Prioritizing Malaysia’s Social Work

Malaysia Urged To Pass The Social Work Bill Now

Legal Recognition Vital for Expanding Social Worker Reach

Social workers in Malaysia are calling for the professionalisation of their jobs, urging the government to pass the Social Work Protection Bill as soon as possible.

This is because social work is not legally recognised in Malaysia despite its great contribution to taking care of people’s welfare and delivering services to society’s most vulnerable members. 

The Bill has been drafted since 2010 but has not been tabled in Parliament. If passed, it will safeguard the rights of social workers by providing them with professional status, proper training, appropriate remuneration, and career options.

Impact of the lack of recognition of social work

The lack of legal recognition and support for social work means social workers are absent in various settings, such as hospitals, schools, and social welfare, which hinders proper treatment and follow-up for those in need.

It also means the field remains unregulated.

“Without being a professional occupation, anyone can call themselves a social worker by just giving out money or food provisions and I know many who do this,” Shoba Aiyar, 64, a long-time social worker in Malaysia, told “They are not able to handle the client’s emotional needs and other needs in a sustainable way as social workers do.”

Shoba is a graduate of the Madras School of Social Work and has a master’s degree in social work. She has extensive experience, having worked for various organisations, such as the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) which helps domestic violence survivors such as:

  • National Kidney Foundation.
  • National Cancer Society.
  • Childline Foundation.

She also briefly managed an autistic children’s centre. This year marks 40 years of her being a social worker.

“By getting licensed and registered as in other professions, social workers can get insurance protection, continuous professional development in social issues and support when sued for malpractice or other issues,” Shoba said further.

“The Bill asks for a standardised curriculum of international standards. Right now, most local universities do not have their degrees recognised by foreign universities and welfare departments,” Shoba said. “They have all sorts of subjects not directly linked to pure social work.”

Shobia also added that government welfare officers are not well-versed in English, making reporting in the language difficult for them. They also often face long and tedious government bureaucratic processes and short deadlines.

This has led to disillusionment among social workers, Shoba said.

“Government staff don’t feel valued like a professional and don’t put in extra effort into the profession. Cases take a long time to be handled and settled, if not a life and death situation! Issues concerning women and children continue to rise, despite more staff as the passion to address it is not as hot as with the non-governmental organisations and civil society organisations.”

Misconceptions about social work

Shoba explained that social work often gets mistaken for charity.

“People in Malaysia confuse social work with charity work,” she said. “Most people, including lawyers and doctors do not understand what a social worker does. Most social workers in government sectors are known as welfare officers, correctional officers, rehab officers and medical social workers. They often are not seen in public and follow orders given by their superiors. They attend meetings but do not engage in the discussions. Most often government welfare officers are wanted during flood relief natural disasters and other government functions. Thus, people are not aware of their real roles and what they do. The public feels anyone can do this work. Some even feel social workers are ‘tai tai’ (rich wives) who give out money and donations in kind.”

What the government says

In November 2023, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri said the Bill still needs refining.

“The progress on the Social Work Profession Bill is coming, many people are giving their input. It was good to hear from them. We cannot claim to know everything, but at the same time, we need to have the Bill drafted as soon as possible.

“The draft is still with us, we have not submitted it to the AGC because there is just so much information. But we cannot wait for everything, we have to get it moving and pass it to the AGC, and work from there,” she was quoted as saying in The Sunday Star.

Until then, social work in Malaysia remains underappreciated, overworked and unrecognised.

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