Fostering Innovation In Social Work Practice

An interview with the Director of Social Welfare, Ms Ang Bee Lian on the topic, ‘Fostering Innovation in Social Work Practice’, for World Social Work Day.


Innovation involves looking inward and outward. Inwards, to reflect on our services, interventions, work processes etc. and to rethink about what we do and whether there are any areas of improvement or new ways of doing things. Outwards, to learn from best practices, to build upon the ideas of others both within the sector and beyond, and to tailor them to the relevant contexts.

Sometimes, we may think that innovations should mainly happen in the realm of science and technology and not so much in the social work setting.

We should however think of innovations as part of social work where we can find alternative ideas or solutions to improve the living conditions and well-being of individuals, families and communities.


The perception that innovation is too difficult and irrelevant to the profession might be the main obstacle. Some may even identify innovation as only for the creative or brainy. Innovation is more about having a spirit of curiosity about the issues that we deal with and to explore how else these issues could be addressed. It requires us to be willing to step out of our daily tasks and routines, to relook and analyse with others on how to approach these issues in a different manner. We need to move away from the status quo and ask “what if” questions e.g. what if processes were “packaged” in a different way or what if our assumptions about particular human behaviours were wrong. Having a spirit of curiosity would constantly push us to question and to find the answers or new perspectives on the situations we face.


To promote innovative practices, we need to start with developing a spirit of enquiry and learning. The management would play a key role in fostering such a culture by creating an open and supportive environment where employees can share new ideas and initiatives, build upon current ideas and be receptive to collaborate with various stakeholders. Likewise, the management could listen to their employees and take relevant ideas into consideration.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in evidence-based practice where social workers look at best possible evidence to inform them as to what works. Evidence-based practice also requires a spirit of questioning to find “evidence” on whether the current solutions work and if things should be done in a different manner. It is not about throwing away our current processes and programmes but to look at what works, to keep what works and to try new approaches and ways that offer solutions and positive outcomes to our clients’ issues.

Innovation can start in small ways, but goes a long way in growing professionals who would constantly look for new and better ways of addressing social issues.

Happy World Social Work Day!

Know a social worker? Take some time today to show your appreciation to the social workers in our midst!

Supporting those at their most vulnerable

Nancy is currently the Director of Professional Practice Development at MSF’s Office of the Director of Social Welfare. In her time at MSF, Nancy has covered areas of work from policy development to programme implementation for youth-at-risk and youth offenders.

This year, Nancy was awarded the Outstanding Social Worker Award 2016. The Outstanding Social Worker Award is the highest award in the social work profession, presented annually by the President of the Republic of Singapore to recognise the outstanding contributions by dedicated social workers to the social service sector in Singapore.

Reboot, redesign and reform.

For Nancy, these are some key words that come to mind when describing her work. This has led Nancy to advocate for a greater use of technology and innovation to improve areas of work in MSF.

During her time as Chief Probation Officer, Nancy introduced a voice biometric system for time restriction checks of probationers. This system made a marked reduction of physical time restriction checks by the Volunteer Probation Officers.

Supporting those at their most vulnerable

In all her years of service, one incident has clearly stood out in Nancy’s mind. She was then a social work student at the National University of Singapore.

During her field placement, Nancy was faced with a situation where a man was about to jump off the window of his flat.

However, when his 8 year old son was brought into the room by the police officers, the man stepped off from the ledge of the window.

After the scare, Nancy recalled comforting the boy – who was shaking very badly. This episode left such an impact on Nancy that she continues to remember it till this day. 

“Social workers witness the most intimate moments of people’s lives, and I regard that as a privilege,” said Nancy.

Guiding the next generation of social workers

Today, Nancy serves as a senior lecturer to social work students at UniSIM. The degree course at UniSIM is one of two full-time social work programmes in Singapore.

In her current role as Director of Professional Practice Development at MSF, she aims to improve the sector to become efficient and effective, as well as to help the sector be ready for the future.

“Social workers need to go beyond practice to navigate between policy, skills and knowledge to be all-rounders,” added Nancy.



“If we can help, we will”

14125204_xxlBy Li Li@MSF

As an officer in the Office of the Commissioner for the Maintenance of Parents (CMP), Li Li conducts conciliation during which she tries to persuade the children to maintain their parents. She also assists the elderly and their family, by referring them to other social or voluntary agencies for support and/or assistance.

 Li Li has lost count of the number of times she has been scolded by the adult children of the elderly she is tasked to help.

As she attempts to persuade these children to support their parents, the common response she gets is: “You’re just an outsider. If you’re the welfare ministry, provide the money then.”

The elderly, who approach her at her Lengkok Bahru office or who are referred to her by MPs, Family Service Centres and Social Service Offices (SSOs), are often those who are unable to support themselves. Hence, they have to struggle to get maintenance from their children.

After interviewing them, Li Li contacts the children to hear their side of the story and possibly, persuade them to support their parents. This step though is often the hardest part of the process – and her job.

In the course of trying to even speak with the children, she has had them bang the table, threaten her, and slam the door in her face when she tried to visit them at home.

“Before joining, I thought it was nice to offer help to people,” Li Li says. “But here, it’s a bit different. You try to intervene, you get scolded kaypoh[1].”

And even when she gains access into these families’ lives, she often finds herself thrown in the middle of a mind-boggling moral dilemma.

She recalls the time when a woman approached her for help after her husband became paralysed and could not work.  The case turned out to be more complicated, however, when she found that the woman was the second wife of the man. The children from his first marriage were unwilling to maintain him because they were angry with him for remarrying.

To add to that, his stepchildren – the woman’s children from her previous marriage – saw no obligation in supporting a stepfather who had not raised them up. Who then, was to be made to support their father?

Then there are the thorny cases she has seen more than once – children who refuse to support their parents because they had been abused by them when they were young. Should she still make the children pay?

Topping it all off are the misconceptions people have of her job and her role.

The elderly think she can help them get their children to support them beyond their basic needs – such as a parent who came to her wanting his child to give him money for airfare – while the children think she sides with the elderly and that she is just here to force them to pay.

Yet, despite the rough times and misconceptions, Li Li continues to strive on, contented with the compelling sense of achievement that she is able to break ground.

As an officer constantly on the ground, Li Li occasionally takes on other responsibilities, such as referring parents and children with their consent to other social or voluntary agencies for other support and/or assistance.

“If we can help, we try to help,” she says.

More than that, it is the satisfaction she gets from watching families reconcile and reconnect, as well as helping the elderly get their maintenance, that keep her on the job.

She recalls the case of an absent father who was remorseful of his past and volunteered at a senior activity centre to make amends. Believing their father was sincere in his efforts to change, his children eventually agreed to maintain him. And to Li Li, witnessing such grace and forgiveness, can sometimes be all that she needs.

[1] Kaypoh: A Singlish term, that can be used to describe a person/an action as nosy or a busybody.

Making the world a better place with coffee

For many of us, our day doesn’t start until we have had a cup of coffee.

As such, it is no surprise that a long queue formed when a new coffee cart opened at the MSF building lobby on Tuesday (4 Oct) morning. But do not be distracted by the typical caffeinated concoctions Bettr Barista offers—it is no ordinary coffee establishment.

In 2011, Ms Pamela Chng left her job at the web consultancy firm she’d set up, and co-founded Bettr Barista to train marginalised women and youths-at-risk for the specialty coffee industry. Today, her efforts have resulted in a full-fledged social enterprise that uses coffee as a vehicle to change lives.

“We want our beneficiaries to be work-ready, to get jobs in the F&B sector, to get themselves out of the challenging situations that they are in and become financially independent,” Ms Chng said.

To date, 50 students have graduated from their barista program and she hopes to reach out to more potential students by collaborating with social service organisations.

Besides training the students to be career-ready, Ms Chng and her team seeks to empower them emotionally as well. The trainees, who range from their teens to women in their 50s, come from disadvantaged backgrounds and face many personal obstacles, from having low self-esteem to financial difficulties. As such, the training program is designed to be multi-dimensional, and includes physical training, as well as life and emotional management, on top of the students’ barista training.

Since its inception, Bettr Barista has received many accolades. It was certified by international non-profit organisation B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Bettr Barista is also the first recipient of the Arthur Guinness fund in Singapore, which supports social enterprises that are dedicated to discovering innovative solutions to address social problems.

Also, part of Bettr Barista’s revenue goes to Income Orange Aid, a program that helps ITE and polytechnic students from low-income families to fund their tertiary education. Buying coffee can make a difference in the lives of needy individuals, so why stop at only one cup?

Bettr Barista is located at level 1 of the MSF building and is open from 8.30am-6pm on weekdays, except Thursdays.



Determined to help them back on track

By Rouisanna @ MSF

Rouisanna is a Senior Probation Officer at MSF. She assesses the offenders’ suitability to undergo rehabilitation in the community and works with offenders placed on probation by the Court.

You might not guess that she is Probation Officer (PO) – let alone it being her first job – when you first meet her.

Her slight frame belies the determination she has to help the youth offenders under her care. Since Rouisanna first started work 4 years back, many have asked her, “Why did you choose to work with offenders?”

“Having been brought up in a rather sheltered environment, it was daunting at first to work with offenders. But I’ve always wanted to help support offenders – something about helping them called out to me,” said Rouisanna.

POs like Rouisanna work with offenders whom the Courts have deemed to be suitable for probation. They then work to best support and increase the likelihood of the probationers being reintegrated into society, while lowering the chance of them reoffending. Rouisanna, in particular, works with youth offenders residing at the Singapore Boys’ Hostel (SBHL).

Youth offenders (those below the age of 19) – who are ordered by the Courts to reside in hostels – are those assessed to be at higher risk of reoffending.

Rouisanna remembers a case where 15 year-old Luke (not his real name) was put on probation for having under-aged sex with his 12 year-old girlfriend. The case was particularly difficult as besides charges including sex with a minor and child protection concerns; the young girl was pregnant. In addition, there were a throng of issues to sort out, such as financial support and care for the baby.

Any other person might be fazed by such a high-needs and high-risk case – but not Rouisanna.

Putting herself in their shoes, Rouisanna understands the need to take things a step at a time – that includes helping the probationers overcome each complication in their lives as they come.

“Many of the probationers are from dysfunctional families themselves, and lacked proper support and guidance while growing up,” said Rouisanna.

Citing Luke’s story as an example, Rouisanna elaborates on how his father had committed suicide a few years back. His mother – the sole breadwinner of the family – suffers from chronic depression and is unable to work at times. Besides the mounting financial difficulties faced by the family, Luke has to take on a “parent role” in looking after his mother, while juggling school work and figuring out life as he grew up.

Determined to help her charges, Rouisanna shares how she tries to see the best in each youth while offering a strong and comforting presence, a listening ear and a shoulder of support for all.

“I see the probationers not as ‘cases’ but as people,” said Rouisanna. “I want to establish a relationship of trust, so that they would turn to me for support.”

These then work together to help her build a stronger relationship with the probationers – that not only helps her in her line of work – but also bolsters her personal and professional development, as she grows alongside her youths.


“The middle-man”

By Christine @ MSF

Christine is an assistant senior social worker at MSF. She works with the ‘systems’ side of social service, as the liaison between those in need and the various agencies. She empowers the families by navigating the systems with the families, attaining holistic and coordinated assistance to support these families with multiple needs, advocate for the families through social reports and inter-agency case conferences.

Acting as the middle-man is never easy

As a social worker for close to 13 years, Christine acts as a bridge between families and the various agencies. One part of her role involves supporting families in-need cope by assessing their needs and helping them find the best way to overcome the challenges they face at home.

These see her juggling between conducting site visits – such as to homes, hospitals, and the prison – and going down to various organisations together with the families to handle the legislative and administrative work.

Christine recalls a family of eight (a single mother with five young children living with the maternal grandparents) that she has worked with for more than a year.

Like many of the cases she has worked on, the case involved multiple needs – family conflict, financial difficulty, medical needs, unemployment and a history of family violence.

The complex family dynamics often saw her caught in-between family members, such that every home visit felt like a “settlement talk” between several parties.

Harsh words were frequently thrown around; and doing what she could to defuse the tension in the air as a mediator often saw Christine at the receiving end of much of the verbal torrent.

One particular issue the family struggled with was being able to meet the educational needs of their eight-year-old son. Afflicted with special needs, Derrick (not his real name) required support services in school – where having a support teacher shadow him at school for 1.5 hour a day would cost upwards of $1500 per month.

Trouble brew when a sense of entitlement set in and assistance was not streaming in as the family would like.

Yet weaving through the legislative web on the “systems” side often proved complex for Christine as well.

For example, her efforts to seek funding for Derrick from the agencies came out flat, as assistance for the shadow support teacher was deemed beyond the organisation’s purview or beyond ‘basic funding’.

“The ‘Systems’ would often ask me too – “Why? Why should we do this? Are the families doing anything to help themselves?”” Christine said.

It is situations like these that often puts Christine in a tight spot. As an individual, there are many decisions that she is not able to make by herself. Instead, various agencies come together to arrive at a compromise to help the families be self-reliant and have their basic needs met.

When asked what keeps her going, Christine said:

“It is the sense of satisfaction I get with every little progress the families have made. It is also amazing to see how the different systems have shifted in their response towards helping the family – from one that has minimal involvement, to one that works collaboratively to help the families.”

Christine is also working on the Strengthening Families Together (SFT) pilot, that enables vulnerable families to access resources that will help them be more resilient, while raising the developmental prospects of their children. The pilot, which started in April 2016, also facilitates inter-agency collaboration to provide holistic and coordinated assistance to families with multiple needs.

It is through celebrating each small milestone, maintaining an opened mind and taking things in her stride that has helped her power through the day-to-day challenges in social work.

And softly, Christine added, “I tell myself: you are only there for a year, but for them (the family in-need) – it has become part of their everyday life.”


Seeing the Strengths in Families

By Applie@MSF

For the past 6 years, Applie’s job as a Child Protection Officer has taken her through some of the most challenging situations. In this article, she shares about her experiences and rewards of working in the social service sector.

Applie sobbed silently at her desk after the phone call.

Ms Tan (not her real name) was just on the phone. And she hurled personal attacks at Applie because her request to see her son in the children’s home was not acceded to; he was being punished for getting into trouble.

It was almost unimaginable when Ms Tan thanked Applie personally a year later, after all the years of fighting with the system.

It had been four years of fighting by then.

Since Applie took over the case in 2010, the road had not been easy. Having just been released from prison that year, Ms Tan was more than eager to get her seven children back.

After all, it had been 6 years since they were taken out of their home when they were found to have been exposed to physical abuse, neglect and spousal violence.

For years, Applie tried to build up trust and a working relationship with Ms Tan. But it didn’t help that the woman resented her and the organisation she represented, believing they had wrongly taken away her children when her oldest child was just 7 years old.

Still, Applie pushed on.

She took every opportunity that came her way to show that she was on the same page as the mother, and over time, a little bridge of trust was formed.

With the working relationship firmed up, the pair moved on to their next goal – reintegrating the children with their mother.

Since her release from prison, Ms Tan had gotten a job and was showing signs of improvement. She was still asking for her children back, and while Applie wanted to see the family reunited, she remained cautious as the children’s interests came first.

She started with the oldest boy, a teenager by then. She noted that the boy, who had a strong relationship with his mother, was not doing well in the children’s home. Could he be better off at home?

Weighing the protective factors and detriments, she took a “calculated risk”, as she puts it, and reintegrated the teenager with his mother.

“The children were all growing up, and it wasn’t good for them to remain in the system,” she explains.

It worked.

Today, six out of the seven children are back home with their mother. The Family Service Centre (FSC) in their neighbourhood continues to help the family build a community and monitor their progress.

As for Applie, she still encounters difficult parents from time to time.

“It’s a learning process,” she says of each time she deals with a hostile parent. But with a supportive supervisor who checks in on her every now and then, Applie has learnt to de-personalise the attacks.

“Clients do these for a certain purpose, it’s natural for a mother to react the way she did,” she says, referring to Ms Tan.

Looking back, Applie believes it was her conviction that there was a light at the end of every tunnel that carried her through each difficult moment. But on top of that, it was the strength that she saw in the families and the belief that she had in them had pushed her on too.

Because at the end of the day, it is the rewarding moments – like when Ms Tan came around – that counted.