Helping people from womb to tomb

Mr K.V. Veloo, 80, devoted nearly half a century to helping the less fortunate in Singapore, shaping policies in areas ranging from prison welfare to drug rehabilitation and eldercare.

As a young man working as a Cleansing Inspector in the City Council in the 1950s, Mr K.V. Veloo witnessed a monthly phenomenon which weighed heavily on his heart.

Come pay day, hordes of moneylenders would descend on the council office, rapaciously eyeing the labourers collecting their monthly pay packets.

As soon as the men collected their wages, the moneylenders would pounce and snatch the money. The labourers would often just slump defeated on the floor, hands over their heads.

It was a vicious circle because the men had no choice but to borrow once again to feed their families.

"I brought this up to my boss but he told me not to get involved because I would get my head cracked by the moneylenders," he says.

The misery he witnessed, however, gnawed at his social conscience and is one of the main reasons he decided to become a social worker.

Now 80, Mr Veloo devoted nearly half a century to helping the less fortunate in Singapore, shaping policies in areas ranging from prison welfare to drug rehabilitation and eldercare.

Unlike many of his peers who went into banking or business, his choice of career did not make him rich.

"Every now and then, I feel a little sad that I'm living in an HDB flat while others are living in bungalows and driving big cars," says the tall strapping man in his modest but comfortable home in Bedok North.

"But I'm just envious, not jealous. My conscience tells me that I've done the right thing. There's a lot of satisfaction in knowing I've served a great cause."

He wrote a book, Life And Times Of A Social Worker, which was launched on his birthday in January.

He was born in Penang, the youngest of eight children of a legal clerk and his homemaker wife. He was seven when his father died, and he moved to Singapore with his mother to live with one of his sisters and her husband.

The Japanese occupied Singapore shortly after and he remembers vividly the air raids, the lootings, the corpses of British soldiers on Orchard Road and the prisoners-of-war being corralled and herded off to work on the notorious Thailand-Burma railway.

After the war, he enrolled in Telok Kurau English School and did well enough to gain admission to Raffles Institution (RI), where he excelled in both sports and studies.

But going on to university after RI was not an option. His brother-in-law fell on hard times after his provision shop business failed. "And in those days, there were not that many scholarship options," he says.

His social conscience got an early prod soon after he left school and joined the Katong Boys' Club.

Now defunct, the Joo Chiat club was set up in 1946 by a group of volunteers and public-spirited professionals to help youth deprived of a normal family life after the war.

"I'd say 10 per cent of the members were real delinquents, and another 60 per cent on the verge of delinquency," recalls Mr Veloo, adding that the club had about 600 members.

The young Veloo and some of his friends dropped by the club when the late Tan Thoon Lip, the first Asian registrar of the Supreme Court, got hold of them. "He said, 'Why don't you join and bring in some new ideas?'"

Mr Veloo became chairman of the Boys Committee, a stint which exposed him to many disadvantaged youth and would-be delinquents and showed him that with guidance and the right activities, many could be kept off the streets and changed.

"One or two of the pai kia became engineers," he says, using the Hokkien phrase for ruffian. "It showed me that it's not always a case of one or two rotten apples spoiling the rest. It could be the other way around."

A brief stint as an English teacher in a dodgy family-run school followed before he joined the City Council on the urging of one of his brothers-in-law.

As an inspector in the Cleansing and Hawkers Department, he saw first hand the misery of council labourers in their Alexandra Road quarters, and the numerous social problems as poverty and loneliness drove the denizens into extramarital affairs, crime and delinquency.

One of his mentors tried unsuccessfully to get him transferred to the City Council Welfare Department and he ended up in the City Electrical Engineer's Office instead. To alleviate his boredom at his new post, he became active in union activities.

One day his boss showed him a newspaper advertisement for a Public Service Commission scholarship in social studies at the then University of Singapore.

He became one of 10 recipients of the scholarship, which came about because of a recommendation in the Prison Enquiry Commission of 1960, commonly known as the Devan Nair Report.

The commission, set up to review the administration of penal institutions, stressed the importance of aftercare for discharged prisoners. Scholarship recipients had to serve a bond as officers in the new Probation and Aftercare Service.

He took to university like a duck to water.

"My studies tied up with what I'd been feeling for a long time. I wanted to help people function better in life, but I didn't know how to go about doing it. I thought of social activism but also knew I was not quite cut out for it," he says.

The Singapore in his time was very challenging for social workers. Poverty was widespread; unemployment and crime rife. Gangsters and other criminal elements also roamed large.

In 1964, the year he graduated, there were nearly 25,000 people on public assistance.

His early days as a probation officer were uneasy ones.

"I was frightened because I was so young and I was dealing with all these gangsters. But I learnt later they were bound by a good code. If they knew you were helping them, they would respect you. But you had to be able to cultivate a bond of confidence and trust with them," he says.

At the height of the racial riots in 1969, he had to venture into gangster-infested areas such as Bukit Merah and Bukit Ho Swee to warn his charges - many who had triad links - not to take part in the violence.

"I had to go to flats in Beo Lane, which were notorious for their corridors. If gangsters blocked both sides, you died because nobody would open their doors to help you," says Mr Veloo.

He adds that he was a "sentimental idealist" when he first started on the job. "I thought I could just go in, change people and solve all their problems. But when I went in, I found it was very different.

"Some people had problems which were so deep-seated and so complex, they were beyond my capacity to help. But you had to do your best for them."

The key to being effective as a social worker, he says, is to have a clear head and a kind heart. "You can't cry with them, because crying won't help you solve their problems."

With a laugh, he says he was the only one of the 10 scholarship recipients to make social work his career.

"There were many jobs which paid a lot more then," says Mr Veloo, who had more than his share of lucrative offers to join banks and other industries.

After six years, he became the first social worker to hold the post of Chief Probation and Aftercare Officer.

His contributions to the penal and correctional system are many. A notable one is the Community Probation Service which he launched in 1971.

He came up with the idea of training volunteer probation officers because there were just too many probation cases and not enough officers.

"I was struck when I was in the United States for training, and saw how the courts were using volunteers. I came back and talked to various stakeholders and judges," he says.

The scheme was so successful that the number of volunteers grew from 20 to a few hundred in a couple of years; it also became the model for similar schemes in the region.

Two years later, he introduced another game-changer by launching the Prison Welfare Service, to provide support and help to the families of prisoners.

"The idea is that the family should not suffer when someone is in prison. You try to keep the unit together and minimise the dysfunction in the family, and hopefully you will minimise delinquency, single-mother issues and other problems like loneliness."

He did a stint at the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association as executive secretary, and helped set up a volunteer force to assist former addicts in resettling in society.

Over the next two decades, he became director or deputy director of welfare units in different incarnations of what is today the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

"I got involved in issues from the womb to the tomb," he says with a laugh.

Among other things, he helped to review the Destitute Persons Act and the Children and Young Persons Act. The father of three adult sons, aged between 36 and 46, retired in 1993.

"I wanted to travel while I still could," he says.

But shortly after, the National Council of Social Service asked him to come on board, first as consultant, and later as director of special projects.

"Two years became eight years," says Mr Veloo, who was awarded a Public Administration Medal (Silver) in 2012.

Even after stopping work with the council, he continued to be active in many voluntary welfare organisations, including the Society for the Physically Disabled and the Ramakrishna Mission School Counselling Service.

Only kidney failure, and the need to go for dialysis three times a week, has slowed him down in recent years.

Sipping on a small glass of shandy, he says he would still become a social worker if he could live his life all over again.

"I just wish I were one now. There's so much more money and resources available now for doing good. All we need to do some really good work is some imagination."

This article was published on May 11 in The Straits Times.

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