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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Underclass

Podcast 38: “Underclass《贱民》” Interview with Alvin Tan, Kok Heng Leun, and Teo You Yenn

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Duration: 43 min

The latest collaborative production between Singapore theatre companies Drama Box and The Necessary Stage is Underclass 《贱民》, which explores poverty, inequality and human dignity in Singapore. It runs from 16 May to 3 June 2018.

In this podcast interview, Corrie Tan convenes Alvin Tan, artistic director of The Necessary Stage, Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of Drama Box, and Associate Professor Teo You Yenn, head of sociology at Nanyang Technological University and author of This is What Inequality Looks Like, which also explores issues of poverty and inequality in Singapore. They discuss what “dignity” means, pertinent social issues highlighted in the production and in the book, the role of art-making in portraying and communicating these issues to a wider audience, and much more.

 

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Underclass
L-R: Corrie Tan, Kok Heng Leun, Teo You Yenn, Alvin Tan. Image courtesy of The Necessary Stage.

Podcast Transcript

Corrie Tan: Hello everyone, and welcome to our theatre podcast. I’m Corrie, associate editor with Arts Equator, and I am currently in The Necessary Stage with the company’s founder and artistic director, Alvin Tan, and the artistic director of Drama Box, Kok Heng Leun. Drama Box and The Necessary Stage are collaborating on a new theatre production called Underclass, which explores poverty, inequality and human dignity in Singapore. It runs from 16 May to 3 June 2018. We are also joined today by Associate Professor Teo You Yenn, who is head of sociology at Nanyang Technological University, who’s recently published her book This is What Inequality Looks Like, which also explores – very clearly and incisively – issues of poverty and inequality in Singapore. Thank you so much to everyone for being here today.

I thought I would start with speaking to Alvin and Heng Leun about how this new work has come to be, because both your companies had collaborated before on Manifesto in 2016, which was this really searing production that looked at the lives of artists and histories of art-making in Singapore, and how that kind of intersects with this country’s arrested political development. So at that point, after you had finished Manifesto, had you thought about how you wanted to collaborate again? And what was that confluence of conversations or ideas that led to Underclass?

Alvin Tan: Oh, gosh, I can’t remember how we came to poverty. Oh, I guess at one time, we were – you’d [Heng Leun] just came across the word “strapped” – “strapped for cash”, things like that – and we were just discussing among ourselves the idea of poverty and looking at people like migrant workers who are underprivileged in Singapore. And then I think the focus went to the local poor and, at that time too, there were a lot of things escalating in terms of the gap between rich and poor in Singapore, and I think things were getting more into Facebook feeds and more people were woken up by the rise in cost in Singapore and things like that.

I guess for myself, also, I’m taking care of two aging parents, elderly, and my brother who has schizophrenia, and then I became the only income-earner when my brother lost his job, and then when I tried to apply for subsidies, then I had to go through means-testing and because of my salary and because we’re in a landed property, I don’t qualify. So there is that – but for me, I’m still ok, I can manage. But to think about the others, then, who might be in a tighter situation, what are they going through in a circumstance like that? And how there’s money in this country, and there’s affluence and all that, and then the people who are poor sometimes are not able to access that wealth. Sometimes because of ignorance, because they don’t know, there’s no aid or social-medical worker attached to them, so they don’t know how to go about it, or there are people who fall through the cracks. Like for example, you have a grant that you can’t qualify for because you earn $200 more, so things like that began to float into our conversations, but Heng Leun will probably have another entry point.

Kok Heng Leun: You see, I think history has many different entry points –

[laughter]

I think I remember that after Manifesto, we were also looking at what we wanted to do. Somehow the word “resilience” came into our –

Alvin Tan: [laughter] Right! Yes, yes, yes.

Kok Heng Leun: Yes, many different ways of entering! So we were initially looking at the resilience of the people, and I think as we went into the first phase of our rehearsal, we were looking at resilience, and then we looked at poverty, somehow the stories of poverty started coming in. Initially we wanted to look at terrorism and resilience, then we realised that that’s a bit far out – not that it won’t happen, but it’s just a bit far out. Then we started to look at everyday resilience and I think when you look at every day, how we struggle through life, then you really look at resilience and you are unpacking resilience. So there’s a resilience whereby, where you could fight back, or the resilience of how to tolerate and accept. So what kind of resilience are we talking about? And in a way I have to say the piece is still about resilience in some ways, but we are really looking at – it’s a word that’s always misused to portray all that kind of acceptance to say it’s resilience. And actually that may not be what resilience is really about.

Alvin Tan: He did say something that stuck in Haresh’s mind, which was that resilience can also be the rhetoric or the way the government praises people to be, so that they abdicate the responsibility of having to do anything to close the gap of inequality, because they say “wow” and they bring all the stories and put them on a pedestal, that these people are poor and can struggle through their poverty, and these people just did it on their own resources and their relatives and family come in to help, and things like that, because the root cause is not questioned. I think you [Heng Leun] questioned something about how resilience can be seen from the other angle, and that really stuck with us.

Kok Heng Leun: I think we also talked about resilience as resistance also, and we also thought about, in that particular story when the individual takes over the responsibility, weirdly, we have then contributed to the resilience of an institution, whether it is good or bad. So again, I think slowly then as we evolved, we started to not just look at the individual, but we actually looked at institutions in the piece.

Corrie Tan: It’s interesting that this kind of forms a parallel track with the sort of narratives that you [You Yenn] put forward in your text as well, the stories we tell ourselves of how Singapore has come to be, that we’ve gone from poor to affluent, this kind of narrative of success – “if many have done it, why can’t lower-income people do it as well?” And I think Drama Box and TNS approached you, You Yenn, during Phase 1 of their research? What was this negotiation like and what were your initial thoughts when they first approached you with this work?

Teo You Yenn: I think at that point it was resilience that was the anchor of our conversation. And I think some of the tensions that Heng Leun and Alvin have mentioned, we also talked about then, which is this idea that when we focus on resilience then there is a danger of sliding into valorizing individual persons. And when you do that without any kind of structural analysis or analysis of the conditions that individuals are living in and rooted in and responding to, you very easily run the risk of then looking at people who succeed as, “Well, if these people can, why can’t other people?” And also at the same time looking at people who fail and then to say, “Well, they only have themselves to blame.” Right? And I get asked this question quite a bit when I give talks, that people want to hear these good stories, people want to hear stories about success, people want to hear stories about people overcoming, and there is, I think, a tension I have to feel when I do my work and when I write up my findings, where I do see a lot of strengths, and I do see a lot of amazing things that people are able to overcome in very, very difficult circumstances, but I always emphasise that the fact that people can overcome, and the fact that people have strengths, and the fact that people are amazing doesn’t mean that things are ok. And the fact that they’ve overcome is in spite of the system, not because of the system. And that’s really important to emphasise, I think, when we talk about the resilience of individuals, is not to lose sight of the context that they’re rooted in and the conditions that they face, and not to mistake their triumphs for the triumphs of a system.

Corrie Tan: And I think one thing the premise of this show puts forward is that the protagonist, Xinyi – she loses her job, she loses her flat and she moves into a rental flat, and she’s trying to leave, move out of this rental flat, back to what is ostensibly, in quotes, a “normal life”. And You Yenn in your book you also deal with a lot of these cycles that people are caught in, that they are in a rental flat, they don’t know how to make ends meet in order to get out and own their own flat, or their children begin school at a level that is automatically disadvantaged academically compared to their peers, and it’s so hard for them to then catch up. What are some of the things that people face in trying to remove themselves from these cycles that they find themselves caught in?

Alvin Tan: I guess that’s the thing about it being systemic, right, because when I was studying once I met someone who was doing his PhD and he was saying – because we were in New York – and I was saying, how can this place, it’s such a capitalistic city, have so many homeless? And he was trying to explain to me about the poverty trap. And how you can kind of behave in a way where middle-class people accept you, but then it’s temporary because you can’t maintain it, you can’t sustain it. Then after a while you fall back and you fall under again. It’s very difficult if your background and your infrastructure and all that is not there to prop you up and sustain you through. Then it’s very difficult to break the cycle. It was a concept I wasn’t familiar with, and it’s difficult, basically, to sustain, let alone break it. I think you can break it, but what I got, the idea, is that you break it but it’s short-term. And then you’re just swimming with your head above the water and then something happens and then you collapse again. So your foot is not on firm ground. And you can actually go through all the obstacles that you face and something goes wrong and then you are again, out of a job and everything goes. Then you’re underwater again. That’s my understanding of it.

Teo You Yenn: I agree with what Alvin has said and I would add, one of the things that I try to do in this book and the reason I focus on inequality and not poverty per se is to emphasise that for people with more means, there are a lot of conditions that we take for granted that allow us to do a lot of things. And in some ways I think it’s useful to think about that rather than to think only in terms of what people without means are trying to do.

So if we look at how people try to meet their needs for waged work and for care and for the care needs of either elderly parents or young children, what makes this possible for a middle-class family to do that? It’s paid labour of domestic workers, it is a structure, or a society that sees their choices as the “right” choices to make, it’s about jobs that allow for some level of flexibility, it’s about adequate income that allows for buying time for leisure, or leisurely activities, which in turn allow for parents to have authority over their children. If you look at education, what allows for kids from middle-class or upper-middle-class families to do well, it’s tuition, it’s enrichment classes. So I think when we look at what it takes to meet various needs, work-life balance needs, education needs, needs of youth who are growing up – we see that there are a lot of conditions that are necessary. And that for people who have them, they take them for granted. But if it’s the case that you don’t have those conditions, of course the default is to be stuck, you know?

And that’s the case for everyone, I think that’s important to emphasise. It’s that those conditions are important for everybody, and those needs are important to meet for everybody. And so if you don’t have those conditions, what can you expect? You should expect that it will be very hard to get out.

Corrie Tan: In making this work, Underclass, I wonder if you could walk me through a little bit of what you looked at in terms of research, what the cast did, the conversations that you had to prepare for working on a piece such as this? Maybe some of the people you met or things that you discussed in conversation?

Kok Heng Leun: I think, of course, one of the things was that Haresh [Sharma, the playwright] actually went for a number of – interviewed a number of people, through contacts from Beyond Social Services, and met up with some of these communities. I think that was useful for his writing. From our side, when we were improvising, we actually drew a lot from their own personal experiences of who they’ve met, and of course with all the people we invite to run us through some of the things that they have been concerned with, like You Yenn, Lam Keong, I think those were really helpful. And that really helped us to frame the work in the process.

And I think there’s also a lot of talk at this moment about poverty and inequality. I remember someone saying this to me, he said, “The way you talk about this, you are making a lot of emotional statements. You are making it sound like it is so, so – it sounds really good with all the emotions that come with it. Let’s be more rational about this.” And the argument is that the government is tackling this, one bit by one bit. And that’s the argument whereby it’s not a case of “in spite of the system”. So against what they’re saying here is that, “We are, within our system, helping all these people.” Whereby then I think that, which is their path to work, which I think is very interesting and where You Yenn has talked a lot also in her book about the dignity part – I think the dignity part goes beyond what the system can be addressing. Because the system can be really brutal. I think in our discussions a lot of the time we were looking at the brutality and the violence of a system when they make an intervention. In saying it is helping, but actually there’s a lot of violation in individual dignity. So I think that bit connects to us as individuals because I think, she [You Yenn] said that “dignity is like clean air”, then all of us, a lot of the time, even as an art-maker, as an individual, we are constantly questioning what dignity means to us. I think that’s something that helps connect us when we are doing the improvisations. But I always am thinking about how institutions look at individuals, or do they look at numbers? And in numbers, there is no dignity actually. There’s only glory. In individuals you really look at an individual soul, the being, the emotion, the intellect. And that constitutes, spiritually, that whole dignity part. I think a lot of times the work during the improvisations was about that.

Alvin Tan: I think it’s looking at how you treat a person as a total human being, rather than emphasising – I think the system is too busy and preoccupied emphasising that they are doing something about it, and they are helping. So the focus is on the schemes, on the tenets and the terms and conditions of the schemes, and not looking at the person and the person’s needs and how to make the scheme flexible. Because the scheme is put in place because for them it has to be fair to everybody, you see. And I think, I don’t know, I feel like that’s just an excuse. Because how each person is different, they have different needs, and you have to kind of be more open and more flexible and when you bureaucratise the thing, I find that it’s something that is inconvenient. You get the idea that it’s not contributing to GDP. So because of that, then, everything – “can we just do it quick and fast and systematically and efficiently, so that the whole society knows that we are taking care of the less privileged in our society”. It’s like a PR exercise. So the sincerity is being questioned. So that’s why when people say, “Let’s not be emotional about it, let’s be rational” – it’s very suspect. Because when you are marginalised, you don’t police the tone. If people are emotional about it, there’s a reason for it, but they just make it as “you’re irrational, you’re not having a balanced perspective”. And if you are speaking on behalf of people who are less privileged because they don’t have a voice, if people themselves who are less privileged are making noise, how do you expect them to rational? Or a single mother who is trying to think about children.

And so we are a society that doesn’t seem to connect with the less privileged in the body politic. We just seem to be ‘system’ about it, and ironically, the discrimination and injustice is also caught in the system. And that is the hardest thing, because you can’t touch the core thing, when you touch it then you are seen as subversive, you are seen as challenging the authorities and all that, you see? So we end up that all of us are doing charity work. Now I’m not saying that charity work – I’m not looking down on it. It’s necessary, but insufficient. But we seem to be put at bay, that we can only do that. And if we want to be useful, and if we do not want to have our conscience pricked, we want to do something about it? And it’s the same, the government wants us to be “active citizens”, but active citizens on a continuum up to a point that you don’t question the system that is causing – so all of us helping, but we are also helping sustain the injustice, and the inequality. Because the root cause is not addressed. But try approaching the root cause? You’ll get burned.

So how do we transmit that to the audience? So interviewing and talking to all our researchers gives us the frame. But at the same time, the work has to reach the human level, so the characters, the relationships and the storytelling has to be the way we go about it. And when we start directing, also looking at how to place these things in that world so that people can relate to it. But I feel that the Singapore audience and people are ready for it, because of social media and all that, it’s closer to the people, and more people are talking about it and hearing it or going through it, because the cost of living is going up. So they can – they don’t have to have such imaginative minds. They can, I think, make the leap and follow us in the journey of the play.

Teo You Yenn: I’m very intrigued by this idea, this critique that other people have raised that dignity is an “emotion”, that dignity is a feeling. And it seems the critique is that if it’s a feeling, then institutions can’t guarantee it, and institutions can’t deliver it, that it’s too subjective, I guess that’s the critique – is that the right way to phrase it?

Kok Heng Leun: I think what he was saying is that by raising all this, you can get everybody emotionally riled up and that may not solve the problem.

Teo You Yenn: I see, yeah. Well I think then maybe the critique is double. One is an implication that if you get people “riled up” that somehow that is not legitimate, that’s not a legitimate response, being riled up, being angry, being upset, is not a legitimate response to things, life, phenomenon. [laughter]

Alvin Tan: Because we are dramatising it, and then we are exaggerating it. And if we are in that mode, then we can’t do anything practical to help, to actually do any concrete help.

Teo You Yenn: But I’ve been thinking that, you know, dignity and other things, many things, are emotional responses of course. And feelings are subjective – there is a wide continuum of feelings, right, that people experience. And it is difficult to see how institutions or bureaucrats would be able to deliver on an emotion such as dignity, if we are saying that dignity is “only” an emotion. But I think dignity is very much about having choices. And that it’s not about having specific kinds of outcomes, but about having choices so that people can control their lives and, within constraints, do what they like to do, to fulfil their potential, or to feel like they are valued in the world and feel like they can be loved, and all of those things. And choices are about having a certain room to move, and to be. And all of us need that. And having that mastery over our lives is what gives people dignity.

Choices are something that, I think, absolutely, institutions can deliver. You don’t have to deliver the outcome of that feeling of dignity, but if you are able to deliver choices, so that people have mastery over their lives, I think that’s a very important precondition or step to dignity. And if it’s the case that having mastery over our lives and making choices is what makes us human, then that should be an aspiration of any kind of institution, particularly institutions that are targeted at the national body, that are targeted at all citizens. Those institutions should have in their aspirational goals, should have in their mission, the aspiration to try to deliver choices to people.

And I mean in the chapter “Dignity is like clean air”, I sort of end by thinking about whether the dignity I presume I have, as a person, as a person of some status in this society, whether that is real dignity or not – and here I’m going to contradict myself a little bit, because I just said choices, right, and I do have certain choices – but I also feel like the worth that I have as a person is not necessarily because I have an inherent worth as a human person making choices or living my life. But because I have a certain status. And status is something that is so dependent on where you are in the life course in Singapore society, as long as you’re economically contributing in some way, then you have a certain kind of status. But once that passes, you lose that status in some ways as well. Which sort of implies that my dignity is also contingent on being at a certain point, doing certain things, rather than in my inherent worth as a human person.

I think this relates quite a bit to what Alvin was saying earlier about the focus on a certain kind of economic end, and a certain kind of economic activity, and a narrow kind of economic activity as a necessary precondition to belonging in this society.

Alvin Tan: I think, with that, it’s also the, I don’t know, I feel it’s confused here, dignity with welfare. Yeah, I think with the economic ethos or premise that the government is going on, they fear that if they give in to the dignity element, then it is all about supporting the whole idea of welfare. With welfare, then it will not do the capitalistic system, it will not service that. Because once the welfare mentality is there – so they do have money put aside, because they don’t want homeless everywhere, it’s an eyesore to tourism and all that. So they do – but they make access to help not that easy, and I find that that’s why I think they hold back. And dignity is such an “emotional, exaggerated” term, I think it’s because it’s associated with the whole idea of, “oh, it will open the floodgates of welfare”, the idea of welfare that people have that their inherent worth as a human being, their dignity and all that, you have to kind of respect that. Then the whole thing on meritocracy will fall through as well. So I find that that’s the basic thing that – it’s not having a healthy discourse here, because they are so singular-minded about meritocracy.

Corrie Tan: I think the idea that we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we all start from an equal position, and have equal opportunities to make it far in life, that these are all afforded to us.

Alvin Tan: Yes, and if you fail, it’s your fault.

Kok Heng Leun: And I think this “activated citizen” or individual, for some time, has been a bit troubling, because slowly it shifts the responsibility to the individual. But however, and at the same time, when you stress a lot on meritocracy and competition, you isolate an individual. Then at the end, if you want to seek for a systemic change, actually you need to be organised. That again, within our legal structure, within many things that we have, it’s actually extremely allergic and fearful of organisation. So in the end, each can only express your needs, and so you’re responsible for your needs and you have to fight for your needs. But if you want to talk about organising people, then leave it to the government and let them do it. Which then in the end, you got back to this same old system again. You’re isolated, you’re alienated, and then in the end, you only have yourself to blame. That’s actually very disempowering and very dehumanising. That’s the thing that troubles me. It’s not a society that actually encourages you to organise. It’s a society that encourages you to self-manage yourself. So there’s a lot of management, management of yourself, and management means that you have to keep it in order. And it’s not about organising, it’s really about managing. So I think here we are really looking at a series of characters trying to manage situations, than tackling the problem, than dealing with the problem. I just want to manage it so that I can best out of it with the least collateral damage.

Alvin Tan: And I guess in the play as well there’s a very subtle critique of culture and how that resilience and the self-dependency and to be independent and not to trouble other people and not to inconvenience other people that has some cultural point to our dignity because we don’t want to inconvenience others. So that it’s not just blaming the government or the system, but there’s something that operates in our culture also of wanting to help ourselves and wanting to push away help from other people. Which is very different if you have a movement, because if you have a movement of people who are in similar situations coming together and wanting to do something for themselves – so when it comes to charity and someone giving you something and helping you, that’s something also that eats into dignity, because you need this handout, you need this help. That is quite, for me, quite interesting, how we try to say we are self-sufficient.

Corrie Tan: I think one thing I also drew from You Yenn’s book is this idea of disrupting the narratives that we’ve told, disrupting that narrative. And I wonder, on stage, as you work on this piece, what kind of “disrupting narratives” are you putting forward? What kinds of things would you hope that audiences see that are different from the narratives we’ve constantly been presented with, such as meritocracy, or the sense that everyone is afforded those kinds of opportunities? What kind of characters come into play?

Alvin Tan: I think it’s more the relationship of the audience with the character. It’s my hope that the audience feels the hopelessness of what we have now, currently, and how a person working in the system to help himself or herself – there’s also a character that’s looking outside this country to actually change the narrative. And is that then the only way to leave this ecosystem? Or is there a way that we can kind of work together, like he [Heng Leun] was saying, organising – but what happens if we go there and there is danger, but can we still go there? And still try to find at which point it’s dangerous? Because sometimes we just think, “oh, organising cannot”, then we all don’t go there. And I guess it’s to challenge our creativity as well and to see that if it’s that hopeless, then we are right at the bottom of it, and there are people in the play that does the charity work, there’s someone from a social enterprise point of view that is trying to help, but it’s not sustainable. Then what happens, you see, because these are all skirting around the issue, so we have explored that for you on stage. And you can see that, yeah, this is not a bad idea, but there are obstacles still, and it’s not sustainable, it doesn’t go for very long. So then, in the end, in that hopelessness, then what do you think we should be doing? What’s the next step? I guess it’s more a question, the intervention is that we then display for you on stage the different routes that all of us as a society are familiar with. Then what next? What can be done? I guess what I hope will be confronted is our own comfort zone. And that we are only willing to go this far, and that’s why it remains hopeless.

Corrie Tan: I think one thing I also think about when it comes to theatre as a form of presentation is how I guess the assumption is that the audience is middle-class, it’s people who can afford this ticket, who have the time to come out and watch this, and pay the money for it. How do you negotiate with that?

Alvin Tan: We have the Triangle Project! [laughter]

Corrie Tan: Yes, you do have the Triangle Project.

Kok Heng Leun: I don’t think one piece of work can address all these issues. I was just thinking about shifting people out of their comfort zones. I was just reminded of the recent piece that we did, Both Sides, Now, called EXIT at Telok Blangah. So on one night, this man, very well-dressed, he came and watched the piece. Then after watching he was sitting around and talking to us, and he’s about 60 over? Retired. And he was very shocked to sit at Telok Blangah, outside a market, to see so many different kinds of people watching a performance, and in fact he had never stepped into such an area before. Because he really comes from a very privileged background. He’d heard there was a performance, so he came to watch, and he’d never seen so many different – in a way, a different kind of Singapore that he had never seen.

So I’ve been thinking also about our work. It’s strange that this work is not only about people whom we talk about who are financially strapped. I think the poverty here is a kind of depravity that cuts across, in our work, different kinds of strata. If there’s a disruption of the narrative, I think the play is not just about poverty in terms of whether you can achieve something or not. It’s a lot about “do you know what you’re missing, or what you are not seeing?” Just like that man, who came there and then, that’s why he sat with us for an hour and talked about how he’s now dealing with his retirement, trying to sort out what is meaningful and coming here to see a different world that he has never seen before, when we thought that most of us would have seen it. How many Singaporeans are living in that kind of conditions and situations? And yet highly aware of how something is lacking? Yet they can’t articulate and put their finger on it. And in fact a lot of characters in the play, from the very rich in the play to the very poor, all are finding that thing. Even that dignity of being a human in the system that you are in, a system that actually dehumanises in order for it to work. I mean systems usually have to put you into boxes, categories, files so that they can evaluate, they can be efficient, doesn’t even talk about efficacy, but about efficiency, and ensure that it delivers the most that you can calculate out of. So in a way, I don’t think it’s a system that just affects the poorest, but all the way to the richest, to the most powerful, to the least empowered. And I think that’s the narrative we probably have to look at. Of course the people in power perpetuate it because they need to protect that system. But that self-reflexivity, I’m always intrigued. The moment when they are alone, what actually goes inside their heads?

Teo You Yenn: One of the best parts of the last three months after my book came out, for me, has been receiving letters from people who’ve read the book. I think it’s still too soon to sort of really draw out patterns of who writes to me and what it all means, but the kinds of letters that have really moved me are from people who thank me for writing the book because they tell me that they have felt that there is something “off” but they couldn’t quite put their finger on what is “off”, and that the book gives them some sort of framework or vocabulary for thinking about things. Or the book helped them kind of shed certain scales off their eyes, and that’s moved them enough for them to look up my email address and send me these letters. And I think this relates to what Heng Leun is saying about – how did you phrase it – this “depravity” that cuts across different strata, that many of us in this society are struggling in different ways. Not just with the meeting of their needs, but also trying to make sense of what we are in this place, what we are in this world, and what our role should be and how we should move through the life course, and how are we to relate to one another. And how alone are we? Or how not alone are we? And I think that with plays like this, with all the performances the various theatres have put up over the years, with things that people write in the fictional arena and the non-fiction arena, with the different kinds of activities that activists are involved in, some of which are not captured in any kind of textual medium, that all of these things are really very important for building some kind of vocabulary and frameworks that help us better understand all of those things – who we are in this world, how are we to relate to one another, where are we headed.

Corrie Tan: I think to conclude, I was reading the final chapter of your book, and I think it echoes what you’ve just said, and I’m going to read it. You say: “What can we do about the inequality problem? I hope a lot, and I believe it will include many things I cannot imagine. A solution a playwright, a policymaker, or a student designs will be something I am incapable of conceptualizing. I am doing what I can from where I am, and I know many others will do what they can from where they are. We each take what knowledge we have and adapt and apply it given the resources and opportunities we have.” So I think it’s quite fitting, here today, that you as a sociologist have written a text about it, and we have two theatre companies who have come together to do a play about it: two different approaches to how we can look at inequality in Singapore. So thank you so much for sharing so many insights, and thank you so much for being here.


Underclass 《贱民》 runs at The Necessary Stage Black Box from 16 May – 3 June 2018. Tickets are selling fast and may be purchased on SISTIC.

This Is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn was published by Ethos Books in 2018 and may be purchased here.

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