhabitants, and I came to question many of my own assumptions and biases throughout the course of reading – this is one of the best books I have read that have come out of Singapore.


Sample quotes that resonated, being a parent with young children:

“The biggest barrier to understanding poverty and inequality, for people with various degrees of power, status, influence, is their, our, vested material and symbolic interests in its perpetuation. We are so deeply implicated in our national and individual narratives of growth, development, and meritocracy, that we have trouble confronting and seeing stories that trouble these narratives.”

“From a sociological viewpoint, meritocracy in Singapore is working exactly as it can. And it works very well in convincing us that we all – no matter where we are on the social hierarchy – deserve to be exactly where we are. Those who cannot get their children to have qualities legitimate as merit pays its price.”

“The lack of class privilege is about having to play by someone else’s rules; the presence of class privilege is about being able to set standards.” “Given the ubiquity of enrichment centers and tutors, some kids – because of class advantages – are advantaged in a system where early exposure and precocity are rewarded. The kids who are able to run forward the moment the gates are open are neither more meritorous nor more deserving.”

“We would start to deal with the uncomfortable truth that when those of us with more do things that are best for ‘our’ children, that we are also further solidifying the narrow definitions of merit and creating less space for children who have other qualities that are not legible in our system. We would not shy away from calling this a moral problem, an ethical issue.”


A snapshot from Prof Teo’s book – trips made on an average week by the mothers living in rental flats that she interviewed.


I also read British biochemist Nick Lane’s book “The Vital Question”, which attempts to put forward a rather innovative theory on the origin and evolution of life through the lens of energy constraints. This was – for me – an extremely difficult book to read, and I struggled through descriptions of ATP synthesis, cell membrane formation, alkaline hydrothermal vents (speculated to be the birthplace of all life – although this theory has been soundly challenged), eukaryotes as a rare chance combination of a prokaryote and an archaea. Certainly mind-expanding and hopefully something that can be a personal exploration in the future.


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Books, Singapore