Pioneering social worker and advocate of children’s rights
Janet Yee Keng Luan is a pioneer social worker who championed the right of abandoned babies to Singapore citizenship. Born in 1934 to a clerk and housewife, Janet was the eldest girl of five children. She grew up in an extended family where childhood games were played with cousins and other relatives. At Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School, she was active in sports and was head prefect. In 1955 she joined the Social Welfare Department as an assistant youth officer.
In the 1960s when abandoned babies were a common occurrence, she worked to ensure that abandoned infants of unknown parentage were recognised as citizens by birth. This removed the obstacle welfare officers faced then as they had to prove the nationality of such babies to get medical and schooling benefits for them. In trying to find a solution, Janet sought advice from a legal officer in the Attorney-General’s Chambers. She discovered that the Singapore Constitution does provide for such cases, and she then brought this to the attention of the various government agencies.
In 1983, Janet was promoted to the position of Deputy Director of Social Welfare. Two years later, she chaired the multi-disciplinary team that launched Singapore’s first Parent Education Programme. This programme comprised talks and workshops on parenting, child development and related childcare issues. In 1986, Janet became Deputy Director (Family Services Division) and was overseeing at one time the running of 11 welfare institutions, including boys’ homes and children’s homes.
Janet was also involved in women’s issues. From 1988 to 1990 she was president of both the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO) and ASEAN Confederation of Women’s Organisation (ACWO). With her many years of experience as a social worker, she brought to these roles a deep appreciation of the problems faced by women. She raised funds for a survey of the situation of married women in public housing and also for the publication of pamphlets on topics such as Women and the Law. Speaking at seminars and forums, she said men should take on an equal share of family responsibilities so that their wives would be able to realise their full potential. And she called for more women to be appointed to leadership roles.
Janet’s feminist sentiments were fuelled by the many stereotypes of and biases against women and girls in the 1950s. She herself suffered because of these biases. In 1958 her scholarship to study to be a medical social worker was withdrawn when she got married. She was indignant about this but there was no way around the policy. So she took no pay leave for two years and completed her diploma in social studies at the then University of Malaya. She had the support of her husband, with whom she raised two sons and a daughter.
Janet was active in the Singapore Association of Social Workers (SASW) and was its president in 1992. In 2007, at the first Social Workers’ Day to celebrate 58 years of professional social workers, Janet was honored as one of the pioneer social workers in Singapore.
“I like to work with people. I wanted to fight for those who are bullied, who are weak and vulnerable.”
“A social worker’s job is indeed very demanding, but it can be rewarding too. To be effective, you must be the type who welcomes and is willing to confront challenges.”