“The proliferation of services competes with natural support networks, replaces the notion of a caring community and its self-directed problem-solving, and does nothing to weave the social fabric that binds us as a cohesive society” (Stop Seeing People As Problems. They’re Assets Who Build Social Capital, Gerard Ee).
The argument that less-privileged or disadvantaged Singaporeans should be respected as individuals with agency who are capable of making decisions for their households, rather than as people with problems, is incontrovertible. The same can be said of Mr. Gerard Ee’s related argument that the design of Singapore’s social service ecosystem can be improved by creating an environment of mutual help (ST, Jan. 3). Yet it is not necessarily true that programmes and services offered by the social and community service sector – and by extension, the work of social workers – replace “natural support networks” or “the notion of a caring community”. Instead, three other things seem to be missing: First, an understanding of how social workers should position themselves and their programmes and services; second, research studying the context and conditions of Singaporeans at the margin; as well as third, the involvement of the broader public, beyond those who work within the social service sector.
Even in his positive examples of asset- and community-based approaches – of residents of public rental neighbourhoods taking ownership, of low-income families encouraged to top up their children’s Child Development Account, and of communities and their seasonal festive baking projects – Mr. Ee would be hard-pressed to identify instances when social workers were not involved, in planning and conceptualisation, in facilitation, and in nudging initial involvement. In this vein the question is not whether the proliferation of social workers is positive or not, or whether what they provide competes with pre-existing support networks or communities, but how they should be engaged. Anecdotally, it would appear that in returning problems to the people, social workers ought to play a more complementary and less paternalistic role, viewing beneficiaries as partners, not clients (and in fact, many social workers I work with have consistently maintained that their long-term goal is to put themselves out of work).
Relatedly, the second challenge relates to the dearth of rigorous and practical research in the country, which limits a range of endeavours: Evaluating the effectiveness of programmes and services, documenting different approaches to mobilise community assets and to even measure and operationalise “social capital”, and ultimately knowing if individuals have actually benefited.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the extent to which the general Singaporean public is willing to commit time, effort, and money to these causes. Mr. Ee calls upon neighbours, families, friends and constituents to be mobilised as “front-line responders” for those who may be going through a rough patch, yet the critical question of how to do so was left unanswered. The latest Individual Giving Survey by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre found that only 35 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered in 2016, and this phenomenon – it may be hypothesised – could be the result of inadequate social mixing across dissimilar socio-economic backgrounds, the pragmatic emphasis on individual merit, and the many commitments that the average Singaporean has to juggle, in the school, at the workplace, and within the family. And even if this chicken-and-egg problem of community identity and engagement is resolved, the social workers of Singapore will remain an important piece of the puzzle.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.