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Social Work Education in Malaysia

For welfare work to be effective, it needed coordination and organization. Prior to 1952 social workers engaging in welfare work in Malaysia (then called Malaya) were sent primarily to the United Kingdom for training and education for the very purpose of better organizing the welfare system. In 1952 professional social work courses were introduced at the University of Malaya (UM) in Singapore (Singapore was part of Malaysia until 1965 when it seceded). Hence, between 1952 and 1975 about 150 students graduated from UM, and approximately 50 per cent of these graduates were employed by the welfare department (MSW, 2006).

In 1975, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) became the first university in Malaysia to introduce a social work program. The impetus for the establishment of the social work program at USM was initiated by several bodies: the MASW, the Malaysian Ministry of Social Welfare, and the Social Development Division of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Instead of making the program independent, it was placed under the School of Social Sciences, along with other fields such as sociology, anthropology, economics, development studies, and political science. During those years, it was considered that such a program placed in a school of social sciences would benefit from the expertise of other social scientists. The presumption then was that in this manner it would avoid some of the pitfalls of social work development and evolution, as had happened in some Western countries (Yasas, 1974). Initially, the social work program at USM was named Social Development and Administration (SDA). Malaysia during those years was basically a developing country and still very rural. The SDA program was created to cater to the needs of the country at that time, and it was going to train social workers not simply as social work practitioners but also as administrators. SDA had a development perspective, quite different from the traditional concept of 'social work'. The social work program at USM at that time was heavily influenced by prevailing views of the 1970s Asian social workers and the personalities of the staff (Fattahipour, 1991). While the program benefited from input from other social scientists of the School of Social Sciences, as time went by it was realized that if the program was to be sustainable, more well-trained, qualified professional social workers were urgently needed. Throughout the 1980s a recruitment process was launched nationwide and the successful candidates were sent to either the United Kingdom or United States to pursue their doctorate in social work.

Today, Malaysia is rapidly industrializing and many areas are being urbanized; since the 1990s it has not been the same society as when the SDA was established in 1975. Rural life has been transformed, and the same kinds of economic and technological development that many industrialized countries experienced are also being experienced by Malaysia. With the transformation, which is also occurring in other social institutions, particularly the family, the demand for change was heard. Problems that once society faced no longer can be seen from the development perspective, a change in perspective needed to be adopted.

Up until a few years ago, USM's social work program was the only one in Malaysia responsible for educating social workers (cf. USM, 2006). However, not all graduates turn out to be social workers; some simply found better paying jobs in other settings, and left the social work field. A major concern was that some did not consider themselves social workers because the SDA program did not clearly and strongly gave them a sense of identity as professional social workers (Fattahipour and Hatta, 1992). Many simply saw themselves as 'personnel officers', 'administrators', 'social developers', or just 'jack of all trades' (Fattahipour, 1988).

One of the original intentions of the establishment of the social work program at USM was to produce graduates who were trained for the Ministry of Social Welfare at that time. A few others were employed by the Ministries of Health, Rural Development, Youth and Sport and Education. Over time, the program received students that came from high school with no work experience or any social work related background. In 1996, after years of debates and discussions, the program was finally named Social Work. The rationale for the change was simply that the contents of the program were generic social work in nature (Fattahipour and Hatta, 1992) and that the change in name would give a strong sense of identity to the program (including students) and with other social work programs internationally. Additionally, the change of name was consistent with the name of international social work bodies like the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), Asia-Pacific Associations for Social Work Education (APASWE), International Association of Social Workers (IASW), and local organizations such as the MASW. Realizing the importance of social work in a country facing many social challenges, during the 1990s three more universities started offering similar programs, and three more introduced a social work program during the new millennium. The establishment of social work programs in other universities reflected the need for more social workers to meet the many challenges. Respectively, the universities are Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) in 1991, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) in 1993, Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) in 1997, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in 2000, Universiti Malaya (UM) in 2000, and Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) in 2002 (MSW Report, 2006).

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