GE2015 Rewind: How the terms “social worker” and “hearts and minds” became entangled in GE2015

* The highlighted quotes -are the content taken from each article I’m talking about


On August 18 2015, I posted up a written piece relating my personal thoughts and feelings towards the upcoming elections – Opinion Essay: Perspective of a Social Work Student on Politics and Voting, where I mentioned about the importance of voting in a politician who understands not only the laws and policies, but also the essential needs of the people so that they will have a better idea of prevalent social issues, and for them to be able to effectively make amendments to laws and policies. The next day, it was published in TOC as a commentary opinion post:

Politics and social work are actually very much interlinked when I start to think about it. Political leaders have the power to change and improve on laws and policies which will impact the lives of citizens. A social worker similarly, empower people by enabling positive changes into their lives. Both aims to advocate and improve the lives of Singaporeans. The only difference is that one is done on a national level while the other on a community level.

I’m not pro-PAP. Neither am I pro-Opposition. I’m pro whoever who has the best interest for Singaporeans. A politician not only with a mind, but also with a heart. One that not only has a top-down approach, but also a bottom-up perspective. It is not just about grasping the concrete policies and system. It is also about understanding the relevant needs and issues faced by the common people.

Only when a politician knows what is going on on-the-ground, can they then create or enhance policies that will better solve the problems of the people. Social work and politics do actually come hand in hand. Both play a part in making changes to improve the lives of Singaporeans. Hopefully, there will be more politicians with a social work perspective or background in the near future..

Rewind back in time:

When I mentioned I hope politicians can have a social work perspective or background – it was not meant to be taken literally. It embodied more than that. What I actually meant was wanting candidates to come from more diverse or social-related backgrounds and occupations that will enable them to better relate back to, and understand the prevalent on-the-ground issues faced by the people.

Why? I observed that though most of the PAP candidates do actually engage meaningfully in various forms of community work for many years. However, it might not be adequate as some may be from elite schools, or higher-up backgrounds, and many were once in fields unrelated, or with little opportunities and capacity to understand the relationship between the micro-level programmes and marco-level policies, and the importance of syncing both to most effectively tackle issues faced by the needy communities.

The analogy of a social worker was brought in as their job domain provided the best example of such – being equipped with both tactic and explicit knowledge, having developed on-the-ground experience, with practical and honed skills on how best to carry out such social programmes and assistance schemes.

Thus, if politicians had experiences with related job scopes, they can then have a comprehensive bottom-up perspective to know how to better address effective changes in existing policies or laws that can positively impact the micro-level social schemes and programmes.1

On 20 August 2015, the People’s Action Party’s unveiled their candidates for Jurong GRC and Bukit Batok SMC. Minister Tharman took the front seat in the article – The mundane, unexciting work of politicians is what really matters: DPM Tharman, where he emphasised on the progressive on-the-ground work they have consistently been involved in; and their genuine attitude in serving the people, as well as the collaborative effort by different systems for society to function:

“Our programme of house visits – there’s nothing like it, nothing to substitute for it. It’s not fancy, it doesn’t have a name, we just do it,” 

“Our style in Jurong is to be on the ground all the time and to serve with our hearts. For the last few terms … we’ve been listening to residents and helping them, serving when no one is looking. We do it through active and effective Meet-The-People sessions, extensive home visits, meeting residents in their homes, finding out about their problems and following up. Not just listening, but really following up on every case we come across, small and large.”

..talked at length about the community initiatives the Jurong GRC team had put in place to help those in need. For example, he cited a programme that gives former inmates working opportunities, as well as a network of doctors, nurses and other allied health professionals who visit the homes of elderly residents. “We are not soundbite people. Everything we have been saying is about specifics,” he said.

“From young to old, we’ve got a very strong base of people with a real passion for doing good for the community. Programmes for the elderly, to help them understand their problems, we visit often to make sure they are never lonely. Also for disadvantaged kids and people who in mid-life fall by the wayside – to help them get real second and third chances. It’s not just about the Jobs Bank, but helping them personally.

It requires a whole system: strong Government, strong leadership, volunteers on the ground. Coordination between voluntary bodies and government and the community activists on the ground.” “We don’t take any Singaporean for granted..We go into this election with our track record, with our plans, and we hope we win hearts and minds. It takes determination, strong leadership, coordination and good hearts. We are doing this not for a political purpose but for the good of Singapore, the betterment of all Singaporeans. “And the way we do it is: Quietly, without cameras, but with a heart.” 

Rewind back in time:

I’m not too sure, but I have a feeling Minister Tharman might have read the Opinion Essay: Perspective of a Social Work Student on Politics and Voting in TOC, since it was fairly well-received in terms of comments, views and shares. Just humbly assuming if he did, I think this part of the article below:

I’m pro whoever who has the best interest for Singaporeans. A politician not only with a mind, but also with a heart. One that not only has a top-down approach, but also a bottom-up perspective. It is not just about grasping the concrete policies and system. It is also about understanding the relevant needs and issues faced by the common people.

Only when a politician knows what is going on on-the-ground, can they then create or enhance policies that will better solve the problems of the people. Social work and politics do actually come hand in hand. Both play a part in making changes to improve the lives of Singaporeans. Hopefully, there will be more politicians with a social work perspective or background in the near future..

influenced what he decided to speak on – for the press conference, emphasising that they do actively engage in on-the-ground work and interact with the citizens regularly even though they do not say it out, and thus, the Jurong GRC team which consist of a collaborative effort with the essential voluntary bodies and community activists – do genuinely care for the citizens welfare and have implemented programmes to continue to meet their ever-changing needs.

The word “heart” was mentioned thrice by Minister Tharman. That was what he wanted to emphasise on – that their candidates sincerely want to serve the people, not just for the political gains.1.jpg

On the morning of 22 August 2015, this headline exploded in Straits Time Your MP is not the Chief Social Worker. He’s supposed to raise issues and make laws. The opinion editor Ms Chua Mui Hoong felt their main roles were supposed to be active and adaptive representatives in parliaments, with reflective and opinionated stands on macro-level issues and policies, instead of trying to gain votes by focusing on micro-level work (usually undertaken by social workers) already done or in future progress for the citizens, instead of looking at the bigger picture:

But listening to them, my mind started to drift at the litany of the social programmes  in Jurong GRC. I started wondering: Were they standing as Members of Parliament, or angling for posts as Chief Social Worker in Jurong GRC? In Singapore, it seems MPs have to be all things to all men – and women, and children too. We want MPs to run town councils. They have to be financially trained too, to get accounts right. We want them to step in to sort out disputes, so they must be skilled mediators and negotiators.

We want them to listen to our problems, so they have to be counsellors. We want them to help the poor and needy and the elderly and link them up with available resources, so they have to be social workers. We go to them to write letters of appeal to government agencies to waive fines or speed up/ review/ reverse a decision, so they are glorified scribes. The core of an MPs’ role is as a legislator. MPs make laws in Parliament that determine how a country is run. They decide on policies. They decide how much money to give to which ministry to get programmes done.

Your MP isn’t your social worker, although doing social work is a good way to win hearts and minds – and votes. These programmes also make a genuine, often lasting impact on people’s lives. They are wonderful. But your MP should also be your representative in Parliament, championing issues you believe in..Candidates must also articulate their positions on policies, and say what they wish to retain, adapt or see changed..What do  the future leaders of Singapore, whether from the PAP or the opposition, stand for? Or are they all for the status quo? In which case,  Singapore’s future is dim indeed.

Rewind back in time:

Just say if my initial assumption is correct that Mr Tharman’s words at the press conference might have been influenced by what he read in – Opinion Essay: Perspective of a Social Work Student on Politics and Voting (once again, it might be wrong so I’m just making a hypothesis), Ms Chua Mui Hoong seemed annoyed by Mr Tharman and the candidates main focus on what the Jurong team have done for the people, and what they will continue to do for the people.

She felt that they were just remaining status quo by sharing what the people wanted to hear on micro-level issues, when they should be voicing out their opinions and stands on larger issues e.g. polices and laws they hoped to change and tackle. Because to her, that is their main role – being a legislator and a lawmaker that can adapt to the changing times in terms of law amendments, and also articulate their positions on the loopholes and areas of growth for existing policies.


On the same day, TOC released a commentary –  Chua Mui Hoong is right – your MP is not a social worker (or Santa Claus), which expressed further agreement to the above article:

So, the next time you see a candidate who is trying to sell you some municipal estate upgrading programme, do not be afraid to ask his or her views on national policies instead, and decide your vote based on her or his response. For that is the role of an MP – to lead by having clear ideas of what he or she believes in. Otherwise, why would you vote for him or her to be in Parliament?

They could work as private town managers or social workers on hire – and save us the hassle of going through the whole electoral process, wasting taxpayers’ time and money. So, Ms Chua is right – your MP is not a social worker. He is a lawmaker – and that is his fundamental and most important role.

Rewind back in time:

Andrew Low, co-founder of TOC strongly supported her stand, and brought up the point that Singaporeans should consider if candidates have their respective stand on national policies, as a pre-requiste to – voting in them. And that candidates should not be trying to win votes through focusing on micro-level programmes or initiatives – since those are the responsibilities and roles of social workers and town managers which are already existing occupations.


On 30 August 2015, our Minister for the Ministry of Social and Family Development got intertwined into this debate of what the role of MPs are supposed to be – a social worker or lawmaker? as seen from the TNP’s interview – Tan Chuan-Jin telling it like it is:

Being an MP on the ground,.. it allows me to understand how these larger issues are translated on-the-ground.. and how it affects their lives.. You realise you can make a very big difference in people’s life both at a local level and a micro level. I’m very particular on the role on the ground. We sometimes discuss – are we electing our MP to be your Chief Social Worker rather than a parliamentarian as if this is not our job.. I sometimes find may trivalize the issue.

Yes I’m not a Chief social worker. I’ll be hesitant to call myself a social worker because it really does my social workers injustice. They are far better and able qualified. But there are things I can do, and by being involved with a family who needs help, it allows me a intimate perspective, and that instructs me in my role as Minister for Social and Family Development. The trends I see, the challenges and the nuances which will never come through with reports will allow you to have a slightly deeper insight, and these things.. reminds you that sense of purpose and why you do what you do, and that keeps you going.

Rewind back in time:

Mr Tan Chuan Jin is definitely right to say being on-the-ground is an important role. However, I wish he could have been stronger in expressing this stand because logical inference is that – though the core role of a MP is to be a legislator, understanding what is actually happening on the ground with the people is as important, since you cannot find such tactic knowledge and observations in paperworks.

It is only through observing and engaging in groundwork where you really get to be aware of the trends, loopholes, which enables you to know what direction you should take in the enhancement of policies and laws.

For example, if a politician is making revisions to human trafficking laws, he would go on-the-ground to talk to people working in fields or organisations related to human trafficking e.g. Project X, an organization that advocates for the rights of sex workers, HOME which does case work and legal advocacy for foreign workers who are abused, exploited and not paid their salaries in Singapore, EmancipAsia Ltd. which hopes to raise awareness on Human Trafficking, advocating change and empowering communities etc.

To check out more of Offbeat Perspectives posts on GE2015, click HERE.


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Top photo taken from:  ST


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