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Essential reading list: 10 books on inequality in Singapore by local authors

Stay woke and add these books on racism, poverty, and other important issues in Singapore to your essential reading list

Cam Khalid
Written by
Cam Khalid

Over the last few days, months, and even years, people all over the world have taken to the streets to amplify their underrepresented voices, condemn military and police brutality, and demand for racism to end. While the outpour of grief and outrage is louder on the other side of the world, that does not mean multicultural cities like Singapore aren't guilty of pressing issues such as racism, xenophobia, and inequality. Just because protests are rare here doesn't mean we should remain silent on important issues.

Discussing and reading up about these issues will not be a comfortable experience, but it will shine a light on the injustices and unfairness faced in Singapore, giving you a fresh perspective. It might even show you how you can actively become a better ally. Whether you’re an activist or just someone who cares, we hope that these books will connect you with new ideas and ways of seeing. Here 10 books about Singapore by Singaporeans as a starting point for those looking to educate themselves. After all, knowledge is power.

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About migrant workers

Transcreated by Cyril Wong and translated from Bengali by Fariha Imran and Farouk Ahammed, Md Mukul Hossine’s collection of poems was shaped from the friendship between volunteers of community clinic HealthServe and migrant construction workers. Md Mukul Hossine first arrived in Singapore as an employee of the construction sector, and his poems double as a magnifying glass to help readers think deeper, understand better, and listen closely to the voices that are hardly heard in the Lion City.

About poverty

This national bestseller goes deeper by encouraging readers to read word for word and between the lines, and see themselves as part of both the problem and potential solution. A juxtaposition of flashy Singapore, the thought-provoking essays explore the socio-economic inequality in Singapore, what keeps low-income persons from achieving wealth, and how their needs are regarded by the rest of society. It shows how poverty entails confronting inequality, and once you see it, you can’t (and mustn't) unsee it.


About the colonial ideology

If we can liberate ourselves from colonialism, we can remove ourselves from various social stigmas too. It’s about time we smash this “Malays are lazy” stereotype in Singapore once and for all. To understand where this narrative came about, you’ll have to read Syed Hussein Alatas’ widely acknowledged critique of the colonial construction of Malay, Filipino and Javanese natives from the 16th to the 20th century. The in-depth analysis features the origins and functions of such myths in the creation, and reinforcement of colonial ideology and capitalism.

Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa'at
Photograph: Ethos Books

Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa'at

About life as an ethnic minority

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words – Singapore’s triple threat (writer, poet and playwright) Alfian Sa’at teamed up with Malaysia’s visual artist Shahril Nizam to bring a collection of stories to life through sketches. Longlisted for the 2013 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, this cool collaboration features interesting vignettes of members of the Malay community in Singapore, giving you a profound look into the realities of life as an ethnic minority.


About the gay rights movement

For years, gay activists have been fighting for equality and justice in a state that turns a blind eye to their rights to seek the protection of their civil and political liberties. This award-winning book charts the history of the gay rights movement in Singapore through in-depth interviews with gay activists, observations of the movement's activities, government statements, and media reports. It also highlights what a social movement looks like under these circumstances, and how activists amplify their voices and gain support in changing perceptions while keeping away trouble with the state.

About the social-ramifications of The Singapore Story

Featuring various POVs, this collection of essays and thoughts delves deeper into the myths that build social consensus as well as marginalise important stories, perspectives and possibilities that don't fit the main narrative of the state. It smacks the rose-tinted glasses off your eyes to see that some of us have been apathetic, ignorant, and even irrational. In this book, the contributors display the discussions and debates which took place from 2014 to 2015 when Singapore was celebrating 50 years of full independence.


About the political system

The road to equality hasn’t been an easy one for Gopalan Krishnan Raman. Coming from humble beginnings, the outspoken lawyer gained notoriety when he was arrested in February 1977 under the Internal Security Act. But that’s not stopping him from shining a light on the dark side of Singapore politics and the People’s Action Party (PAP) government. The autobiography is a riveting read for anyone who wants to know the justice (or injustice) and pressures that were put on him while on a quest for freedom from poverty, freedom to learn, and freedom to live.

About homelessness

Liyana Dhamirah's heartbreaking tale follows her homeless experience at age 22 while being pregnant, shunned by her family, and neglected by government agencies and welfare groups with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. She then started living on a beach in Sembawang where she discovered a community of people who made her feel less alone. Now a successful entrepreneur, she has gone on to help others by working with the National Library Board to help children find joy in reading, and distributing preloved or new clothing to families in need, among other things. Her memoir navigates the experiences of being homeless in a city like Singapore, and the obstacles she faced while pulling herself out of that rut. It also touches on wealth inequality and privilege in Singapore.


About human rights

Not all heroes wear capes – some wear a suit. Human rights lawyer M Ravi has been involved in some of the most high-profile and politically sensitive constitutional cases in Singapore over the last decade. He has voiced out against the mandatory death penalty, argued for the right to free assembly, the right to the byelection, freedom of expression, and fought for equal rights for the LGBT community. While the authorities see him as an enemy of the state, he has been a hero to marginalised communities. This memoir takes you back to his roots in one of Singapore’s few multi-racial kampongs, and the lessons he learned about family, cooperation with others and compassion which has contributed to his path towards the pursuit of justice.

Available to purchase from Ethos Books.

About being a Muslim woman

There’s no denying that women have been overshadowed by men for decades. But some women have it better than others. As part of a project called Gender Equality Is Our Culture by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Growing Up Perempuan (which means ‘woman’ in Malay) is a collection of empowering stories that challenge the status quo as told by women for women. It illustrates tales of love and loss, strength and endurance, confidence and courage faced by women in the Muslim community, and how they navigate through the pressures of the modern world.

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