THE character of social service is determined fundamentally by its devotion to the poor, the underprivileged and the disadvantaged. This is natural because society is only as strong as its weakest links, and social service therefore means serving the most vulnerable.
Whether countries are poor or prosperous, the calling of social service - which draws some of the most dedicated men and women to the sector as professionals or volunteers - hinges on the perceived nature of the needs in a society.
Of course, needs take various forms. Financial need is the most obvious of them, but there are other kinds of need that are no less insistent. Singapore society is at a transitional point where the material needs of the majority of citizens have largely been met, but new needs have emerged in the form of social stresses that are related to ageing, immigration and national identity issues.
To serve society in these times is to address these evolving needs while not forgetting the primary duty of caring for the poor.
The National Council of Social Service (NCSS) will be a key institution in bridging the two worlds of Singapore.
Just how crucial its role would be was suggested by Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, who has urged the sector to aspire to a larger vision in which social services act as the fourth key pillar of national success, as much as defence, economy and housing. This indeed is a worthy vision, and is realisable if state, market and society act together. Just as the tripartite relationship between the Government, unions and management underpins economic growth, private-public partnerships must reinvigorate the social service sector.
The effort will not start from scratch because the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre exemplifies some ways in which the grand vision can be pursued by responding more keenly to areas of public enthusiasm such as the arts, sports and the environment. These might appear to be "soft" areas, but they play an intangible role in the country's sense of itself and help to unite people across class and ethnicity.
The NCSS can build on the centre's work on a larger scale to keep society integrated and healthy during a new phase of national development.
Attracting and retaining volunteers and professionals, apart from managing costs, will remain the core challenge for the social service sector.
However, that challenge will be easier to meet if Singaporeans realise that the sector is not an optional add-on to the landscape of national resilience but an extension of the very structures that have created and strengthened contemporary Singapore.
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