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From The Ground To Lecture Halls, This Is Dr. Ling How Kee's Story

With 4 decades of experience in in child protection, women’s empowerment, disability rights and elder care as social work practitioner, educator and researcher, 13 years as a senior welfare officer in Sarawak and 23 years as a social work educator at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), Dr. Ling How Kee has had a colourful career in social work and she shares that story with us.

We sent her some questions for her to answer and well, instead of wasting more of your time lets just get into it!

Can you share your experiences advocating for professional social work practice and legislative changes for a social work profession Act?

Let me start by sharing my experiences as a young social worker in the 80s. Returning from Australia with a Bachelor of Social Work degree and commencing my social work career in Sarawak Social Welfare Department in 1982, I have worked in various fields including family and child welfare, disabled persons, elder care, women and community development.  

The 13 years’ practice undoubtedly has provided me the width and depth of experiences which I was able to bring into the classroom when I became a social work educator in UNIMAS in 1994. However, the challenges of work were many a time compounded by the lack of understanding of what professional social work entailed, both from within and outside the agency.

Dr Ling (left). Image from: The Borneo Post

The ability to carry out one of the key roles of social worker as an enabler and the emphasis of human relationship was limited by the shortage of trained social workers. My practice experiences really underscore the importance of having a pool of professionally trained social workers to competently employ social work skills and method and adequately meet the varied needs of different client groups.

So when in 1993 the newly set up Universiti Malaysia Sarawak offered a degree in Social Sciences with a specialisation in Social Services study (Kajian Khidmat Sosial), I saw this as an opportunity for me to engage in social work training and education. I was elated when I was recruited to join UNIMAS in 1994 but I was rather disappointed later when I found that many of our graduates did not get into social worker positions; even our Government Social Welfare Department, one of the major employers of social workers, continued to take in non-social work graduates to fill the Pegawai Pembangunan Masyarakat Post.

This highlighted the need for a legislative framework to have social work recognised as a profession so that social work positions are to be filled by people who are professionally trained!

In 2002, a group of us social work educators from five public universities which offer social work degree formed the Joint Consultative Committee of Social Work education with one main objective of upgrading social work educational curriculum in Malaysia, and at the same time for it to be recognised as a professional degree. In subsequent years, through the tireless work of Elsie Lee, the then president of Malaysian Association of Social Workers, the idea of a Social Work Profession Act crystallized and with the assistance of Dr Pauline Meemeduma from Australia a framework for a Social Worker’s Bill was drafted.

I am happy to say I have been an active participant in this whole process and in 2010, I was appointed a member of the Technical Committee in Professional Social Work Standard Setting in Malaysia (Appointed by Director General, Social Welfare Department, Malaysia). In the following 8 years, countless hours have gone into the drafting of the Bill, deliberations of support mechanism for its implementation, as well as consultation workshops and road shows to inform stakeholders at all levels of society the need for professional social work.   

What’s the biggest challenge or challenges you faced in this process?

The biggest challenge is still to convince people that social work is a profession - that social workers need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills, and be guided by professional ethics in their practice.

Social workers are professionals that need to be equipped with the right set of tools. Image from: SPIN Digital

When members of the public and our political leaders hold the view that social work can be carried out by people with a good heart, that social work is acts of charity, that a professional qualified social worker does not make a difference, then the process of professionalisation is stalled. 

Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we highlight the complex issues and human problems that social workers address, and how we engage people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.

In your opinion how can the social work profession bill help social workers - current and future?

Many of us are proud to be social workers, but when the status of social workers is elevated to a professional one on par with the other helping professions such as counsellors and psychologist, it will be a boost to the morale of many younger social workers.

This will help uplift their confidence especially when working in a multi-disciplinary collaboration, and in playing their multiple roles as mediator, enabler, educator, and change agent, policy and programme development.

A Social Work Profession Act will definitely in the long run helps to enhance the capacity and competency of social workers in the country through registration and licensing, as well as education.

Could you share your contribution in advocating for indigenous social work?

First of all, let me clarify that globally, there are two parallel movement on indigenous social work in the last five decades – One is Indigenous social work (social work with the Indigenous and First Nations people in countries in the North, Australia and New Zealand) and indigenization of social work (‘making social work indigenous/local’ notably in Asian and African contexts).

What I have been advocating has been more the latter, but in our Malaysian context it is really a two-in-one approach (for lack of a better phrase) because developing local and culturally appropriate approaches also mean to have approaches relevant for the Indigenous communities.


As in the IFSW global definition of social work respect for diversities are central to social work.  The social work curriculum in UNIMAS has indigenous knowledge infused into all the courses. For example, in a course on Law and social work – the existence of Native Adat in marriage and divorce and Syariah law are taught.

I have also co-designed and have been teaching a course on Cultural diversity in the Diploma in social work, Methodist College Kuala Lumpur and another on Working with cultural diversity and minority at Methodist Pilley Institute in the last 3 years.  I am the author of the book Indigenising social work: Research and practice in Sarawak (SIRD, 2007) which has been translated into Indonesian Pribumisasi Pekerjaan Sosial (Penerbit Samudra Baru, 2014). I am also lead editor of Cross-cultural Social Work: Local and Global (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). 


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