International Social Work – the rising star of the East

Penang%20conference‘International social work’ – this phrase to those who are interested in the profession and its developments, will either dilate eyes with lit up interest or will be scanned and dismissed as irrelevant to parochial concerns. In our experience it’s simply not a neutral subject, nor an uncontested one but is in fact replete with rich histories, cultural clashes as well as alliances; where grassroots initiatives and discourses engage a guerrilla warfare with dominant hegemonies; where neo-liberal colonialism competes for terrain and influence in poorer nations, wealthy in potential.

These were some of the topics that were discussed both formally and informally at the 2nd International Social Work Conference 2015 held last week in Penang, Malaysia in collaboration with the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and prestigious Institut Sosial Malaysia. The organising committee was led by under the organisational leadership of our good colleague, Associate Professor Dr Azlinda Azman, Chair of the Social Work Programme at USM.

In our formal affiliation as visiting professors and editorial board members at each institution respectively, we (Profs Sara Ashencaen Crabtree and Jonathan Parker) were extremely honoured to be invited to be plenary speakers at this excellent conference with the keynote delivered by Professor Dr Vimla Nadkarni, President of the International Association of Schools of Social Work. This was a star-studded event with an opening speech by Dato’ (Dame) Sri Rohani Abdul Karim, the Minister of the Ministry of Women, Family & Community Development in Malaysia. We were also able to catch up with the President of the Malaysian Association of Social Workers, Teoh Ai Hua, by now an old friend and colleague. We also met Dr Al-Azmi Bakar, Director of the Institut Sosial Malaysia. Sara even managed to catch up with her delightful, former student, Chan Soak Fong, now an elegant, professional woman and prominent social work wheel!

It was also an opportunity to reflect upon the shifting positions of power where Western social work is declining in global influence and the new star of social work rises in the East. Civilisations fade – and in the West we have had our day in the sun, which appropriately enough is setting in this direction. The social work models we developed and imported from Britain (along with those from the USA) during our heyday, have an honoured place in the new world order, but it is quite clear that vigorous pan-Asian paradigms are decentring Western models by taking centre stage in international social work. This trend unfortunately is particularly accelerated by an inward looking stance where the energies of social work in England and Wales seems heavily occupied in negotiating the radical shifts to the profession, which many would argue are jeopardising both its independence, its diverse remit as well as threatening to dilute its intellectual rigour. In the meantime schools of social work in the USA and Australia are jostling aggressively for influence in the Asian world in a neo-colonial push for power bartering their richer resources for a place at the Asian social work table.

It was therefore exciting and important to debate with Professor Nadkarni and other colleagues, these global trends, the opportunities and the threats. We discussed the rise of expertise in Asia, particularly but not specifically located in India, and where in countries like Malaysia social work is being rightly recognised as having great power and influence globally. Accordingly, Asian governments are beginning to recognise its huge potential to help transform national landscapes and therefore to bring international prestige to nations. This seemed symbolised by the media attention the conference commanded, where both the conference and its speakers appeared in all the major newspapers and on national television twice in two days. Sadly social work commands little public or political interest in the historical land of its birth, Britain especially in England, except to focus on deficits, failures and gleeful witch-hunts of hapless social workers caught in the crossfire.

We, in England, can learn much from the Asian experience, however, and the importance of accepting the wisdom of others whilst reigniting the grassroots activism from which much social work was original forged. It changes our position and perspective but perhaps in late modern society this is good for us, challenging us to think differently. For ourselves, our social research in Malaysia, and Southeast Asia as a whole, has opened up exciting vistas for us which we will explore and immerse ourselves in as we move forward into this new age and contest for authentic, impassioned social work, welfare and grassroots action

Sara Ashencaen Crabtree & Jonathan Parker