Pandemic (academic) life

The capacity to plan for the future is not simply an individual skill. Frequently we present it that way—in advice to students, or workshops for the low-income—implying that with a plan, life would be organized, stable, sustainable, and therefore good. 

Pandemic life has thrown into sharp relief what was true all along: for any person, the strength of a plan depends on the conditions in which the plan lives. My annual schedule for 2020—a book chapter in February, a talk in March, an article by June, a mid-year trip to visit a BFF, conferences in July and November, field work all year—all this has gone out the window. But what is astonishing, what has always been exceptional, has never been my planning skills, but the stability and predictability of the life of a relatively well-off person in a relatively wealthy country in times of relative peace.

In the past four months, as I stewed in the discomfort of repeatedly cancelling and remaking plans, I have been reminded that the conditions I have taken for granted for years—conditions of predictability, stability, and excess—are in reality unusual, never universally accessible. Now more than ever, the different conditions of individual lives put distance between those who have and those who do not. 

In a crisis that has such corporeal dimensions, and which so obviously requires urgent and material responses beyond what my pen can do, I feel intermittent waves of uselessness and despair. What is the purpose of scholarly labor? This is not a new feeling. I know of many others who struggle with being scholars in disciplinary traditions steeped in values of equality and social justice, but making careers in organizational and/or national contexts where this ethos is marginal rather than institutionalized. 

Without mitigation strategies on a collective and large scale, the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis will be deeply devastating as well as profoundly unequal. Scholars in the arts, humanities, and social sciences can interrogate this problem, in order to articulate perspectives which would otherwise not be seen or heard, recognized or legitimized. Proposing analyses, tabling theoretical insights, offering vocabularies and mental frameworks–scholars in various disciplines work at different levels of abstraction, some more obviously problems-oriented and ‘applied’, others more ‘upstream’ and abstract. Taken as a whole, this knowledge diversifies and deepens the range of solutions that are conceivable; it expands the range of interests that must be represented. More than ever, scholars can and must contribute to public discourse about what comes after. With or without institutional support, we need more urgently to pursue scholarship that is attuned to society’s needs. Our scholarship ought to put us in solidarity with, rather than apart from, the society in which we are embedded. 

Research can highlight necessary questions, analyses, and solutions. This is useful work but only if we do it—consciously, doggedly, collectively, and if necessary against the tide of approval and reward we habitually seek. 

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‘Circuit breaker’, work-life conflict and basic needs

Over at Academia.sg, I have written a piece about gender and class inequalities during the ‘circuit breaker’, in particular in light of school closures:

Children’s and adults’ lives and wellbeing are intertwined. With social structures receding and the private sphere literally holding everyone in, the inequalities that we know exist will become more palpable and consequential than ever. This is the feminist sociologist’s nightmare—the work of social reproduction now resting entirely in the household and weighing on certain members within them. The many hands holding the fort together—teachers, bus drivers, canteen operators, tutors, grandparent caregivers, day or afterschool care staff—now stand parted, fingers pried open, a delicate and precious circuit broken.

The unfolding story of COVID-19 is a story of inequalities, long experienced by those who bear its brunt, coming to the surface of our collective consciousness. In the weeks to come, who will care for children? What inequalities will be especially consequential when ‘work from home’ and ‘home-based learning’ kick in? Without institutions and services providing supporting roles and to some extent mitigating gender and class inequalities, parents and children will find their gendered roles and class positions mattering more than ever in shaping their wellbeing, both now and, for some, also in the longer term.

– Read more at ‘In this zombie apocalypse, your homework is due at 5pm

Together with fellow researchers working on the Minimum Income Standard project, I have also written a piece about the ongoing crisis and its impact on basic needs:

While the crisis is unfolding, it is premature to predict its long-term consequences, and the specifics of how various social groups–separated by income and wealth, age, or household type–will be differently affected. But reflecting on specific components of this definition now can still shed light on the profound impact of this public health crisis on various members of our society.

– Read more at ‘Basic needs and the COVID-19 crisis’

Crisis is exactly the time to make structural changes to address poverty and inequality

Together with Ng Kok Hoe (with whom I am collaborating on Minimum Income Standards research), I have written a piece on the coronavirus crisis for Academia.sg. (I am also an editor of Academia.sg, a website maintained by a group of Singaporean academics to promote Singapore studies and to encourage critical debate about the state of intellectual life in Singapore.)

Can we do more? A rationalisation sometimes kicks in: In times of prosperity, people do not need help; in times of need, there are insufficient means to help. This mindset encourages inertia and delays change. The problems that poorer households faced in normal times have not been suspended because of the crisis. All the things that should have been done to help them then, now must be done.

The current crisis illuminates. It shows us where we most need to intervene to strengthen our social policies: Improving wage protection across all low-paying jobs, shoring up job security in new sectors of the economy, strengthening alternative retirement income sources, enhancing the social assistance regime, and extending the provision of public goods like care services.

Pressing ahead with necessary structural reforms will put individuals in a better position to build up buffers against future shocks and reduce the resources required for drastic crisis measures. It will also dampen the disproportionate economic impact on more vulnerable people next time.

Read the full post here.

Sparks

Seeing/reading and thinking about other people’s work is often generative and inspiring. 

In recent weeks:

I got around to watching Bong Joon-ho’s award-winning film Parasite. Many people had told me I had to see it. The film is indeed, as everyone promised, amazing. Thanks to an invitation from Arts Equator, I had the opportunity to reflect on the film in this review. This is one of those films that stays under your skin for a while. If you haven’t already seen it, do

Illustration by Jolene Tan

One of my ongoing research projects is the study of basic needs through the Minimum Income Standards (MIS) approach. Recently, a two-part series by Channel News Asia,  and a 2018 report by the SMU Lien Centre for Social Innovation, put food insecurity in Singapore under the spotlight. It got the MIS team thinking about our findings about food–how our participants thought about and discussed a baseline, how ‘basic’ in the context of food means more than filling the stomach, but also involves needs for choice, autonomy, and social participation. We are reminded once again of the importance and urgency of figuring out, through empirical study, where to draw a baseline of standards of living below which no one should fall.

Finally, I had the good fortune to preview Cherian George’s Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited (2020). It is the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking book, Air-Conditioned Nation (2000), and this forthcoming book of essays draws from that as well as his more recent Singapore, Incomplete (2017) and a number of new essays. These are my thoughts on the forthcoming Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited

Cherian George is one of Singapore’s most astute political observers and social commentators. This collection of essays, drawing on events that traverse the last few decades, takes us through intriguing encounters and noteworthy moments in Singapore’s recent past. From political dissidents to governing elites, newspaper editors to bloggers, the presidential election to Hong Lim Park, Professor George reminds us of incidents and people too quickly forgotten or under-interpreted. Each matters because they clear up some puzzle as to how we got here. Even better, they invite us to reconsider: where is ‘here?’ Infused with Cherian’s wit, humor, audacity, and above all with his steadfast idealism and generosity, this is that rare book on politics that encourages clear-headedness and yet holds cynicism at bay. Read it, share it, read it again: this book will spark feelings, stir thoughts, create conversations, engage our muscles for debate and disagreement—all things we deserve as humans living in society.

The book ships on March 13, and you can pre-order a copy here

Speaking out of turn

I wrote this some time back. Seems timely now to air it.

What does it mean to “speak out of turn”? It is to speak when one is not supposed to, or towards a person or persons one is not supposed to speak to, or about something one is not supposed to speak on. To be seen as or accused of speaking out of turn is to be reminded one has no right to speak. It is to have one’s views be cast as illegitimate because of who one is. It is a kind of illegitimacy that has less to do with the content of the speech and more with the position of the speaker relative to that of other speakers in a field.

As a weapon, how does it work? Not everyone can cast this aspersion. It has to come from a place of actual power. Once cast, a signal is sent that it is free for all. There is a pile-up, compounding the thing, and attacks get increasingly personal and vicious.

Speaking out of turn—the existence of such a phenomenon—should alert us to this: discourse exists within a field of power. The world of discoursing—of opinions and ideas and truth-claims moving and traveling and coming into conflict or meeting resonance—is not flat. Not everyone gets to make truth claims; not everyone gets to accuse others of speaking out of turn; few get to never experience being accused of speaking out of turn.

When one knows there is risk in speaking, one learns to turn down the volume, think strategically about when and where and how to speak. It is labor, laborious, and over time it erodes the self, clips the tongue, blunts the mind.

Because it is not really about substantive content, we see attacks on persons—sometimes as individuals, other times as groups. The marginalization of social groups—sometimes along lines of gender, class, ethnicity, or sexuality—is partly about marginalization in discursive space. Marginality means bearing greater risks of being accused of representing narrow interests, violating larger interests, when speaking.  Marginal social groups never get to claim their views as neutral, universal views.

Once there are aspersions cast on someone or group, some whiff that they are speaking out of turn, substantive arguments become less relevant. If one insists on following ideas, tracing debate, weighing evidence, one is bound to be frustrated, confused, perplexed. It works for a while, but then suddenly, it is all shade—thrown at the speaker (speaking out of turn). You’re crazy. You’re disrespectful. You’re unpatriotic. You have vested interests. You’re not qualified. You, you, you. One can try to ask questions about context or attempt to bring things back to regular “conversation”—what is the historical backdrop of the issue at hand? What are the different sides? What are the points of agreement, the baselines? What are the places of conflict? What were we talking about to begin with? Those questions make sense for a while, but then, BOOM, shade thrown on the person—how dare you speak out of turn, not following the rules—and all hell breaks loose again.

When one knows there is risk in speaking, one learns to turn down the volume, think strategically about when and where and how to speak. It is labor, laborious, and over time it erodes the self, clips the tongue, blunts the mind.

Why should we care, if we’re not the ones being accused of speaking out of turn?

For this, we have to go back to our original conceit, our aspirations for our society, our dreams that we refuse to get away from: “democratic,” “inclusive,” “harmonious,” “justice,” “equality.”

There is no public debate without public space, no new ideas can be generated that help us live better together, if only some voices can speak. Over time, as people stop ourselves before we have spoken, our muffled thought and ringing silences constitute the public arena.

All of these ideals point to the centrality of rights to voice. A democratic society is one where people have rights—substantive, and not just as formality—to have thoughts and express them. A harmonious society requires safe spaces for diverse persons to speak so that we can figure out how to live together. In an unjust world, and that is the world in which we live, we have to make conscious and concerted efforts to ensure the terrain of debate is open, is fair, is safe, so that inequalities and injustice can be redressed. Drawing false equivalence—pretending that ideas are neutral and that each one is already valued equally as every other one—prevents the creation of space for addressing inequalities. For all the ideals to come to fruition, the safety of a discursive space for everyone, not just those high in the social hierarchy, is a key condition. There is no public debate without public space, no new ideas can be generated that help us live better together, if only some voices can speak. Over time, as people stop ourselves before we have spoken, our muffled thought and ringing silences constitute the public arena.

That “speaking out of turn” is a thing we can observe in contemporary Singapore, that contentious issues quickly devolve into the territory of singling out persons—naming of names and use of derogatory labels—tells us that we are lacking in this substantive right to voice. This is disturbing.

We must watch how leaders do or do not single people out for speaking out of turn. We should see how they do or do not level the playing field for public discourse.  We should look at how they do or do not step up to protect the Singaporeans they do not agree with, do not approve of, are ideologically opposed to. And then after we’re done glancing up, we should look to ourselves, and persist, recognizing that in a democratic society—the one we want to live in some day—there should be no such thing as speaking out of turn. Justice, equality, inclusion, harmony—these are just words, mere rhetoric, until there is a field on which these principles can live.