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Social Work in Singapore

Rosaleen Ow

Each country, according to its own culture, resources, and the extent of its human needs, has developed a unique mix of social welfare programs. The structures of those programs affect what services can be provided and, for social workers, the roles they will perform.

(Morales et al., 2010: 239)

As such, this chapter will begin with a brief review of the structure of welfare services in Singapore as a backdrop for discussing the nature of social work within the context of these service provisions.

Singapore consists of a main island and some 59 small islands with a land area of around 700 square kilometers surrounded by the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Indo-China. In 2008, the total population is close to 5 million consisting of 74.7 per cent with an ethnic Chinese background, 13.6 per cent from the Malay archipelago, 8.9 per cent with origins in India, and 2.8 per cent of mixed ethnicity (SDS, 2009: 5). Singapore represents a multicultural society in Asia. Although population groups originated from different parts of Asia, many of the common traditional values placed on the family and community remain. In spite of the Chinese majority in the Singapore population, social services in the community are not specifically tailored with a Chinese perspective in mind. In fact, ethnic-based social service agencies such as Mendaki for the Malay-Muslims, SINDA (Singapore Indian Development Association) for the Indians, the Eurasian Association, as well as the Chinese Development and Assistance Council (CDAC) for the Chinese also play a significant role in social service provision (Ow, 1999).

Social work as an organized profession first started in 1949 with the arrival of almoners from Britain, and in 1953 a group of almoners began formalizing the move towards developing indigenous practice. The formal training of social workers at the then University of Singapore began in 1952 (Ow, 2010b), followed by the formation of the Singapore Association of Social Workers in 1971 where membership included professionals from both academia and practice. An excellent account of the beginnings of social welfare services is available in a chapter by Wee (2004) and the development of the social work profession in Singapore (Wee, 1986).

Structure of Welfare Services in Singapore

Singapore's Welfare Philosophy is based on the concept of 'Many Helping Hands' (Abdullah, 1995), which reflects the partnerships between many stakeholders including the government, voluntary welfare organizations (secular and faithbased), and ethnic-based organizations as well as business corporations as part of their corporate social responsibility.

The Singapore government plans, regulates, and facilitates the provision of social services. It is often the catalyst of new services providing support through development costs, and recurrent costs of the services as appropriate. The spirit of volunteerism is promoted very strongly as it helps to develop civic consciousness and a sense of ownership for the well-being of the whole society. The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports acts as the main initiator and provider of resources for community services. It is partnered by quasi-government organizations such as the National Council of Social Services, which oversees services provided by a large number of voluntary social service organizations. With subvention from the state, these agencies function with input of personnel resources from volunteers in the community as well as paid professional staff.

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