Social work is not regulated nor recognised as a profession by law in Malaysia. While the drafting of the Social Work Profession Bill began in 2010, it has yet to be tabled in Parliament. This, says social worker and Holistic Integrated Services Team (HISTeam) founder and CEO Andrew Wong, is “our biggest disappointment” as social workers.
Wong, 52, who has been in the social work profession for 26 years and has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Community Development from Universiti Putra Malaysia, says that “as a nation, we have underestimated the cost of not investing in the social work profession in our country”.
“When you don’t have humanitarian service providers such as social workers in the frontlines, clients (those needing help) in hospitals, schools, the private sector, or social welfare setting, are hindered from receiving proper treatment and follow-up,” he explains.
Wong urges the government to make humanitarian services, like social work, a priority, “if not, people at the grassroots – namely the poor and the needy – will be negatively impacted”.
“Social workers need legal recognition, support and investment so that we can deliver quality service to the most vulnerable in society.”
Head of the Medical Social Work Department in Hospital Canselor Tuanku Muhriz, Intan Nurhaila Meor Safari, agrees, adding that it is important for social work to be regulated and social workers trained and qualified.
“This is why it’s so important for the Social Work Profession Bill to be passed,” she says.
Social workers are not charity workers, and not even volunteers.
“What we do is create change in the lives of the people we’re serving. So, if we do not employ enough qualified social workers to serve the most vulnerable, it will have a negative impact on our nation,” says Wong.
He says that even though his own interest in social work grew out of his early years as a pioneer volunteer with the critically disabled in the community, social work isn’t volunteer work.
“For some, volunteerism does spark an interest in humanitarian services. When I became active as a volunteer at Beautiful Gate, an NGO for the disabled, it made me fall in love with community work. And to become a social worker seemed like the natural progression,” he says.Wong believes it was his “calling” to be a social worker.
“During my four years of undergraduate studies, I encountered a lot of people in situations of poverty and injustice, and I wanted to do something to help.
“From dealing with disabled people, I was introduced to hospital patients in orthopedic wards. Then I got to know indigenous communities.
“That made my whole human development course come alive because I could identify with many of the issues these peoples went through and I was passionate about finding solutions,” says Wong who is currently involved in capacity building.
One of the challenges in social work is that while human crises on the ground are increasing in intensity and complexity, the social workers who are willing and available to meet these needs are few.
There are many reasons for this, Wong says.
“The social work profession is not well-recognised in Malaysia by the government and the public in general.
“Many people have the misconception that social work refers to volunteer services. This is something we need to correct.
“Social work is a real, full-time job that requires professional competency, accountability and practice. Hence, it must be safeguarded by professional work ethics and a code of conduct,” says Wong.
“Because social work directly affects the quality of life of those in need and also intervenes in critical life and death situations such as drug abuse and suicide cases, it should be safeguarded by a social work council or licensing and disciplinary board. There must be screening of social workers’ qualifications, etc,” he says.
However, this can only happen if the Social Work Profession Bill is passed and social workers are recognised as legitimate professionals, he adds.
According to Intan, being a qualified social worker means having a diploma or degree in social work to carry out their responsibilities.
Social workers have expertise in problem solving and the communication skills to carry out their duties. They must also be familiar with and be able to apply relevant laws and policies in carrying out their work.
“Medical social work is a branch of social work that takes place in hospitals. We support patients – not just the underprivileged, not just financially for them to get treatment, but there are also domestic violence, unwed mothers, child abuse, and other types of cases,” she explains.
Intan, who has a Masters in Human Development from Universiti Putra Malaysia reveals that she was inspired by her mother who is also a social worker.
“I saw her give of her time and energy to develop the community as a qualified social worker and decided to follow in her footsteps,” she says.
As a medical social worker, Intan is part of the SCAN team which stands for “Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect” which comprises paediatricians, gynaecologists, psychiatrists, medical social workers, social welfare officers and the police.
The SCAN Team is the response team for child abuse cases brought to the hospital.
While Salma Farhanah A Rasid, 31, a service coordinator at Pusat Perkhidmatan Wanita (PPW), an NGO funded by the Penang State Government in Seberang Jaya, Seberang Perai, Penang, says that social work is “her passion”, she admits that it can sometimes be a “thankless task”.
“Social workers in other countries are legally recognised as professionals but not in Malaysia even though they have degrees or diplomas in social work from recognised universities. They are professionals providing a vital service in society, helping survivors of domestic abuse, child sexual abuse, and many other types of cases,” she highlights.
Salma who has a Bachelor and Masters Degree in Social Work from Universiti Sains Malaysia has been a social worker for five years. She specialises in social work for domestic violence and child abuse and reveals that she handles a workload of around 70 cases per year.
“In one day, I can handle two to three cases – which includes counselling via phone, online or face-to-face, report writing, and others,” she says.
“I’m also involved in outreach programmes. For example, we go to schools to teach children about what good and bad touch is to counter child sexual abuse. I also conduct domestic violence awareness training to stakeholders,” she explains.
“Penang is the first state in the country to introduce support groups for its Safe Family Policy.
“Known as the First Support Point, these groups are established at the service centres of assemblymen and government agencies to provide support for survivors of domestic violence or abuse.
“We provide training to these community leaders, government officers, religious departments, NGOs, etc to be the first support point for those affected by domestic violence. So far, we’ve trained around 300+ people,” she adds.
One of the challenges of being a social worker is “our work has no recognition”, says Salma.
Salma adds that social workers are also in a vulnerable position because they’re exposed to “secondary trauma stress” from their clients.
“This can take its toll over time. That’s why self-care if so important. Help people but don’t bring home the trauma or stress of those you’re helping each day,” she advises.
“Often, the help that we give to our clients extends to helping their family too. If a client is a survivor of child abuse, we counsel them on how to move on in the healing process, provide emotional support, connect them to a family member they trust and give them with the necessary information needed to move on. “We also provide support should they need to go to court and if they’ve to make a police report, we accompany them.”
Salma says that, ironically, while there is a need for more social workers, many social work graduates often end up in other professions.
“Many aren’t willing to get into the social work profession even though it’s their passion because they see that social work isn’t taken seriously as a profession.”
According to the Malaysian Association of Social Workers and Unicef, the Social Work Profession Bill will protect beneficiaries as it will ensure that “social workers adhere to the highest professional standards of social work”.
For the public, the Bill will create awareness on what to expect as beneficiaries and clients of social workers, and enable the public to recognise professional social workers when seeking assistance.
The bill will state clearly the professional standards as well as the consequences for non-compliance, thus ensuring public safety.
While the details of the Bill draft that was submitted haven’t been made known yet, MASW and Unicef believe that the Bill will safeguard the rights of social workers by giving them a professional status as well as enable proper training and encourage appropriate remuneration and career options for them.