Inequality and social good: A new culture of shared wellbeing requires reforming a system that promotes individualism

Academic Views / Saturday, October 22nd, 2022

Ordinary Singaporeans have an understanding of what it means to lead meaningful and flourishing lives as part of a wider society, says sociologist TEO YOU YENN. But this social sense is overwhelmed by institutional signals that life is an individual hustle. If Singapore’s leaders are seeking a new social compact for a changed world, they would need to embark on radical reforms to redress the balance between self-interest and solidarity, she argues. This is the edited text of a speech delivered at the Singapore Economic Policy Forum on 18 October 2022.

Three questions to ask when getting at the topic of social good and inequality are:

What do people need to lead meaningful and flourishing lives?

What social conditions enable people to pursue the lives they would like to lead?

How do these conditions vary along class and gender lines?

First, what do people need to lead meaningful and flourishing lives? This question can seem subjective. Is it possible to answer it in a general or universal way? Philosophers, political theorists, economists, sociologists have tried.

When a team of collaborators and I conducted research on a Minimum Income Standard, we did not start with the language of “a meaningful and flourishing life.” Instead, we used the language of basic needs and basic standards of living. But, in our multiple focus group discussions with ordinary Singaporeans, people emphasized that life should not just be about staying alive, about survival. A “basic standard of living” needs to entail living a meaningful, good life. Thus, our understanding of meaningful and flourishing lives is not plucked from moral philosophy. It emerges from ground realities as expressed by the many ordinary Singaporeans who participated in our project. From these conversations, we crafted this definition:

A basic standard of living in Singapore is about, but more than just housing, food, and clothing. It is about having opportunities to education, employment and work-life balance, as well as access to healthcare. It enables a sense of belonging,  respect, security, and independence. It also includes choices to participate in social activities, and the freedom to engage in one’s cultural and religious practices.

People value both autonomy and interdependence — having individual choices and preferences, but also social respect and belonging. Moreover, as we learnt when we talked to people of different ages, different parts of this definition take on varying levels of importance at different points in the life course. A child of 5 years old; a student finishing up their ‘O’ levels; a single parent of a teenager; a married father with two young children; a retiree at age 70 — they have different priorities and different sources of income for meeting needs. In order for everyone to be able to meet needs and live meaningful, flourishing lives at all points in the life course, a great deal of attention must be given to social conditions that enable this possibility.

Social conditions

This brings me to my second question: what social conditions enable or disable people in pursuing the lives they would like to lead? There are many: food systems and their integrity, environmental protections and justice, laws or regulations safeguarding religious participation, political and civil liberties, and so on. Although we often think of the fulfillment of needs as individual quests, it is impossible to fulfill these needs without various kinds of enabling social infrastructure.

Since this is where most of my research has focused, I will focus on just these conditions: wage work and care infrastructure.

Incomes can come from many sources, and where they come from varies for different types of households and at different stages of our life course. But wage work is crucial, both as a means to an end, and as an end in itself. In a capitalist economy, it is the primary means for most people to generate income to meet their needs. It is also, on its own terms, something that confers meaning and respect.

When scholars talk about wage work, we refer to the availability of jobs, the level of wages, and work conditions — schedules, flexibility, security, leave provisions, bargaining power. When people are at the part of the life course when they participate in wage work, they are also responsible for a range of care needs — for children, older persons, or disabled family members. Therefore, the discussion of wage work can never be separated from that of care and care infrastructure. Care infrastructure refers to the constellation of things that allow for care and wage work to be pursued simultaneously: paid caregivers, institutions of care such as childcare centers, caregiver leave and the various laws, subsidies, or regulations that affect the prices of care services or the opportunity costs of leaving wage work to care.

That I talk about wage work and care infrastructure does not mean I am primarily interested in the needs of people in the middle part of the life course, or only on dual-wage worker households. This is not just a “work-life balance” problem for working adults. The lives of everyone — the daily rhythms and schedules they live by, the possibilities for their present and future — are tangled up at this intersection of wage work and care.

Even children are affected. What time they have for homework, tuition and enrichment activities, what kind of leisure they do or do not have, and how and with whom they spend their days — these are all dependent on the constellation created by their parents’ work conditions, the caregivers their parents rely on, and the time and money their parents have or do not have for paid activities.  Thus, most people, regardless of age and role in a household, are entangled in the tensions between wage work and the responsibilities of care.

Social conditions and inequality

The third question is how social conditions vary along class and gender lines.  In recent decades, there has emerged globally an increasingly polarized job market, in which the quality of jobs has bifurcated. There is divergence of wages and benefits, schedules (and control over them), stability and predictability, bargaining power, provisions for time off, autonomy, respect afforded to workers.

Job quality and employment relations are poor for those with lower levels of educational attainment. Work is precarious and uncertain for people with fewer credentials. Care gaps are also more pronounced for workers with less leverage in the labor market and fewer resources to outsource care labor. On the other hand, those with certain credentials, skills, and cultural and social capital have benefited greatly since compensation for some types of jobs have grown significantly. Additionally, the market for providing care services has expanded for those with the ability to pay.

Gender also matters: women play larger roles as caregivers and face greater challenges to reconcile wage work and care responsibilities; men play smaller roles in housework and giving care and continue to have larger roles as breadwinners. Women are far more likely than men to adjust their relationships to wage work to carry out care responsibilities, resulting in wage differentials as well as different labor force participation patterns. These are not merely outcomes of some static “traditional culture,” but instead result from the ways in which public policy, by enabling or incentivizing certain gendered parental roles and practices and not others, contributes to the thickening and persistence of inequalities.

“Money isn’t everything. Money can’t buy happiness. Money cannot buy respect. Dignity is more important than money.”

These are tropes often repeated. And they are wrong. It may be true that money cannot directly buy any of those things, but money is a precondition for them. Money can buy a HDB flat so a person can live as a typical Singaporean does, where their children have their own bedrooms as they grow up. Money can buy the clothes that one needs to show up appropriately dressed at a wedding and then others that help one fit in at the office. Money can buy a birthday present so that a child can go to their friend’s party and feel happy rather than embarrassed. Money can allow a retiree to donate money to their religious group, helping them feel they still contribute to society.

Wage conditions and care infrastructure shape people’s access to money. Since social conditions of wages and care vary along class and gender lines, the capacity to earn and accumulate money to meet short and long-term needs, is also variant. This variation is something we should care about because it indicates that the right to live meaningful and flourishing lives — not a controversial right to get behind — is not equally accessible.

What do people need to lead meaningful and flourishing lives? The question of social good needs to be posed in this way, placing ordinary people — not experts, or politicians, or ideologues and pundits — in the middle, as protagonists.

Certain needs can meaningfully be considered universal in a given society and moment. It is useful, in broad terms that allow for variations, to conceptualize needs this way. It provides a starting point for deliberating how to ensure that everyone can lead meaningful and flourishing lives.

To aspire to better, we have to look closely at the present. Whose needs are well beyond met, whose needs are just met, and whose needs are not met at all? Why do these variations exist?

Through various research projects over the years, I have found that people of different class backgrounds have to devise different strategies matching the different conditions they face in the nitty-gritty of everyday life—working, housework, caring for kids, helping them with homework, supporting ageing parents, upskilling and retraining, leisure.

A university-educated professional man has decent odds of navigating life’s needs step by step: from courtship to marriage and housing; to career progression and salary increments that go into meeting children’s growing needs and demands, while saving, investing, and insuring for old age or poor health. Access to money and time — providing some amount of slack and some degree of flexibility — allows for the pursuit of leisure and family life, and some freedom to pursue individual interests.

His counterpart with fewer educational credentials and in low-wage work is less likely to encounter life as a progressive path, and less likely to be able to meet the ideals required and rewarded by employers or public policy — credentials, employment patterns, or particular modes of ‘doing family.’[1] With each set of needs, whether housing or children’s education or leisure, there is less to spend. Needs are met to a poorer degree (in both quantity and quality).

When we compared household budgets required to meet basic standards of living to actual incomes from work, we found that people’s capacity for meeting basic standards of living were highly variant depending on occupation, education level, and type of work.

Source: Ng, Kok Hoe, You Yenn Teo, Yu Wei Neo, Ad Maulod, and Yee Lok Wong. 2021. “What people need in Singapore: A household budgets study.”

Women and men are faced with different options as they try to pursue meaningful lives. In a context where education has intensified as parental responsibility and become a key component of care labor, mothers and fathers feel compelled to take on different roles. Women, far more than men, reconfigure their own needs, fold down ambitions, step back from wage work and thereby reduce their lifetime earnings and future security, in service of children’s educational needs.[2]

Variations per se are not a problem and indeed are to be embraced in a diverse society, but we are not talking merely about difference in a horizontal way, but about hierarchy, about inequality in outcomes, the uneven meeting of what people need to lead meaningful and flourishing lives.

At stake

As we go about pursuing needs, we encounter many agents and institutions: markets, schools, employers, hospitals, banks, and various state agencies, including their regulations or human representatives.

Through these encounters, we learn about how our society defines who belongs and who does not, who deserves and who does not, what one should do to try to deserve, and what one cannot possibly change if one is not deserving. We learn about individual responsibility, about how no one owes us a living, about the massive spoils that go to winners as well as the cracks losers may fall through. We learn, in other words, how the game is played. We get a strong sense that the game is primarily an individual hustle. Actions have to be oriented toward one’s own family and one’s own children. There is very little space in this daily hustle for doings, beings that are oriented toward shared wellbeing and long-term societal good.

There is thus a key tension I’ve noticed while interviewing people across the years: they have a strong sense of society yet also retreat into the individual cocoon of the family. They are conscious of what’s needed for social wellbeing, but feel they must maximize their own familial interests. The tension exists, I think, because the turn toward greater neoliberal, market fundamentalist orientations in recent decades has not totally extinguished an older, nation-building and developmentalist orientation.

This tension between the social and the individual, between the greater good and self-interest, between social wellbeing and individual gains, exists in every society. Given political polarization and the large-scale, collective action challenges posed by problems such as the climate crisis, a key challenge all societies face is how to develop a political culture that gives the social due salience.

How people meet their needs has an impact on that political culture. The economic, social, political, legal, regulatory and bureaucratic conditions that people encounter shape their perceptions of the game they and their fellow citizens have to play. As people negotiate these conditions, certain commonsense beliefs and practices form. That is the material that makes up our social and political culture.

At present, that material builds individualistic rather than solidaristic orientations. As Singaporeans navigate the system to try to meet their needs, they focus on questions like how to plan my life so that I can secure housing; how to help my child so they can keep up in school; how to upgrade my skills so I can stay relevant; what insurance I need to buy in case I fall ill and cannot work; how to save enough money for my own retirement. 

There are macro political economic ways to think about this private/societal tension. The problems to be addressed in the world today include: extreme income and wealth inequality; the resulting disproportionate power of the wealthy and unelected to influence political decisions and the intensification of political marginalization and precarious lives of the middle class and poor; environmental devastation, including again inequality shaping both its causes and impacts.

After decades of neoliberalist reform and market fundamentalism, the institutions that currently exist to solve these problems — states, global governance institutions, banks, corporations, universities and think tanks, civil society — are organized in ways that make it hard to resolve the problems.[3] Powerful and narrow interests prevent a shift of orientation toward ordinary people’s interests and broad social good. Tackling these problems requires radical changes to existing institutional arrangements.

We can think of what’s needed in terms of stasis versus dynamism: a system that does not reconsider and revamp its fundamental assumptions and principles in light of changing material realities, versus a system that can.

An analogue exists when we refocus on the case of Singapore and on ordinary people trying to meet needs. People have universal needs but face uneven conditions when they try to meet them. These inequalities are not problems of marginal outliers, nor problems we can ghettoize as problems of a small minority. They cannot be fixed by plugging gaps. 

Certain things have changed in recent decades that affect the distribution of things and the meeting of needs: the constitution of households and family; the educational level of workers and the constitution of firms; the ethno-national make-up of the country; the sheer scale of movement of wealth, and not just capital, into the city.

To wonder about the risk of stasis versus the possibilities for dynamism is to ask about the institutional arrangements that exist to tackle the challenges that arise with these changes.

Several other questions logically follow. What is the economy for and whose interests should it serve? What are the presumptions about the causes of inequality that undergird current policies and institutional practices? Whose perspectives are represented and whose are left out in decision-making processes? What types of solutions have become entrenched and continue to be pursued even as they no longer serve? What barriers exist that suppress the expression of ideas and positions that depart from orthodoxy? What avenues exist for bringing about institutional reform and leadership renewal?

Since this forum is in support of ‘Forward SG,’ and given what the 4th generation PAP leadership has said about the need to forge a new social compact for a challenging new world, I hope they are willing to place these questions on the agenda. In varying forms, these are the questions Singaporeans are already asking and worrying about. As we confront that tension between individual and social, between self-interest and solidarity, I think it is possible to temper the former and strengthen the latter, but not without departing from business as usual. 

A strong state with capacity and moral vision, in tandem with a robust society built on solidarity, are crucial for the wellbeing of a country and the people living in it. For such a polity to exist, considerations of institutional underpinnings, including considerations of power and representation, are critical.

  • Teo You Yenn is Associate Professor in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University, author of This is What Inequality Looks Like (2018), and an Editor of AcademiaSG. The Singapore Economic Policy Forum 2022, “Forward Future Singapore: Economics and Interdisciplinary Studies for Social Good,“ was organized by the Economic Society of Singapore and Singapore University of Social Sciences.

[1] Teo, Youyenn. 2018. “Falling Short: Class and the Performance of the Familial.” Pp. 96-111 in Family and Population Change in Singapore: A unique case in the global family changes, edited by Wei-Jun Jean  Yeung and Shu  Hu. London Routledge.

[2] Teo, Youyenn. 2022. “Education as care labor: Expanding our lens on the work-life balance problem.” Current Sociology. Online First.

[3] Numerous accounts shed light on the logics of contemporary political economy and its dynamics of reproduction. These, in particular, have been written to engage public audiences: David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005); Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All (2018); Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government (2019); Nancy Fraser’s The Old is Dying and the New Cannot be Born (2019); Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s Good Economics for Hard Times (2019); Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit (2020); Cherian George and Donald Low’s PAP vs PAP (2020); Lucas Chancel et. al.’s World Inequality Report (2022).