Personal social services, or social welfare – and in particular the editorial back-and-forth in The Straits Times involving three PhD holders who are professionally trained in or intimately involved in social work (Dr. Sudha Nair, Dr. Ng Kok Hoe, and Dr. Mohamad Maliki Osman) – were front-and-centre of Singapore’s national discourse on inequality and its class divide problems earlier this year. Yet these persistent questions about the extent to which the government is responsible for the well-being of society, especially that of the poor and the disadvantaged, as well as how the government should disburse aid and assistance, are not new (even if the questions are gaining more attention in public consciousness). In fact, they are likely to have featured across changing socio-economic and political contexts in Singapore, across the past few decades.
It is against this background that a useful historical primer of personal social services in the country is offered by Ho Chi Tim and Ann Wee’s “Singapore Chronicles: Social Services”. Tracing the chronological development of and the government’s involvement in social welfare across colonial, post-colonial, and contemporary Singapore, Ho and Wee do a tremendous job of: First, summarising key social welfare features in the colonial and post-colonial phases, while contextualising initiatives against events in the United Kingdom and around the world; second, extolling the policy and research strides made by the Social Welfare Department (SWD); and third, offering thoughtful questions and recommendations for social services in the future.
Across legislation such as the Colonial Development and Welfare Act in 1940 (prompted by the Great Depression) and institutions such as the Singapore Executive of the Malayan Welfare Council (an extension of the United Kingdom’s moves as an aspiring welfare state), personal social services in colonial and post-colonial Singapore were largely “left to the capabilities of individual communities, religious bodies, and assorted voluntary associations” (33). In retrospect, and in my opinion, the formation of the SWD in 1946 is one of the most significant and interesting milestones in the country’s social welfare history.
– The SWD had a Social Research Section. With its 1948 social survey of Singapore: “For the first time in Singapore, the depth and extent of deplorable social conditions were presented in stark statistical data. Chief among the findings was the extent of overcrowding within the municipal or city limits – the survey found that chose to two-thirds of the city’s population were living in overcrowded conditions” (52).
– A 1953-54 survey “reinforced the findings of the 1947 survey regarding overcrowded living conditions. It also included, for possibly the first time, calculations of minimum levels of income for a family of four to be able to conduct their daily lives and work physically. In other words, it was an attempt to calculate a rudimentary poverty line” (52) (emphasis mine).
– Under Goh Keng Swee – who served as assistant director, and then director – the Social Research Section conducted other sociological surveys of social conditions in post-war Singapore. Mr. Goh was involved in the 1947 survey.
There are two things, however, I would have added or augmented. First, in addition to the SWD, Ho and Wee may have described the work of the Social Welfare Council (which became the Singapore Council of Social Service, or the SCSS), but they did not lay out likely tensions between the organisations. Some of these tensions – with the Ministry of Social and Family Development as the successor to the SWD, and the National Council of Social Service the successor to the SCSS – appear to have continued to the present day, as Dr. Justin Lee of the Institute of Policy Studies laid out in a recent commentary, on the state of Singapore’s social service sector.
Second, Ho and Wee noted that the government has pointed to self-reliance and community involvement as the two guiding principles for its social welfare policies, and while they examined the latter through their examination of “many helping hands”, they did not necessarily identify potential problems associated with self-reliance.
Yet these are minor quibbles of a 97-page book which has already covered a lot of substantive ground. For Singaporeans who have had their interest piqued by the recent debate, and even more so for social work practitioners and social welfare interlocutors or researchers, “Singapore Chronicles: Social Services” provides not only a much-needed historical perspective, but also shares important questions for the future. “The singular factor that stands out in our narrative [on social services and nation-building] is how ‘young’ Singapore is, not just in terms of years, but more critically, in terms of fundamental social structures” (92), the authors conclude, and in this vein it is up to Singaporeans to craft the policies they wish to now see.