Social workers need to work with neighbours too

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I thank Mr. Kwan Jin Yao for his thoughtful comments with reference to his response “Social services don’t necessarily replace support networks; Jan 12” (A response  to a Straits Times opinion piece by Mr Gerard Ee – Link below) A community development approach by no means seeks to undermine the good work that is done by social workers. However, the expression of many core social work values gets buried under the deluge of organisational and structural constraints. Because the majority of endorsed practices in Singapore over the past 30 years have focussed on the professional solving problems for the individual, the voices, strengths, and ability of marginalised communities to self-organise are often overshadowed or divorced from social work practice.

Embedded in Mr. Kwan’s response are questions about how social work can best be engaged to empower communities and how can society be rallied around the prevalent social issues of today. As an organisation that has grappled with these questions constantly over the last 50 years of developing community work practice in Singapore, we would like to put forward what we have learned so far.

Firstly, we have to make the overlooked visible. In big ways and in small, people are already constantly problem-solving or coping in their own way. Others are helping their neighbours despite their own challenges.

One remarkable lady in the neighbourhood we serve has such an intimate knowledge of her neighbours that she has become the point of contact for food distribution from agencies. Every week she leads volunteers, listens to her neighbours and involves them in taking care of other neighbours who may not be able to leave the house. She does this despite facing ongoing health problems and has found meaning and dignity outside the normative definitions of success.

These efforts, provided by friends, families and neighbours from all classes in society, are not captured or recognised by our current conceptualisation of volunteering. And because we do not see it, it goes largely unvalidated and unsupported. Our role in the situation above was one of discovery, to uncover these assets in the community and do what we could to strengthen it.

Secondly, there is great potential in what people can do together that they cannot do alone. Bringing concerned neighbours together for a conversation around a shared concern ignites action among people who may not be equipped to handle them alone. This is what local community action looks like, and even as other stakeholders augment it, it must remain bottom up. By keeping those closest to the problem in the driver’s seat, the wisdom and strengths of those we deem as “problematic” are manifested and developed.

Social work is an evolving profession. As it should be. Social problems are an evolving phenomenon and society is an evolving construction. Social workers will always have a role, but part of that role can include rallying local community response and encouraging a cooperative effort between stakeholders in society. Social workers might change or leave, but an involved community and compassionate society ensure that efforts are sustainable.

To allow this work to happen, our leaders should welcome the discomfort of raising difficult social issues. They can represent public interests on issues without intimating that solutions lie only in the hands of professionals or those in power. They can engage in dialogue that sheds light on the experiences of those around us who are lessfortunate and allow the strength of community action to flourish.

Only then can we, as citizens, be aware of the issues faced by those around us. Only then can we be better equipped to show kindness to our neighbours, employees, classmates. Only then can we harvest and activate the compassion that lies dormant in our dream of an inclusive society.

As a society, the complexity of the challenge we face requires us to be secure enough to confront our inadequacies and do better together. It starts with us being able to hold ourselves to a higher standard without letting our notions of perfection cripple us from doing good work. In that light, we thank Mr. Kwan for the actions he has taken in service to his community and his continued willingness to lend his perspective and those of others to social and structural issues. We hope there are opportunities to collaborate and learn together with us as we rejuvenate our communities.

Samuel Tang

Manager for Communications and Research in Beyond Social Services.

Samuel has been involved in shaping community development models to work alongside low-income neighbourhoods in Singapore for the last 9 years and has been coordinating research on poverty, inequality and community development for 5 years.

Link to Mr Gerard Ee’s opinion piece –

Link to Mr Kwan Jin Yao’s response –


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