Elitists need not apply

Social service veteran Ang Bee Lian.

SINGAPORE - The most senior social worker in Singapore, Ms Ang Bee Lian, 58, started as a child protection worker more than 35 years ago and worked her way up through many job postings, most recently running the National Council of Social Service.

Last week, Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said that Singapore needs to train up "many, many more Ang Bee Lians", and announced that to do so, a new central body will oversee the recruitment and deployment of about 200 to 300 social service professionals.

Ms Ang, who is now the Ministry for Social and Family Development's director of social welfare, tells Insight why the new talent scheme to develop social service leaders won't be elitist.

Q: How does the new talent scheme for social workers take the sector forward?

A: It will add another very important pipeline of leaders who choose to be there, who have been developed and are prepared to be there, and who enjoy the position.

We must be very mindful of the selection of the people. We must select based on values and principles. We must select them rigorously and patiently.

Q: How would you distil who these people are?

A: Through good interviews, if you know how to ask the right questions.

So, together with three to four other elements of the interview, you can select the right people.

But the new work group may do it differently. If you don't interview well, you can let in a few black sheep. With only one test, people know how to do certain things.

But if you take a more collective observation approach and different types of people give comments, it's harder; you see the person for who he is.

Q: With a career track planned out for them, would there be a danger of having the "God's gift to mankind" mentality?

A: What the applicants present in their portfolio will tell you a lot about them. Those who are very solid don't need to tell you so many things. If you are put in an interview with me, I cannot get conned.

Q: Their compassion comes through in things they've been doing?

The way they express it, when they recount the story... For example, so often people do things to put on Facebook for show, or just for the CV. Don't come and think you're God's gift to the world. I really cannot stand people who think they're God's gift. It runs counter to social work and values.

Q: Do you feel the new scheme might be elitist? Some VWOs (voluntary welfare organisations) are worried about this centralised body.

A: It's good that feedback has surfaced early. It's being designed, taking into consideration these views. It'd be different if the Minister had cooked the scheme already and served it. They're going to form a work group.

It boils down to how you design the leadership. People respect leaders who understand and are able to empathise by being on the ground. There is a call to say, if you're a leader, can I expect you to be empathetic, values-based, fair, understanding of what I'm going through, and also smart?

I know of someone who's an A-grader with an outstanding academic record. But while studying overseas, of her own accord, she volunteered at the homeless shelter because she wanted to be connected to the ground to understand, and in the process, her empathy level just went so much higher.

So I don't think we're against people with good academic records but we need to be mindful that to lead, one needs to win the respect of people and be humble.

And to be prepared to be unprepared sometimes, and to be vulnerable and to learn.

Q: How would the experience they get under this scheme help potential social service leaders?

A: Project work cannot replace direct operational experience, because of empathy. You need empathy in more than one area - from the clients' perspective, from the perspective of the people who run the service, from (that of) someone who funds the programme.

And that kind of empathy is best learnt when you're on the ground interacting with all the stakeholders and hearing it from people.

There is also this view, about why aren't these things done by the Government? Why do we have so many stakeholders and players? People like to say, make things simple like in Scandinavia (known for strong social security nets and high social spending), give it all on a platter. For me, I'd never trade what we have done.

There's nothing like a volunteer actually doing some of the contact with clients. Something marvellous happens in the spirit.

There is a space for the community, philanthropists and whoever wants to do something. To take that away means we'll be missing something very precious in the community.

The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund or SPMF (which gives funds to children from low-income families for school-related expenses) is a very good example.

It's a brilliant idea. The Government can give the money, you know, but think about the value which has (been) brought because SPMF (a community effort) does it. Imagine the kind of purpose it has brought to the people who contributed to SPMF - that kind of sense and feeling of shared camaraderie on the part of SPMF, no money can buy.

Q: What about VWOs who are afraid that the Government can control the deployment of their leaders with the centralised scheme?

A: We'd like to come to a stage where there are enough leaders so there's no need to be too concerned.

If the VWOs are looking for generals, you need a leader of a certain characteristic. Hopefully there are at least two to three available. Sometimes, somebody else (other than the one we think is best) is assigned, and does an equally marvellous job.

Q: Mr Chan said that for this scheme to work, "everyone has to think the sector first and not the individual VWO first". Is this realistic? How can they do this?

A: This scheme works when we really think about the clients whom the sector wants to serve.

If you're a VWO trying to make a decision at the board meeting, of course you think of the VWO first. It is natural.

But if you reverse it and think of serving clients first, and the complexity of the cases, then you think quite differently. You think, how can we as a whole sector respond? Okay, I'm one of the players, how might we respond then?

Q: So how do you feel about Mr Chan saying we need "many, many more Ang Bee Lians"?

A: Aiyoh, good thing I wasn't there. During those times, there were some job postings, it's not like I didn't cry. But now when I look back, wow, they were so valuable.

Because now, with every situation I get, I can say, this one looks a bit like that one, maybe this is a thing we should do. It seems to be about knowledge and experience.

Of course you can read up, and I keep reading. But the knowledge comes from my many postings also. I really had a variety. Even washing toilets.

Q: Recently the Government has been doing more. (The monthly household income cap for ComCare, which helps the needy, was raised this month from $1,700 to $1,900.) Do you feel it's going too far in this direction?

A: The whole idea is responsiveness on the part of the Government and keeping in tandem with rising costs. This time, it's done in a much more timely manner.

I look at this in relation to the family. You're looking at a family who really needs this help. These kinds of questions, we can always debate, and debate and win, but it doesn't make a lot of difference to the families. The question is, how do we help them? If we're really giving them "too much", then it is my job as a caseworker to help this family save the $200.

Q: Is there a danger of abuse (for example, people who game the system to get more handouts)?

A: When it happens, I like to be curious and inquire why it happens, what drives their behaviour. From there, we'll be able to see the kind of circumstances under which people do it. Where it reveals a more deep-seated concern that is worthwhile for us to work further with, I will work on that. Where there is really a blatant abuse, it's very easy to deal with those.

Q: What do you think of the Social and Family Development Ministry's new programme to help 500 of the most vulnerable families?

A: Social workers want these families to be more resilient. They don't need to be perfect families, but after certain number of years, we want the family to say they can handle things on their own.

Q: Do you think it's like extreme nannying, handholding in a way?

A: If you look at the profiles of these families, they do need that.

They're very, very vulnerable. But what happens during the handholding?

There are some things, when it happens, you hold them tighter, some things you let go. Like when you know there are issues when the pay cheques come in. During that time, you hold them tighter.

Other times, you want to celebrate and let go.

charyong@sph.com.sg

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