IFSW Secretary-General, Rory Truell met with the Malaysian Social Workers Association, these are some of his reflections.
Chow Kit, a suburb in the Centre of Kuala Lumpur, offers mix of realities for the people that live there. The inviting smells of the differing traditions waft in the humid air. Malay style wok fried vegetables, Pakistani roasting meat, and the spices of India. These rich cultural traditions are a celebration of the peaceful cultural co-existence in Malaysia. But hidden in the shadows are also sleeping children, women and men, laying on the ground without covering. Tragic evidence that this society, like many others, is still on the long journey to full inclusion and respecting the dignity of everyone.
Between two food shops, stairs lead directly to solutions, creating hope for those living in the shadows. The NGO, Yayasan Chow Kit, sits on the upper floors of the main street. It employs social workers and other professionals that work beyond the idea of aid and charity as they address the root causes and co-create sustainable dignified solutions.
Social workers, Ratna Devi and Hasini, told me, ‘We co-create services with the local people because they know their situation best’. The NGO runs education classes for both vulnerable Malaysian nationals, undocumented and refugees. For the refugees that fled war or persecution from other countries, the social workers work with them, piecing together the required documentation in order for them to access health services and other government support systems. Housing and work are also high on the community’s agenda and together the social workers and community develop entrepreneurial businesses to fund accommodation and better lives.
In the absence of state-run support systems, the social workers promote skills and business development. This also includes blending the national school curriculum with community mutual-reliance projects. I visited the NGO run alternative school for undocumented children that are not able to attend public education. Between the math, science and language classes, the children also had projects that involve the production of products that their families could sell. One example the children had on display, was jars of a chocolate-based milk drinks. Everything from the design of the label to the recipe was created by the children.
Upon graduation, a number of ex-students come back and work in the NGO because they want to give back to others what they had received. The social workers explained, ‘They are the experts at working across the streets of Chow Kit and engaging people with the Centre. It creates a sense of belonging, a context of a community working together for change’. Because of this work, new businesses have emerged, such as bakeries, accommodation has been found, and new horizons have become more than dreams.
The work of Yayasan Chow Kit is exemplary of the social work approach. Yet sadly it is not the norm as there are less than 1200 practising qualified social workers in a country of over 32 million. There are many NGOs on the streets, however, offering free food and compassion to the homeless. The government also has a large budget for low-income Malaysian nationals and much of this is given in the form of small cash transfers which can make the difference between eating or not, but like the work of the charities, the scheme does not move people out of poverty. Many say it keeps them in slightly better appalling poverty conditions.
There is optimism for change, however. During my visit, organized by the Malaysian Association of Social Workers, we meet with a senior director and staff of various government ministries. Our discussions identified that a new law proposed by MASW could act as a key milestone in the country’s journey of social development. The proposed law recognizes that social work is essential to social development, and creates a register of professional social workers, leading to the further training and employment of social workers.
The Deputy Secretary General of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development commented, ‘We need social workers as highly trained professionals, and until we have them, our country can never move beyond the minimal cash transfer payments. With social work involvement, we will see people living with dignity, in work, with health and housing’. He further commented he would move the proposed Bill further up the government’s agenda and hoped there may even be a first reading later this year.
It is not hard to be impressed by the social workers in the MASW. They are articulate, clear and focused on the evidence of what works: ‘Working beyond cash transfers and charity, professional social workers recognize and draw up on all people’s strengths, resourcefulness and ability to lead sustainable changes in their own lives’, they explained.
The new Social Work Profession Act, when adopted, will certainly be a step in the journey ahead. The Bill proposes that registration is combined, and not separated, with the aims and involvement of the professional association, which is important to ensure that the ongoing professional drive forward of social development is recognized in law.
Following these rich encounters, while travelling back to the airport, I see groups of undocumented migrants and their children working under the hot midday sun. I also see the multi-faith communities successfully living side by side as a celebration of diversity, and I look forward to the developments ahead. A country with many qualities for others to learn from. A country poised on recognizing social work, as a reference point, in its development. A country with skilled, committed and passionate social workers to co-guide the way.