17 Sep 2018

Over the past weeks, much has been said about Crazy Rich Asians and its under-representation of the ‘other Asians’ of Singapore. However, the observation is accompanied by a more disturbing implication: In a world divided into watertight socio-economic circles, a lack of agency among the poor seems to be the accepted norm. Reinforcing this argument, besides Crazy Rich Asians, is another East-West collaboration—Slumdog Millionaire.

Crazy Rich Inequality?

On the surface, there couldn’t be two movies that are more different. Crazy Rich Asians is set against a backdrop of opulence and, for outsiders, is characteristically Singapore. On the other hand, Slumdog Millionaire is set in Mumbai, India, and for the most part of the film, showcases the slums. Yet, both movies have one thing in common: They have kick-started conversations about the disempowering effects of economic and social inequality in commercial hubs like Singapore and Mumbai.

Economic Inequality and the Sense of Agency

In Crazy Rich Asians, the rich are shown to have a higher sense of agency. The film’s main antagonist, Eleanor Young, wants to and seems to be able to control everything, including who her son marries, because she or her family, is of ‘high SES’. As for the poorer sections of Singapore society, they are rendered invisible in this film, making an appearance only as nameless, faceless extras in the background.

On the other hand, in Slumdog Millionaire, the poor have a lower sense of agency and are unable to take control of their life. The plot device itself makes the protagonist—a poor boy from the slums—a puppet of circumstance with limited individual agency. While Jamal has answers to every single question posed in the quiz contest, “Who wants to be a Millionaire,” he knows these answers only as a result of circumstances. Even Jamal’s attempt to take control of his life by taking part in the contest is seen as subversive by the rich, privileged characters in the movie. They, therefore, accuse him of foul play and subject him to police interrogation and violence. Salvation for Jamal comes only through the hand of fate, when he gets the final answer right by a stroke of luck.

In Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel Chu, the heroine of ‘low SES’, very narrowly escapes this representation through her well-played mahjong game, where she controlled the dynamics and her own fate. However, that too was after a traumatising episode of shameful accusations.

Inequality—The Great Equaliser

Depending on which side of the divide you are on, you may see these representations as absolutely no cause for concern or the sign of a deeper existential crisis.

However, the fact is, inequality affects everyone equally. Countries with a high Gini coefficient grow more slowly, partly because their middle classes consume less. They show less stable development and fail to introduce structural reforms that support long-term growth. Public institutions become meaningless as they begin to respond only to elite interests. Rigid class distinctions also reduce social mobility and dampen entrepreneurship. This is definitely cause for worry in Asia, which has seen a dramatic increase in its Gini coefficient rankings from 37 to 47 between 1990 and 2014.

The Social Impact of Economic Inequality

Our world is devolving into one where rich Silicon Valley IT workers feel poor, well-educated Chinese millennials can’t afford homes, and income inequality is hiking up homicide rates. Now more than ever before, cultural representations that screen out or dehumanise the lower economic classes will heighten their sense of inequality and unfairness and lead to violence and catastrophe.

That’s why we need to highlight movies of a different sort—movies like A Land Imagined, which is about the disappearance of a migrant worker from a construction site in Singapore. Films like these move the narrative away from the ultra-rich and shine a light on the lower economic classes. It changes the way social inequality is discussed around the world.

As economic disparities increase throughout Asia, it is essential to promote cultural representations in which the have-nots can recognise and validate their daily struggles. Most importantly, these characters cannot be mere pawns of circumstance; they need to be depicted orchestrating their own fates. This is the first step in empowering them with the sense of agency and dignity they deserve.