Social services don't necessarily replace support networks

Less-privileged Singaporeans should be respected as individuals capable of making decisions for their households, and not regarded as people with problems.

I agree with Mr Gerard Ee's argument that the design of Singapore's social service ecosystem can be improved by creating an environment of mutual help (Stop seeing people as problems. They're assets who build social capital; 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".

First, even in his positive examples of asset-and community-based approaches, 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.

This makes the question not about whether the proliferation of social workers is positive or not, or whether what they provide competes with pre-existing support networks or communities, but, rather, how they should be engaged.

Second, Mr Ee may overestimate 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 - if I may hypothesise - 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.

Yet, 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.

Kwan Jin Yao

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2019, with the headline 'Social services don't necessarily replace support networks'. Print Edition | Subscribe