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TEO YOU YENN (b. 1975)

SOCIOLOGIST

Teo You Yenn was a mass communications undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, thinking of becoming a journalist, when she took her first sociology class. Taken by her professor’s enthusiasm, she was delighted to find that sociology gave her the language and lenses with which to look at things she had always been puzzled about. Later, while pursuing her PhD, she was exposed to the ethos of public sociology, which is interested in addressing the problems society cares about and contributing knowledge to society.

You Yenn is known as the author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like (2018), a best-selling book that examines inequality in Singapore and the structural conditions that perpetuate it. She had come to realise, from her research on state-society relations and public policy, that there was an “ideal Singaporean pathway” related to work, education and family formation. “There are such strong norms about what being Singaporean is,” she says. “The question that became very interesting to me was, what then happens to people who don’t fit the ideal?”

The book involved three years of research, including interviews with over 200 people living in rental flats in Singapore. Surprisingly, she had initially planned to write a different, more academic book, but her public-facing work on inequality was gaining traction – she was giving talks and writing well-received think pieces – which indicated that there was a public readiness to have that conversation.

But there were initial reservations. “When you’re writing anything critical about Singapore, you wonder, will I get into trouble with this? And that trouble, you don’t always know what that looks like,” she shares. An associate professor at Nanyang Technological University is a tenured position, but a ‘wrong’ move could still impact her career. Ultimately, she decided it was a risk she was willing to take.

You Yenn was a finalist for the Straits Times Singaporean of the Year Award in 2018, and her institution has welcomed the publicity the book has generated. Still, she is modest about her achievements, and is currently hard at work on two projects, looking at how people deal with work and care, and doing research around the minimum income standard in Singapore.

She says: “I am only one person in a larger thing – maybe not quite a movement yet – with people working in different sectors, including the arts. One person is not going to shift anything in a really radical way, but I am a little bit hopeful that over time, we might see something different.”