Thung Syn Neo
Pioneering social worker and key mover behind the Family Service Centre initiative
A pioneer of the social work profession in Singapore, Thung Syn Neo had a hand in the formulation of some of the social service institutions and schemes that are today well established. Her key contribution was the concept of the Family Service Centre, a focal point and social service provider for families in need.
Syn Neo had a rich and varied portfolio in her social worker career - from working with the terminally ill as a medical social worker and lecturing at National University of Singapore for seven years, to setting up the Training and Research Section with funding from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) at the then Social Welfare Department.
Syn Neo joined the Government Medical Service as a medical social worker after graduating from the University of Singapore in 1955. In 1965 she became a lecturer at the Department of Social Work at the university and in 1966 was a Visiting Rowntree Fellow at the London School of Economic’s Department of Social Science and Administration. In 1975 she joined the Department of Social Welfare as assistant director for training and research, and later she was Director of the Development Division at the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The highlight of her career was chairing the planning committee, and leading a team of dedicated social welfare officers into conceptualising, initiating, and developing a one-stop, community-based centre with a comprehensive range of services to serve the needs of families. The centre was to provide intervention, preventive and developmental services, and was partially funded by the UNICEF.
In 1976, the MacPherson Family Service Centre (FSC) Pilot Project was launched in a three-room HDB flat in MacPherson. The concept proved a good one as it brought social work into the heart of the community. Today there are some 40 FSCs run by voluntary welfare organisations with the support of various government agencies.
Leaving the Social Affairs Ministry in 1981, Syn Neo joined the Housing and Development Board as its first social worker. She set up the Training and Social Administration Unit in the Estates and Lands Division.
In the course of their work, her team came to know about poor families, with needy elderly or young children, who faced electricity and water supply cuts because they were in arrears with their rent. This situation was highlighted to a committee that was studying poverty, and this led to the Rent & Utilities Assistance Scheme (RUAS) being rolled out to address the problem. It is now now part of the Self Reliance Programme run by Community Development Councils.
"We forget that the good of the individual must be balanced with the good of the group and society."
"You get burnt out too easily during tough times when you don’t see any positive results. One must also be hard-headed, instead of just going by the heart alone. Only then can problems be solved."