Through the Looking Glass- Is Social Change Limited by Our Imaginations?

A friend who took a double major in Sociology and Social Work once mused: “Sociology lectures always leave me low because all we talk about is social problems, but in Social Work we talk about possible solutions so I always feel inspired after classes!” There is probably some truth but in this post, I want to focus on a gift left by sociologist C. Wright Mills: the concept of sociological imagination. Briefly, it is the ability to see alternative perspectives of reality, in terms of the mutually influencing relationship between individual experience and social structures.

In Singapore, the General Elections (GE) to elect the next batch of leaders for Parliament has just passed. Amidst the furore over different issues and candidates, one issue stood out: the minimum wage system. I am by no means an economist to give technical comments on this but I think most people would agree that implementing a minimum wage is a not a panacea to the problems faced by low-wage workers. This issue is however just one prominent area that reflects the limits of our sociological imagination as a collective citizenry (idea from my favorite sociologist, Teo You Yenn). What I want to raise in this post is thus the question: Is social change limited by our imaginations of what is possible for our shared future in Singapore?

My answer to this question is based on these three perspectives which are crystallized from my literature review to understand the influences on collective action, social movements and civil society. They also correspond to three different levels of analysis:
1. Critical consciousness –> Individuals
2. Social identity approach –> Groups
3. Governmentality –> People in power

A collaborative LEGO display to celebrate Singapore’s 50th year of independence

While the individual is the smallest unit, I will begin with governmentality. The concept is an analysis of power beyond formal political processes or institutions, which allows us to analyse the subtle/unintended consequences of the overt exercise of power through governmental mechanisms or state institutions. For example, the legal liability to provide for our senior parents through the Maintenance of Parents Act together with a slew of other housing and family policies has made it a norm that Singaporeans should provide for their parents (Although attitudes may be shifting as financial burdens and demand for broader welfare provision increases). This points to the role of the state in influencing (in this case, positively) something as personal as family. On the other hand, as a nation strongly grounded in the principle of meritocracy, it is deeply etched in Singaporean consciousness that no one owes us a living. I personally affirm the values that this encourages (e.g. diligence); indeed I believe I embody some of them as a proud ‘Made in Singapore’ (haha). Yet, might this limit the lens we take towards social issues like poverty, unequal educational outcomes, and heavy healthcare burdens?

The limited research (both in quantity and representativeness to the Singapore population) conducted thus far supports the assertion that Singaporeans have imbibed the notions of anti-welfarism, self-reliance and meritocracy emphasized by state through both overt messages and policy design (Chong & Ng, 2017; Ng, 2013). It is thus no surprise that the conclusion of the authors and Teo (2017) that even while there are positive shifts in policies amidst pressure for reform, the principles that guide these policies remain largely unchanged. These include resistance towards universal welfarism, and an emphasis on individual effort with family as the first line of support. This effectively frames the aforementioned social issues of poverty, unequal educational outcomes and heavy healthcare burdens to be largely an individual/ family issue. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the scales to fall from our eyes, as we see how it has disproportionately affected the lives of fellow Singaporeans from low-income households. A silver lining that I see in this is how this could shift the way we perceive social issues. As a pragmatic idealist, I believe that our imaginations can be reshaped as we actively learn about and discuss what is going on around us.

This leads me to the concept of critical consciousness or conscientización that is popularized by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Simply, critical consciousness is the skill to understand and analyze the systems that maintain the world as it is. It is the ability to identify systemic forces that may serve to reinforce both privilege and disadvantage for different groups in society. To the extent that the imaginations of individual Singaporeans unquestioningly take after the dominant state imagination, I perceive that limited social change is possible. This is also another way of saying that it is our individual responsibility to be active, engaged citizens. This is especially so after GE2020 signaled that Singapore is at an ‘inflexion point’ with regards to expectations from our politicians. The government has been responsive in appointing the first official Leader of the Opposition. Our role is to concern ourselves with how our leaders frame issues and address them. While the problem definition may not always be overt or simple, we can infer from the proposed solutions, or better, find ways to ask. (I need to qualify that I’m still a fledgling at this, but Physical Meet-the-People sessions have just resumed :p)

It is understandable if this seems like a tall order; being a first-time voter this GE2020 I felt quite overwhelmed trying to cast my vote wisely by keeping abreast of the information. But the development of critical consciousness is not meant to be an individual pursuit, nor are the actions to influence society positively that ideally flow from this critical consciousness. Much can be achieved in people coming together to make a difference, as we have seen so tangibly in the different organization-led and ground-up efforts to help fellow Singaporeans amidst the pandemic. The social identity approach to understanding collective action to make a positive impact to their communities was crucial in my theoretical analysis of civil participation in Singapore. This theory with a strong empirical base integrates 4 socio-psychological predictors for collective action to explain why groups form to act collectively when there is no apparent individual benefit. The 4 core predictors for joint action are social identity, morality, emotion and group efficacy (van Zomeren, 2013). While the approach was first used to explain the behavioral responses of disadvantaged groups to collective disadvantage, recent attention has been on explaining actions (or lack thereof) by groups of different social status on behalf of the disadvantaged. It was found that high-status (advantaged) groups can seek to maintain status quo via system justification, which is an individual’s tendency to support the social structure even if it is disadvantageous to certain people in order to maintain a positive self and group image (Jost, Becker, Osbourne & Badaan, 2017). The lack of moral emotion stems from the ideological base that legitimatizes the status quo. Individuals in low-status (disadvantaged) groups can also internalize systemic injustices to be legitimate (Craig, Badaan & Brown, 2020), and thus take problems faced as their own responsibility. Again, as far as there is mainstream subscription to the dominant ideology, the status quo will be maintained in Singapore. I echo Teo (2011)’s observation that because of the individualistic attributions of issues faced to individuals/families rather than social structures, complaints seldom rise above that to a collective call for deep social transformation.

It is not my intention to throw a wet blanket over any optimism about social change in Singapore. While my conclusion is that social change is limited by our imaginations for what is possible for the shared future of Singapore, I have also highlighted how our imaginations can be reshaped. Our story tells us what to do. Which part of our collective and individual stories need to be refined? This would be an important question to answer, not just for our leaders or civil society activists, but for the individual Singapore citizen.

Chong, Y. K., & Ng, I. Y. H. (2017). Constructing poverty in anti-welfare Singapore. Social Identities, 23(2), 146-162. doi:10.1080/13504630.2016.1207514
Craig, M. A., Badaan, V., & Brown, R. M. (2020). Acting for whom, against what? Group membership and multiple paths to engagement in social change. Current Opinion in Psychology, 35, 41-48. doi:
Crossman, A. (2019) Definition of the Sociological Imagination and Overview of the Book. Retrieved from
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 50th Anniversary Edition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.*
Huff, R. (2020). Governmentality. Retrieved from
Lim, L., & Pang, E. F. (2018). Commentary: Can education fix inequality in Singapore? If not, what can? Channel News Asia. Retrieved from
Jost, J. T., Becker, J., Osborne, D., & Badaan, V. (2017). Missing in (collective) action: Ideology, system justification, and the motivational antecedents of two types of protest behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(2), 99-108.
Ng, I. Y. H. (2013). Social Welfare in Singapore: Rediscovering Poverty, Reshaping Policy. Asia Pacific Journal of Social Work and Development, 23(1), 35-47. doi:10.1080/02185385.2012.759319
Teo, Y. Y. (2011). Neoliberal morality in Singapore: how family policies make state and society. USA, Canada: Routledge.*
Teo, Y. Y. (2017). The Singaporean welfare state system: With special reference to public housing and the Central Provident Fund. In C. Asphalter (Ed.), The Routledge International Handbook to Welfare State Systems (1 ed., pp. 383-397).
van Zomeren, M. (2013). Four Core Social‐Psychological Motivations to Undertake Collective Action. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(6), 378-388. doi:10.1111/spc3.12031

*Can be borrowed from NLB libraries 🙂

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