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Social Work Practice with Malay-Muslim Families in Singapore

A significant part of my social work career is spent working with Malay-Muslim families in Singapore. As a member of the Malay-Muslim community, it has given me the cultural-religious advantage when engaging these families in every type of social work intervention: casework, group work, community work, and planning social intervention programmes.

I have observed that having a shared worldview has allowed me to remain cognizant of the cultural (Malay) and religious (Islam) beliefs and values that influence decision-making and behaviour.

Hence, when applying western-based humanistic theories of/for practice, I made it a conscious effort to incorporate my understanding of the Malay-Muslim worldview in my helping relationship to enable me to understand and appreciate the nuances that influence the client's behaviour.

While humanistic theories provide relevant concepts in understanding human behaviour and development, their temporal nature does not take into account the spiritual relationship that individuals of faith have with the transcendent. Social workers who are uncomfortable broaching this variable in their clients' lives forego discussing a possibly significant source of strength when coping with adversities, as well as guidance during the decision-making process.

Cultural-Sensitive Practice

Having insider information about the dos and don’ts when engaging families in my cultural group, I have found that cultural-sensitive practice is even more pertinent for social workers of other ethnicities working with Malay-Muslim families. It is especially important for social workers who come from the dominant cultural group because inherent in their helping relationship is the existence of the client’s minority worldview which social workers cannot disregard as insignificant to their social work practice.

Cultural-sensitive practice implies that the social worker is not only aware of differences, but is respectful and accepting of the difference – adjusting the work to take these differences into account, considering the meanings from the cultural and individual perspectives, rather than from an outsider’s perspective (Barsky, 2018).

Cultural Competence when Working with Malay-Muslim Families

Cultural competence refers to the ability to practice social work “in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, communities, and protects and preserves the dignity of each” (National Association of Social Workers (NASW), 2015).

There is an expectation that social workers have a foundational knowledge of the client's culture and are able to demonstrate competence in the provision of services that are sensitive to clients’ cultures and to differences among people and cultural groups.

For example, for the Malay-Muslim families (and community), where Islam plays a major part in their lives, almost every decision takes into consideration the implication on familial-social relationships as well as its impact on life in the hereafter.

The Malay-Muslim individuals, whether religiously practicing or non-practicing, acknowledge the relationship they have with God – strong, tenuous, or non-existent. Ultimately, a decision to change, and for change to happen, must first come with an ‘inner peace' that they have sought divine guidance for the best possible decision. Herein lies the importance of patience (sabr), contemplation (muhasabah), seeking counsel (istikharah), and trust in God’s Divine plan (tawakkal).

The social worker may be looked upon as God's help to overcome problems. They are expected to practice humility and forbearance while the client struggles through the decision-making process.

There are other cultural-religious aspects that underline cultural-competent practice with Malay-Muslim families- for example, understanding how the individual views problems, help-seeking, dealing with grief and loss, managing change, going through life transitions, and many more. Especially for the Malay-Muslim individuals, all these elements carry a religious significance that social workers might need to explore in order to better understand their actions or reluctance to act within the worker's logical expectations.

Awareness and Appreciation

While we may never be able to achieve true competency in other cultures, the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious context of Singapore underline the impetus for social workers to at least have some awareness and appreciation of how cultures impact worldviews and belief systems that, in turn, impacts on decision-making and the helping relationship.


​Barsky, A (2018). Ethics alive! Cultural competence, awareness, sensitivity, humility, and responsiveness: what's the difference? The New Social Worker.

National Association of Social Workers (2015). Standards and indicators for cultural competence in social work practice. NASW.


Bromohd conducts training for social workers to discover the cultural nuances of working with Malay-Muslim families in Singapore. The two-day training programme introduces participants to the Malay-Muslim Community in Singapore, their unique worldview that is influenced by the Malay culture and Islamic beliefs, and suggests working guidelines to engage the Malay-Muslim families in social work practice.

Bromohd helps participants hone their case conceptualisation skills to incorporate their new-found knowledge on the typologies of the Malay client, the Muslim theory of change, and the Malay-Muslim Wheel of Power and Control (adapted from the model developed by Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, Duluth, MN.)

Contact Bromohd if you would like to know more about this training programme for your organisation.

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