‘Mum, Dad, I want to be a social worker’: Whither the trained social work profession?

Malaysia needs to urgently promote and develop the social work profession framework and, more importantly, have the social work profession act in place


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Conversation in a family:

Daughter: “Mum/Dad, I want to be a social worker”.

Mother: “What in the world is that? If you do not want to be a doctor or a lawyer, consider taking up speech and language therapy or psychology! At least you’ll get a job and serve the community.”

In a nutshell, this encapsulates the social work profession’s conundrum. One of the most valuable and meaningful professions and occupations in the world is almost unheard of in Malaysia.

Sure, we have all heard of people ‘doing social work’, either in NGOs or in the Welfare Department but few of us have heard of professionally trained social workers.

Hence, few young people aspire to join this noble profession in Malaysia. As a result, we continue to struggle with many social issues.

Perhaps it is important to take a step back and describe the difference between those who ‘do social work’ and professionally trained social workers.

Anyone can do social work, but professionally trained social workers undergo university training and are formally trained in counselling. The table below briefly summarises the differences. 

In summary, while both groups contribute to social wellbeing, professionally trained social workers bring specialised and standardised knowledge, skills and ethical grounding to their practice.

As a paediatrician, I could not effectively support children and families without the assistance of my trained social worker colleagues in the Ministry of Health.

I often involved trained social workers when we had families where there was child abuse, children with disabilities, adolescent crisis, social and financial issues, families in poverty, domestic violence, young people in conflict with the law, refugees and other vulnerable people.

READ MORE:  Social work: Protecting children from sexual exploitation, abuse and violence

They supported my work by doing home assessment and counselling.  They served as the client’s advocate and assisted in securing resources (eg equipment, and money for rare medication). They evaluated and monitored progress and improvement.

While studying and working in the UK, I saw how trained social workers formed the backbone of the social services and were of great help to the health, education and other ministries. This is true of most developed and developing countries.

Hence, we need to ask: whither the trained social worker profession? What is happening to such an important profession in Malaysia? Is the government giving any importance and focus to such a vital profession by promoting career pathways and job opportunities?

Currently, there is sadly no data on the total number of professionally trained social workers serving the Malaysian community. A study in 2019 by the Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (Mampu) suggested a ratio of Welfare Department social workers to Malaysia’s population of 1:8,576. But note this may be misleading as the majority of Welfare Department staff are not trained social workers.

For comparison, the trained social worker to population ratios in selected countries are 1:490 in the US, 1:1,040 in Australia, 1:3,025 in the UK and 1:3,448 in Singapore. This underscores the crisis.

Only 11 public and private institutions of higher learning in Malaysia offer training in social work. A tiny number of trained social workers are produced yearly. Worse, job opportunities for trained social workers in the critical welfare, health and education ministries are limited.

READ MORE:  Social work: Protecting children from sexual exploitation, abuse and violence

Another critical issue is that social work remains unregulated in Malaysia. Neighbouring Asean countries like the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia have formal legislation to support the development of the social work profession.

Malaysia has a Social Work Profession Bill that was first approved by the cabinet in 2010. But it awaits parliamentary action, as it is still under review by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and hopefully will be finally tabled “after outstanding issues have been resolved“.

Hence, we are in a chicken or egg situation.

No formal legislation to support the development of the social work profession.

No concerted governmental push to expand the social work profession through training.

Insufficient job opportunities for trained social workers. Hence, the limited number of takers for the profession.

Our public and youth are hence not aware of such a vital profession as a career path.

The work done by the Malaysian Association of Social Workers (MASW) and Unicef in Malaysia highlighted through the “Heroes Among Us campaign has brought to light the plight and resilience of social workers in Malaysia. It has also showcased their crusade for keeping children and vulnerable people safe and secure in this country.

Through this campaign, these bodies aim to raise awareness of the vital role that social workers play in the lives of children, families and communities in Malaysia.

This letter is not to undermine the importance and valuable work done by those who ‘do social work’ but to call for the urgent need to promote and develop the social work profession framework and more importantly have the social work profession act in place to ensure that all these issues will be eventually addressed.

READ MORE:  Social work: Protecting children from sexual exploitation, abuse and violence

We must work together towards training a large number of professional social workers in the coming years to meet the basic needs of our community.

Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS is a consultant paediatrician and activist advocating for the needs of children with disabilities

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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