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Dr Vincent Wijeysingha

Vincent Wijeysingha is a social worker who practises in child protection, employment issues, and human rights. He has taught social work in the UK, Singapore, and in New Zealand.

Originally from Singapore, Vincent was active in politics and was a founding member of civil rights organisation, Community Action Network. He is working on a book documenting a 1987 government sting operation against social justice activists. Until recently, Vincent was a policy analyst with The Salvation Army's Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit where he worked on criminal justice and addictions policy, He is now a Senior Lecturer, Social Work and Policy at Massey University Te Kunenga Ki Pūrehuroa.

Q. Why did you join the panel?

Inequality is a serious, growing issue of our time. Statistics show the gap between the ‘have too much’ and the ‘have not enough’ is deepening around the world. 

Problems of distribution benefit from the widest possible range of perspectives. The panel is one forum to debate the issues with people from different backgrounds.

Q. What do you bring to the panel?

I felt I could bring something from the NGO space, and – together with Jay Marlowe – something from the social work space too.

Coming from Singapore, which is a hyper-capitalist state that has always discounted the need for an interventionist welfare state, this could add a wider perspective to the panel. Singaporean public policy is fundamentally oriented to wealth creation and that’s partly historical. With almost 90 percent immigrants (and, of course, immigrants move for a better life), that quest for wealth is deeply ingrained in the culture and the politics, with public welfare oriented on what you can pay for. This is an underlying problem of neoliberalism and one of the principal causes of inequality: Singapore is an extreme example of this.

Covid has brought Singaporean inequality right to the fore. Low-waged migrant workers make up a third of Singapore’s entire workforce, about a million people, often in roles such as domestic housekeeping, construction, and street cleansing. People are brought in on the classic objective of managing unemployment; they work for two to three years on limited contracts with limited rights and amenities and then they’re sent away when no longer needed. Singapore had allowed its migrant workers to live in conditions of deprivation and we are realising that Covid flourishes in conditions of poverty.

Q. What does the future bring if there is no change?

Historically, war and depression have been outcomes of extreme inequality. The depression of the 1870s was caused in large measure by the inequalities generated by the Industrial Revolution and both World Wars also had their roots in extreme inequality. While global wars (as opposed to regional wars) are not as likely today, depressions or recessions are and while we’re getting better at managing them, governments only have limited capacity for action. They may draw on reserves and so on, and this might mitigate poverty, but it doesn’t erase it and what we then see is social unrest. I suspect recent unrest in the US is an example. And it’s should come as no surprise that with social unrest comes looting, a symptom of deprivation, a form of resistance to the norms of inequality.

Most people don’t want much beyond a peaceful life and sufficient resources. Problems happen when people feel they are deprived of resources, are afraid of being further deprived, or perceive an existential threat to their lives and livelihoods. They attack those whom they perceive to be taking what’s theirs.

I saw a meme once that had three men standing side-by-side; a well-to-do gent, a man in a suit, and a man in working clothes. Its slogan went: “the triumph of capitalism is that the man earning $1000/hr has convinced the man earning $10/hr that the problem is the man earning $2/hr”. Inequality localises the problem when, in fact, it is a matter of policy and of deliberate policy at that. The very rich support political candidates into office who then become spokespeople for this neoliberal model.

Q: Are there grounds for optimism?

Inequality is firmly in the public arena as a problem to be addressed. It’s not a fringe issue, it’s not an esoteric problem for the theorists; it’s been identified and experienced by people in their everyday lives who are calling for change, and this gives me grounds for optimism. The way to resolve a problem is first to name it.

Of course, we have to come through the effects of Covid first. They have not bedded down yet and larger problems will surface before the wider questions on inequality can be resolved. There may be darkness before the light.