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, 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 (I am also an editor of, 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.


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.

Inequality as analytical lens

Around October 2018, I began to say no to further speaking invitations. I needed to get back to fieldwork and writing. In addition, to think/write, I need some quiet in my mind. When I spend too much time giving talks or in meetings, for days, sometimes weeks after, I continue to think about people’s questions and comments. These conversations are important for generating ideas, but by late 2018, they were threatening to overwhelm and I could not hear myself think.
I still said yes to a few things, such as the “Singaporean Researchers Global Summit” organized by the National University of Singapore (6-7 August 2019). I wanted to meet the early-career scholars, many still in graduate school, who would attend.
About two weeks beforehand, I read the program to get a sense of the overall shape of the event. I was given ten minutes to speak. Those two constraints were my starting points. Moreover, this ‘summer’, I had been thinking and writing about knowledge-production—public sociology, legibility and legitimacy, and collective action. At the center of these is the question of why be an academic at all. I ended up using my ten minutes to arrive at this question.
Ten minutes is not a lot, so the following should be read as work in progress. Despite the limited time, we—the session (a panel on “Social Inequality”) was chaired by Tan Tai Yong, and I spoke alongside Joseph Liow and Thang Leng Leng—heard excellent comments and questions. We couldn’t do justice to them; I include them at the end of this post, still unanswered. It seems to me these are not the sorts of questions I should be answering, alone, while sitting at my desk. Perhaps next time we meet then.

Inequality as analytical lens

Illustration by Jolene Tan

If you attend a major Sociology conference, you’d be hard put to find a panel titled “Social Inequality,” as this panel is titled.

This is not because sociologists aren’t interested in inequality, but because we are so invested in it, it is so central to our discipline, that “social inequality” would not be sufficiently descriptive for participants to figure out which specific theoretical or empirical subject the panel is about and how it fits in with their own interests. In other words, if you call a panel “social inequality” at a sociology conference, you’ll attract either everyone or no one at all. So instead, you have panels with titles like “Race, Racism, and Health” or “Economic Sociology and New Mechanisms for the Production of Inequality” or “Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity” or “Macro-micro intersections of gender inequality” (all real titles from last year’s American Sociological Association annual conference).

Each of the sessions embed within them questions about how inequality manifests in society, how inequalities of various types are reproduced, and what implications inequalities have on human society—on health outcomes, on social trust, on economic wellbeing, et cetera.

Inequality as a central empirical concern, and a starting theoretical lens for interrogating the social world, is not limited of course to sociologists. Many of you are probably from the humanities and social sciences—philosophy, literature, geography, history, anthropology, political science, economics, psychology, et cetera—and your disciplines also embed within them certain traditions of analyzing inequality.

At its core, attention to inequality contains two questions: first, what is the field of power and politics in which any given case lies? Second, what are the differential consequences for people and groups when the field of power and politics is not flat?

Both of these questions translate into empirical attention to context—that is, to looking at any given issue or set of events within the context of larger historical phenomenon; paying attention to the social relations that exist within an empirical site and to various social actors within a certain field. It also means, then, that although the social, the economic, and the political are often discussed separately, centering inequality forces recognition of the ways in which these are analytical separations and that the social, the economic, and the political are not in fact separate in the real world.

Ideas may be divisible but empirical realities are not.

We can see some contemporary examples that remind us of the urgency of forefronting inequality and not separating analysis of the social, the economic, and the political. Two sets of news we are bombarded by daily: the rise of the populist right; second, the climate crisis. Scholars working on these specific areas have pointed to inequality as both cause and effect. The huge inequalities in income and wealth that have opened up over the past few decades have seeded conditions for the breakdown of social solidarity and trust, and enhanced opportunities for opportunists and demagogues. The effects of the failures of capitalist systems, including the failures toward sustainable development and conservation of natural resources, are not borne equally, and it is the most marginalized in the world who are at the frontline of having their lives and livelihoods deeply and negatively affected by the climate crisis.

These two examples remind us that ideas may be divisible but empirical realities are not: the social, the political, the economic—these are interconnected phenomena. Inequality as a lens forces the analysis on all at one point or another. Importantly, too, questions about science and technology on the one hand, and questions about humans and humanity on the other, really cannot be addressed as if the first set are primary and the second set an afterthought, the first set core and the second periphery.

I think this critical lens offered us by the tradition in our disciplines of asking questions about inequality is more important and urgent than ever in the world we live in. Questions about inequalities, whether along lines of class, or race, or gender, or sexuality, should be asked in every endeavor in knowledge production. And I mean this broadly—not just in the humanities and social sciences, but also in the sciences and engineering.

If we look at the parallel sessions happening concurrently to this one, for example—titled “Drug development” and “Smart nation”—I can think of lots of questions that need to be asked which consider existing inequalities if researchers on these subjects are trying to solve problems in the world. Which diseases are prioritized in research? Whose bodies are taken to be the norms? Who gets centered as smart in a smart nation, whose needs and intelligences get relegated to the margins? These should not be afterthought questions if the overall orientation of knowledge production is to improve human wellbeing for all and not just for those whose wellbeing is already better than everyone else’s.

Given the urgency of contemporary problems, and given that inequality as analytical lens has the potential to shape both our collective understanding of problems and our imaginations of solutions, if we as academics are not afraid to embrace the questions of inequality, humanities and social science research and knowledge have central, not peripheral roles to play in the contemporary world.

How are we to do this?

I think the first thing to do is to realize and acknowledge that knowledge production too exists within a field of power. We do our work as humanities or social science scholars in a context where we have to constantly prove we deserve to exist, that we are useful within relatively narrow parameters of what use-value is. In such a field, what are we to do? We can keep folding ourselves into smaller and smaller pieces, contort ourselves into the kind of academics we are supposed to be to be legible in this country, trying to make ourselves worthy. Or we can band together better, as scholars, and thinkers, and creators of knowledge, to create stronger ties of solidarity and trust. I also think that we should try to create alternative modes of legibility for our collective worth. What would that look like?

Part of it is, I think, about building more genuine connections and links in our scholarship with each other, so that there are more opportunities for us to speak as collectives, articulating certain shared concerns as scholars, people with particular expertise about human societies. Fostering this will require changes to the way individual academics are rewarded or not, the kind of impact that is recognized as impact. It will also require the cultivation of a stronger sense that being a professor, particularly a tenured professor in a public university, is a privilege that should also come with certain sense of duty toward the greater good.

The dream embedded in liberal education: that knowledge has the capacity to shape people to behave better, and that actions ought to be considered and evidence-based and encompass diverse viewpoints.

Second, I think we should build alternate sources of legibility and legitimacy for our work. What I mean here is that we must make our work—not just our findings, but the logic embedded in our methodologies, and the ethical concerns implied by our research—part of the knowledge that society has access to. Audiences that understand and appreciate our modes of inquiry is what we need in order to naturalize the sense that all kinds of research questions being asked today—about medicine, about AI, about climate change—must prioritize questions of where human societies are at and where we as humans are trying to go.

What are the channels to make our work legible in society? I am personally interested in public writings and working with artists and activists outside academia but I recognize that not everyone is keen on doing this type of work and not every research area lends itself well to this sort of translation. So I’d like to suggest, as other scholars who’ve written about public sociology have suggested, that teaching is an area of work that most academics also do. This is a very important space to build a public that appreciates the importance of humanities and social science thinking, and to equip people with some of the critical tools our disciplines offer. In the quest to become world-class universities, we have tended to underthink our role as teachers. If we can think of teaching not merely as preparing individual students for the job market, but also about equipping a generation of young people with skills for thinking critically about the world, with the tools and courage to ask uncomfortable questions, with a sense that to be human in the world should entail asking ethical questions, I think we can ourselves better appreciate the connections between the different components of our work as scholars. We should insist on taking teaching more seriously as an important site for generating legibility for our forms of knowledge. Our students, when they go out into the work world, should be bringing certain lenses and tools with them. In the ideal scenario, they should be insisting, in whatever jobs they are in, that empirical evidence matters, that diverse viewpoints matter, that questions about power and inequality matter. This is the dream embedded in liberal education: that knowledge has the capacity to shape people to behave better, and that actions ought to be considered and evidence-based and encompass diverse viewpoints. This is not an easy dream to maintain in the contemporary context, but if university professors don’t do it, don’t defend this worldview, I don’t know who will.

 I’ll end by saying that when I look at the upheavals we are seeing around the world, and some of the tensions within Singapore society, I see that we as academics, as knowledge producers are very much at risk. The rage at elites, and the reactions against knowledge and rationality, are threats to our society as well as to our enterprise, even if we don’t identify as or with elites. If we want our knowledge to be useful to society, to the world we live in, we have to work harder to create public understanding and appreciation for it. As you do your research, finish up your dissertations, secure jobs, jump through hoops to earn tenure, the pull you will feel will primarily be toward trying to be legible to the university, legible to state funding agencies, legible to external reviewers in places like the U.S. Being legible in these ways will not make you legible to the larger society. I understand this pull well, and I am urging you to not be sucked in by it. Play your game but keep your eye on the larger field, on your larger purpose and roles as a scholar. Collectively, maybe we can begin to move the lens of inequality from the periphery into the center.

Questions from the audience

  1. How do we manage the many different tasks (you outline) as academics?
  2. What can we do as teachers? How should we think about our roles as teachers in university?
  3. What can researchers in other (e.g. STEM) disciplines do when it comes to inequalities?
  4. What are questions about inequality that should be asked but have not been asked by researchers?
  5. How do we build audiences for academic work and in particular how do we reach audiences who may not want to be reached?
  6. How can academics band together to demand better, more transparent, data from the state?
  7. How do we speak truth to power?

Doing: the work of dreaming

I participated in the M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival as a member of their resource panel. Here are some of my reflections:

In a theatre, it is possible to conjure up another world, other worlds. Here is perhaps where this festival is at its most dreamy and yet also where the solutions it has already enacted are the most concrete. The other worlds are most obviously witnessed in the final products – in the fantasy scenes performed on stage, in the transformation of single actors into multiple characters by costume and lighting, in the interplay between real-life words and imagined sentences.

But what I am thinking of here goes back to process: in a city in a hurry, these naughty people insisted on taking up time, filling up hours, days, months—with meetings, workshops, conversations, movement, community walks, devising, rehearsing. In a culture uncomfortable with difference, these renegades held steady with diversity and disagreement – creating safe circles, playing games to diffuse tension, talking through uncomfortable feelings in small groups, giving each other feedback, relentlessly insisting on respect but also on honesty. In a society fixated on performance as measured by narrow criteria and static outcomes, the festival has focused on scaffolding – for continuous thinking, learning, interacting, challenging, being; the process is as important as the outcome. Radical, yet concrete. Sometimes when you want a different world, a better world, you have to begin occupying your current one as if you’re already living the dream.

You can read the full piece here.