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Social Work in Singapore: Past and Present

The development of the social work profession has been influenced by many different beliefs, philosophies, and social theories. Historically, the underpinnings of social work had been said to include religion, charity/philanthropy, public relief through state provision, psychoanalysis, and psychotherapy (Specht, 1988). However, as has been illustrated above, the actual nature and practice of social work in any particular society is not always the intent of social work itself but a response to current major social, political, and economic forces. There is diversity in existing notions of the functions of social work that includes social reform/ advocacy, the provision of clinical/therapeutic services, and services to the poor and vulnerable. Most of social work practice in Singapore may currently be summarized briefly in the above manner:

As Figure 8.2 shows, the bulk of the service users meet social workers for the first time when they receive information and referral services at family service centres and community development councils in their neighborhood. The main intent of the information and referral service is to enable service users to access help for resolving immediate practical needs and assessment of longer term needs within their locality. Information and referral are challenging social work tasks as they function in detecting needs accurately that will lead to the provision of appropriate preventive or remedial and developmental intervention for the help seeker. As the clients are assessed and referred to appropriate social work
services either within or external to the initial agency, the role and function of the social worker become better defined and the knowledge and skills more focused on helping to resolve specific identified needs. Only a small percentage of the service users however receive intensive therapy within the public social service sector. Most intensive therapies are provided by private practitioners who may not necessarily be trained in social work.

Social workers are not only engaged in the provision of direct services but also contribute to various initiatives of the government in social development and social policy (Tan and Ang, 2002; Osman, 2002):

However, the success of social development and social policies may not always arise solely as a direct outcome of the social worker's contribution. Other factors such as the presence of political will, international collaboration and the participation of the beneficiaries of social development and social policies are also crucial. (Ow, 2010a)

Some of the challenges to the social work profession in Singapore in the future include

1. Attracting a sufficient number of university students to major in social work even though the profession obtains clear recognition and strong practical support from the government and the public through a formal comprehensive professionalization package and professional accreditation;

2. Attracting and retaining an adequate number of social work graduates for practice in areas related to ageing in comparison to more popular fields such as youth and child welfare;

3. Developing evidence-based texts on indigenous conceptualization of social needs and models of intervention as current texts and models are mainly imported from outside the Asian context;

4. Attracting an adequate number of university students from minority population groups to major in social work in spite of numerous scholarship and job opportunities; and

5. Finding evidence regarding the contexts under which a model of practice where ethnic-based agencies work collaboratively with other agencies to meet the needs of a variety of service users or ethnically integrated agencies with ample staffing from minority social workers is more useful. This issue is a challenging one for a multicultural society in which there are currently an inadequate number of minority social workers with formal social work training (Lai and Ow, 2004).

When Singapore was a British colony, social welfare was focused on mutual aid from clan associations; followed by the pre-war protection of migrant Chinese children (mui ts'ai), and post–World War II state provisions for the poor (Wee, 2004). The first social workers were 'almoners' meeting basic needs based on the Britishmodel of welfare andthemobilization of community voluntary organizations
(charity/philanthropy) to augment state provisions. Post–independent Singapore after 1965 had to focus on economic growth and nation-building for survival. What of social welfare and social work in the new Singapore?

The philosophy of Singapore society is never about the individual but about the individual within the context of home and hearth. In order to achieve personal wellbeing, social workers and recipients of social services must realize that without the country, there will be no community; without the community, there will be no home; and without the home, there will be no self, in a circular, systemic chain of interdependence. The new paradigm for an emerging nation is collectivism and collaboration with an emphasis on a many-helping-hands approach to welfare (the interdependence of the self, family, community, and the state). Singapore has not emphasized social welfare and the provision of social work services as a right but as a response to inevitable calamities and personal needs. The ultimate goal is collective prosperity and harmony. Social work in Singapore exercises its mandate to exist and receives public support when the outcome of its contribution is in tune with human development and nation-building.

One of the most thoughtful conceptualizations of social work and its practice in Singapore is encapsulated in the following statements by Wee (1986: 65):

Social work is concerned therefore with much more than just the enhancement of life for individuals and small groups in isolation: it is concerned also with enhancing their potential for contribution to the development and integration of the wider society to which they belong. … To claim to be practicing professional social work, in a given society, is to make a statement of belief that the sociopolitical system is capable of change without armed struggle. Where political systems represent only sectional rights, where change is resisted by force of arms and where the rule of law is a fiction, there can be no social work profession. In such societies the worker may provide an ameliorative welfare service or join the guerrillas, but in neither case is this professional social work.

In concluding her historical account of early social work practice, another pioneer of professional social work practice in Singapore stated that

these currently emphasized approaches to problem solving were in practice part of the Singapore social worker's repertoire long before they achieved their present status in the university's curriculum: we were generic before we knew the word. (Vaithilingam, 1980: 9)

Social work in Singapore is never just about the provision of remedial services, it is ultimately also about contributing to nation-building by participating in the development of human potential and building communities through the professional tasks of engaging and mobilizing human, economic, social, and political resources for the common good.

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