Ann Elizabeth Wee
Pioneer in social work education in Singapore
Often described as the founding mother of social work in Singapore, Ann Elizabeth Wee arrived here in 1950, aged 23, to be reunited with her fiancé, lawyer H L Wee. They had met in 1944 at Cambridge University where he was reading law. She was there for a year when her university, the London School of Economics where she was studying economics, was evacuated because of the wartime bombings.
After four years as a teacher at Methodist Girls’ School, Ann became in 1955 a training officer at the Social Welfare Department. She was in charge of counselling and advice, and she had to visit low-income families in their homes. Many assumed she was a ‘Missie’, that is, a nurse from the much-trusted Maternal and Health Service.
Ann mastered Cantonese so as to be better able to reach out to the women in the squatter areas. Her clients had mostly been abandoned or abused by their husbands. Until the Women’s Charter became law in 1961, women had few rights. Marriages were mostly customary, bigamy was commonplace, and there was no such thing as a divorce decreed by a law court. She did all she could to assist them, even occasionally roping in her husband to help a woman secure maintenance.
Ann’s contributions to social work extended to her shaping the education system for social work undergraduates. At the then-University of Malaya, the Department of Social Studies was established in 1956 and Ann joined it in 1957. Until 1966, only a two-year Diploma programme was offered.
When she became Head of Department in 1967, Ann focused on establishing an Honours degree course. She faced considerable resistance from the University heads. She knew that without Honours, social workers would earn substantially less than other Honours graduates, and worse, they would have no access to policy-making despite their valuable on-the-ground knowledge. The four-year honours course was only introduced in 1985.
Ann stepped down as department head in 1986 when she turned 60. Today, she remains at the National University of Singapore as an Associate Professorial Fellow. In 2004 she co-authored Social Work in the Singapore Context. A second edition was published in 2011.
For 40 years, until 2009, Ann sat on the Panel of Advisors to the Juvenile Court. She was conferred the Public Service Star in 1972, the Public Service Star (Bar) in 2004, and the Meritorious Service Medal in 2010. Ann has two daughters and four grandchildren.
"There are times when you realize that someone’s life course and range of self-actualizing have been improved because you were around. There is something systems-holistic that is unique in what social work has to offer."