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.

Making sense of data: Household income and expenditure, basic needs and inequality

This piece, co-authored with my Minimum Income Standard (MIS) research collaborator Ng Kok Hoe, was first published on the MIS team’s website.

When the lowest income households have higher expenditure than income, what does this imply about inequality and unmet needs? How do we put trends of mobile phone and aircon ownership in perspective? Ng Kok Hoe and Teo You Yenn offer insight into the latest household income and expenditure data.

Illustration by Jolene Tan

New data on household income and expenditure in 2017/18 has sparked much discussion, with two points drawing particular attention. First, the lowest income quintile group was the only group whose expenditure exceeded income during this period. Second, there appears to be increasingly widespread ownership of certain consumer items, such as mobile telephones and air-conditioning, across all income groups. 

What do these observations imply about whether everyone in Singapore can meet their basic needs? What do they tell us about inequality? 

Are needs going unmet?

The most significant issue to confront is whether people in the lowest income quintile group have sufficient income to meet their basic needs, as this has long-term consequences for their well-being. 

In ongoing research, one of us has found a strong social norm–present in families of all income levels–to spend “within means,” and a strong desire to save. This helps to explain why most households have lower expenditure than income. This norm is shared by those who earn among the lowest 20%; indeed earlier research (Teo You Yenn) has found that people with low incomes are careful about spending. They already forego spending on certain things that higher-income people take for granted as basic needs, with negative long-term consequences—buying cheaper, less nutritious food; delaying seeing doctors;  cheaper and less tuition for kids. 

While attention is sometimes drawn to items like the mobile phone, they do not necessarily make a huge difference to expenditure. In 2017/18, spending on mobile phone services made up just 3% of the monthly expenditure of households in the lowest income quintile group. Instead, necessities like food and transport continue to be the largest items. Compared to the previous Household Expenditure Survey in 2012/13, it is healthcare spending that has increased the most for these low-income households, from 7% to 10% of total expenditure.

The proportion of actual monthly spending for social and recreational purposes generally falls below what–according to elderly participants in our research on minimum income standards–is necessary to allow a sense of belonging, social participation, and engagement in cultural practices. The lowest-income households spend the least in this area, which raises concerns about their inclusion as members of society.

Unequal capacities to save

Expenditure outpacing income also implies insufficient capacity to save and plan for the future, with long-term negative consequences for meeting needs during old age. If there are inequalities in the capacity to save and plan, a social welfare system which ties outcomes to this capacity will tend to reproduce inequality in other areas. In Singapore, for instance, access to retirement security is underpinned by individual savings, access to housing by individual wealth accumulation, and quality of children’s education by individual investment. In other words, inequalities in income translates to unequal access to certain public goods. 

An incapacity to save also means that families which are otherwise generally stable can be easily thrown into crisis by unforeseen occurrences such as an illness, accident, job loss, or the arrival of a child who has special needs. This also raises the question of whether our policies can adequately buffer lower income families against these ordinary and yet unpredictable risks.

What counts as needs?

Illustration by Jolene Tan

Another major issue raised by the expenditure data is the definition of basic needs. It is important for us to understand what are considered basic needs by members of society at a particular point in time, and the extent to which these needs are being met, especially among lower-income groups. The income and expenditure data should be compared with Minimum Income Standards (MIS) or other similar benchmarks of what people need for a basic standard of living in Singapore today. While we have carried out MIS research in relation to older households, we intend to replicate this research across other household types.

Expenditure data alone may give us insights into what is most commonly owned or purchased, but it may fail to account for needs which people currently forego. What people need must not be conflated with what people can afford. Moreover, unlike qualitative research using the MIS method, expenditure data alone cannot reflect and take into account the rationales and social norms that explain why something is a need.

Needs evolve with society

What constitutes ‘needs’ are context specific, and can and do change over time.

We must recognise that as a society’s living standards and lifestyles change, so too do the requirements for belonging and participating in society. Something which was not a basic need before may have become a basic need now because not having that item would make it difficult for someone to participate in society. 

In our research into basic needs for older households, for example, our respondents reminded us that they did not consider mobile phones and internet access to be basic ten years ago. But in Singapore today, one would struggle to function in society without them. Many day-to-day transactions and interactions presume that people have internet access. On the other hand, newspaper subscriptions are no longer considered needs. Items that used to be part of belonging and participation in society may cease to be necessary as society changes. To keep pace with these changes, it is important that research into the definition of needs is updated on a regular basis. 

Conclusion

It is clear that income is a key means of meeting needs and thus a central determinant of well-being in Singapore today. To ensure everyone has sufficient income to meet basic needs, as a society, we need to review wages and redistribution–taxing and spending. To peg such policies to clear standards of adequate well-being, we also need a well-defined and regularly updated baseline of basic needs.