Social Work in Malaysia

Zulkarnain A. Hatta and Zarina Mat Saad

The salient features of social welfare history and social work development in Malaysia are reviewed in this chapter. The chapter begins with the history of social welfare in Malaysia during preand postindependence. It will then highlight the major organizations involved in the delivery of social welfare. The second part of the chapter examines the evolution of social work education, and the chapter ends with a discussion on future directions of social work profession in Malaysia.

History of Social Welfare in Malaysia

There has been welfare work in Malaysia for as long as people have inhabited the country. The activities were done purely out of the altruistic nature of humans, they were not given any training, titles, or work designations and there were no competency standards as they exist now; but nonetheless, they served the people that were in need. As society grew and became more complicated, more social problems occurred. A few decades ago, the majority of the Malaysian public had never actually heard of the term 'social work'. The most familiar terms were for the welfare department, community, and voluntary work (gotong royong), which are closely knitted and often used interchangeably.

Like in many other countries, the field of social work started with the establishment of social welfare agencies to address social issues and problems. Malaysia historically has been occupied by several colonial powers – that is, the Portuguese beginning in 1511, the Dutch in 1641, the English 1824, and the Japanese 1941–1945. During those periods, no proper documentation was kept (especially after Japanese occupation) regarding any organizations that offered social welfare services to the local community except during British rule.


Community work has been part of the traditional Malay community's customs and practices since long before being colonized by foreign powers. During the Sultanate of the Malay States, the local Malay community received protection, land to farm, and other basic needs such as shelter in exchange for work, including road building, palace construction, and conscription during war (Shaffie, 2003); however, this situation changed during British rule. The British, through the East India Company, established their first SouthEast Asia trading base in the Island of Penang in 1786 and began expanding their influence throughout the Malay States, starting with Perak in 1874. Their main objective was solely based on economics and trade gains. The states of the Malay Peninsula were divided into three groups: the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States (FMS), and the non-federated Malay States (Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Johor; Kratoska, 1997; Rudner, 1976; Shaffie, 2003).

As the economy flourished in the Straits Settlement (SS), the number of immigrants, especially from China, increased, which brought social problems to the SS. The Colonial Office then appointed William A. Pickering in 1877 to head the Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, to see solely to the welfare of these Chinese immigrants. Chinese Protectorate offices were also opened in Penang and Malacca. Their main functions included administering newly arrived 'coolie' laborers (known as sinkeh), monitoring secret societies, rescuing female immigrants from prostitution, and the containment of venereal diseases (Lim, 2008).

Another form of administration was the FMS, which consisted of the Malay states of Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang. These states enjoyed not only greater economic benefits but social benefits ensuring better community welfare. Health efforts by the government significantly reduced the mortality rate in these states and smallpox vaccination was made compulsory in 1891. The Pathology Institute was opened in Kuala Lumpur and named the Institute for Medical Research in 1902. Malaria cases were reduced tremendously from 522 in 1901 to 32 in 1903. Dr Malcom Watson further introduced mosquito-breeding prevention by putting pipes in streams and spraying those streams with oil in 1914 (Beck, 2008).

Education for the community was also expanded. In 1903 R.J. Wilkinson introduced the study of Malay literature using the Roman alphabet and R.O. Winsted, the education director between 1924 and 1931 revived Malay vernacular studies. The Sultan Idris Training College (SITC) was founded in 1922 at Tanjong Malim in Perak to train Malay teachers in advanced agricultural techniques. In 1923 Labor Code enactment required that estate management companies provide education for 10 or more children of their laborers (Beck, 2008).

However, most of the health, social welfare, and education programs that were implemented in Malaya before Japanese occupation were not the result of the colonial rulers understanding the needs of the colonized. Rather, the implementation of new ideas and practices in public health originated from the United Kingdom, implicitly for their own agenda. In the case of British Malaya, the infant welfare programs were initiated to ensure the constant supply of laborers to continue operating the colonial estates and mines, just as in Britain the same program was set up to ensure the reproduction of the working class to fulfil strategic and military needs and of course the manufacturing industries that were fed by the empire's raw material from the colonies (Manderson, 2002).

On 8 December 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Imperial Japan invaded British Malaya. Many locals believed that the Japanese, who ended
British rule in Peninsular Malay, would liberate and grant them independence since the Japanese proclaimed the motto 'Asian for Asian'. Unfortunately, the welfare of the locals was not taken seriously into account except those who were beneficial to Imperial Japanese military expansion in Asia. Life under Japanese military administration proved to be harsh and the basic needs of the population were hardly fulfilled (Kratoska, 1997).

After World War II, when the British returned to Malaya and resumed control under the British Military Administration (BMA), the country was in chaos: high unemployment, malnutrition, child hawkers, war victims, comfort women, and a smallpox epidemic were among the problems plaguing the Malayan population, particularly in urban areas. The BMA set up a relief department to take care of existing problems, but its offices rapidly became a dole office. Remedial work was also hindered by the lack of resources and thus, the BMA was unable to develop more efficient and innovative methods of training. Training programs were provided for the local women by ex–Red Cross members and missionaries exposing them to Western education and ways of doing things, which proved effective regarding the issues of local women, prostitution, and child welfare (Harper, 2001). On 10 June 1946, the Malayan Governor of Malaya appointed J.A. Harvey to head the first Welfare Department with the help of Captain Mohamed Salleh (the first local to be appointed). The department's roles were specifically to overcome famine and poverty and aid war victims. The majority of welfare staff were trained at the London School of Economics with basic skills in youth, industrial, and rural welfare (Shaffie, 2003).

When the BMA shifted to civil administration, many of the welfare organizations were headed by women. The Welfare Council of Malaya, an organization to foster voluntary activities, was under the patronage of Lady Mountbatten; the Malayan Women's Service League was under the patronage of Lady Gent – their members were mainly Malays who sponsored nutrition schemes and voluntary work. Women of other races also played significant roles in the associations that fostered the welfare of women in Malaya. For example, the Ipoh Women's Association and Penang's New Democratic Youth League persuaded Chinese housewives to stop buying goods from the black market and looked after the welfare of prostitutes (Harper, 2001).

Malay women were also active in their associations and demanded equal rights for Muslim Malay women in education. In Johor, the wife of Dato' Onn Jaafar and Datin Halimah Hussein insisted on the improvement of health care for Malays in the kampongs or villages. Women's self-help groups from the rural kampongs of Province Wellesley, Perak, and Selangor came together to form the Women's Department of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to demand welfare for Malay women (Harper, 2001).

The FMS and the non-federated Malay States, together with the Strait Settlements of Penang and Malacca, were united under the Federation of Malaya on 31 January 1948 (Rudner, 1976). During the early years of the Federation of Malaya, many charitable and voluntary work associations were formed to
address the needs of the marginalized groups. Among the first was the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB), established in 1951 in order to look after the welfare of the blind in the country. The founder, Major D.R. Bridges managed to set up the Job Placement Service in Kuala Lumpur in 1956 and transferred the Braille Publishing Unit and Braille Equipment Sales from the Ministry of Education to the MAB in 1959 (MAB, 2010).

Based on historical facts, welfare work in Peninsular Malaya (now known as Malaysia) had already begun in the late nineteenth century. Even though most of the programs were implemented to drive the British industries and economy, they nevertheless benefited the Malayan locals. Those programs, albeit serving the colonizers' agenda, had laid the foundation of modern Malaysian welfare programs.

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