Breaking The Chains That B(l)ind Us All

When the positive COVID-19 cases spiked in March, Singapore had to undergo a circuit breaker period during which all schools were closed and students shifted to full home-based learning (HBL). On April 18, The Straits Times published a report[1] that showed how the move to HBL has exposed inequality in Singapore as it impacted families in unequal ways.

Notwithstanding the deeply problematic misrepresentation of the families who were neatly pigeonholed into racial categories, the issue of inequality highlighted in the report warrants our attention. Despite decades of community and government interventions, the underclass persists. Why do we still have children skipping lunch at school in order to save some money? Why are some families struggling to put food on the table while others are struggling to finish whatever is on their plates? Why are the gaps so difficult to close? What could have been done better? Or what has been done wrong all along?

Whenever the issue of poverty is discussed, there would generally be two camps of people. On one side will be those who blame the victims using the cultural deficit theory as a basis to argue that the poor are poor because they choose to be poor. On the other side will be those who would point out the structural causes of poverty. In this article, we shall look at how the underclass has been ideologically and systemically permitted to exist by certain groups who constantly  ensure that the underclass will forever remain in their chains, by unsuspected ways and means that make it almost impossible for the poor to break themselves free from the shackles of poverty.

Bridging the gap between the rich and the poor requires the equal distribution and sharing of resources. The problem is when the noble idea of sharing is based on the neoliberal idea of a trickle-down effect, which is actually meant to maintain the status quo whereby the rich and the poor stay put in their respective places in the social order.

Some of these trickle-down solutions include fundraising events such as charity golf and charity gala dinners which, by the way, is an absurdity in itself when we consider the fact that, in the name of helping the poor, the rich get to enjoy a ten-course meal in the ballroom of a five-star hotel and entitled to tax exemption when they sponsor a table for themselves. These while the poor still struggle to put food on the table for their family.

State paternalism in which the government trickles down national resources to the poor as part of its effort to address the problem of inequality, instead of implementing a minimum wage policy or universal basic income, exacerbates the issue. Payouts do not necessarily help the situation in the long run. What the poor need is a decent wage structure that will provide them with the sustenance and self-empowerment needed to bring themselves out of poverty and to live a dignified life.

The need for public display of kindness and generosity by the rich and powerful represents one of those blinding devices to ensure the underclass remain in their chains. It has been referred to by bell hooks as a form of spiritual materialism[2], in which the act of giving serves to make the ones giving feel good about themselves, feel appreciated and gain recognition for the kindness and empathy they are showing towards the needy, without any intention to actually abolish poverty.

If the upper class and the elites are truly genuine in their wanting to help the needy, the best way to contribute their wealth and power would be to lobby for structural change so that the needy will no longer be needy. The mark of a truly compassionate society is when the privileged class joins in and participates actively in the struggle of those underprivileged towards self-empowerment and economic independence, instead of engaging in what Paulo Freire has referred to as ‘false generosity and paternalism’, by treating the needy as annual cash cows and coming out with ludicrous initiatives such as an online charity mass walk to achieve spiritual materialism.

The media is the other malefactor that systemically immobilises the poor. Media producers play a significant role in shaping and influencing the way society thinks through the works they create and produce.

CNA’s Regardless of Class, a documentary that examines the invisible line that cuts through our nation through conversations between people across class spectrums, is an example of how the media could perpetuate the very stereotypical representations that we have been trying hard to dispel all these years. It deludes the kids in the conversation, particularly the ones from the Normal Academic and Technical streams, by leaving a psychological dent on their self-worth in relation to other participants, to the point that they think they are worse off and are hoping the privileged students can teach them to be better.

Regardless of Class had set out to examine the class divide, but what it inadvertently did was to tell us that we should not be bothered by our class differences and that we must not let it divide us. Regardless of whether one is rich or poor, one can still get along well with others from a different class without any social awkwardness. In other words, we need to be neutral with each other. With this, the problem of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer will no longer be a social problem. Everyone would get along well with each other in peace and perfect harmony. It is thus imperative that we resist this idea of neutrality and of the ‘ideal’ state and also to resist the stereotypical misrepresentations – that poor kids speak in a certain way, and rich kids are all snobs, or middle-class parents are better at parenting as compared to working class parents. What we need to do instead is to work towards a more radical idea that, regardless of class, we can all come together in solidarity to create a just society that demands equal opportunities for all.

As long as cultural producers, who have the capacity to largely influence how and what society thinks, persist to reproduce such problematic sketches of the underclass, the climb towards a more progressive and enlightened society would be steep and efforts to close any gap between the rich and poor would be futile.

Another group responsible for the systemic immobilisation of the poor is the intelligentsia. Here we are referring to cultural elites who engage in victim-blaming. An example would be the outburst from a former teacher early last year, who was blaming parents for the inability of children to read when they enter Primary One, which reflects two things.

First and foremost, it reflects a prejudice against parents in general, a bigoted worldview that disregards the injuries inflicted by detrimental structures and policies on parents, particularly those in the working class. Bringing up children in a brutal environment that thrives on capitalistic and neoliberal pursuits, parents who do not have the privilege and luxury of time, who have been deprived of social, cultural and economic capital as they struggle on a daily basis to put food on the table, will be left on their own without the required support they need to assist their children in the educational pursuit.

Secondly, it reflects a problematic thinking conditioned by a draconian system that immortalises technique and deifies efficiency. It considers a child illiterate if s/he is unable to recognise simple sight words – which are dictated by the system itself – and ignores the vast amount of pictures and visual texts that s/he has read, which basically constitutes his/her own body of knowledge at that very point in time, before s/he enters school.

The biggest problem is when we as a society either do not or even refuse to see it as a problem, or when we see it as something that is not our problem. That is how we all become complicit in the reproduction of inequality. It exemplifies what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as symbolic violence[3], that ‘gentle and invisible violence’ that we have inflicted on the underclass amongst us. This leads to the poor playing a role in reproducing their own subservience by internalising and accepting those ideas and structures that tend to constrain their mobility. In our attempt to understand how social class inequalities are reproduced, it is imperative that we develop a critical consciousness that would help us see, resist and call out such acts of violence.

If not, we end up bound in our own chains, exalting the upper class by allowing ourselves to indulge and bask in the shadow of their hedonistic lifestyle by consuming unnecessary things just to make ourselves appear as someone belonging to a certain social class. We aspire to own luxury cars, to live in luxury homes and to have our bodies clad in luxury items from top to bottom. At the same time, we engage in spiritual materialism where we seek recognition of our goodness by helping and showing our concern for the poor, without any genuine interest to alleviate their suffering. We keep calm and carry on consuming.

As bell hooks beautifully puts it, “When we all understand the fundamental link between hedonistic materialism and the environmental destruction of the planet, we can all work together to live simply, so that others may simply live.”[4]

The first step is for us to break the chains that bind, and blind, us all. ⬛



Muhammed Shahril Shaik Abdullah holds a Master of Education (Leadership, Policy & Change) from Monash University and works in a library. His research interest includes critical pedagogy, radical children’s literature and democratic education.

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