The following letter was written to Straits Times Forum and published on 7 July 2018, with minor edits and a different headline “Continue being inclusive as we work on social inequality”.
The current discourse on social inequality started with the release of Teo You Yenn’s book “This is what inequality looks like”. It’s been a healthy debate thus far between social workers, netizens and during dinner conversations (at least the ones I have been part of).
The philosophy of social equality is premised on the egalitarian principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. In a theoreticalmeritocracy, anyone with skill and imagination can be whatever they aspire to be. So even if given equal rights and opportunities, will there ever be an utopian state where every person in the society achieve the same outcomes in life?
It seems that there’s also clearly a difference in the definition of equal rights and opportunities because subjective judgement is bound to come into play. Is having a TV at home an equal right and opportunity that every member of the society should be given?
Bridging social inequality is a worthy goal that we must undoubtedly work towards yet we are not anywhere close to agreeing on what that looks like. Is that internet access for all, a TV set in every household or a minimum income that fulfills the physiological and safety needs of everyone in the society, according to Maslow’s hierarchy? So the debate continues and social equality seems elusive.
I would caution that in giving our attention to social equality and the conditions that we need to put in place for less social inequality, we must not take our eyes off social inclusion. Is there a difference between social inclusion and social equality? In my mind, there is. I see social inclusion as the collective value — moral orientation — that we need to bring and hold people together in our society. So even as we are struggling with the adaptive challenge of social inequality, we can certainly strive to give empathy and be inclusive of those who are different to us. Because a socially cohesive society is not necessarily demographically or socio-economically homogenous but is one where all members feel a sense of belonging, recognition and legitimacy. We may need policy wonks, academics and experts to solve the social inequality problem but offering acceptance, support and friendship to those who are not like us is what we can all do as individuals.