Author: Yeo, Lay See
Date published: April 1, 2012
The Republic of Singapore, also known as the Lion City, is a small island nation in South-East Asia. A youthful sovereign nation, it is today a developed city-state that has made its mark on the international scene in its political, economic, and educational advancements. Although Singapore is known to have a very successful education system with strong commitment to fostering me holistic development of its citizens, the practice of counseling has a relatively short history of less than 50 years. Not much has been written about counseling in Singapore, although there is some documentation on the development of counseling services in the country (Sim, 1999; Tan, 2002a, 2002b) and commentary on the training of school counselors (Rivera, Nash, Sew, & Ibrahim, 2008) and on issues of professional licensure (Chong & Ow, 2003). In this article, we seek to furnish a brief historical review of the development of counseling services in Singapore so that the nature of counseling can be understood in Singapore's unique social and cultural context. Given me government's concerted effort in the past 6 years to equip schools with allied educators to better support children within the educational system, we also focus some attention on school counseling. Finally, we update the status of counseling in Singapore and discuss challenges and future directions.
*General History of Singapore and the Development of Counseling Services
Brief History of Singapore
Located at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula in SouthEast Asia, Singapore is a multiracial nation of 5 million inhabitants where approximately 74. 1% of the population is Chinese, 13.4% is Malay, 9.2% is Indian, and 3.3% is other (Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade & Industry, Republic of Singapore, 2010). English is the official language, and among employed persons, approximately 1 in 3 is a foreigner, many coming from China, India, and other Asian countries.
Singapore was a British colony from 1819 to 1963 and then merged with Malaya for 2 years before achieving national independence in 1965. Since then, the nation has been lauded throughout the world for its remarkable and rapid transition from third-world status to developed nation in just 3 decades (Chang, 2003; Richardson, 1995). This transformation is largely credited to the foresight, daring, and will of its leadership as well as to the tremendous work ethic of its people. It has long been die busiest port in the world (Lee & Ducruet, 2009) and remains one of the world's most densely populated countries. The government invests heavily in technology and education and, in recent years, has been positioning Singapore as a regional hub for finance, education, and technology. More than 600 multinational companies make Singapore their Asia Pacific headquarters. In 2010, Singapore led the world in economic growth with a stunning expansion of 14.7% (Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade & Industry, Republic of Singapore, 2010), with the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita greater than that of some European nations. For example, Singapore's nominal GDP per capita for the year 2010 is $43,1 17 compared with $40,631 for Germany and $36,120 for die United Kingdom (International Monetary Fund 201 1). Given its small population and an aging workforce, Singapore has instituted liberal immigration policies to ensure a steady flow of talent needed to maintain a high standard of living.
The government of Singapore is a parliamentary republic based on the British model, with a cabinet comprising a prime minister and ministers who direct government. There is a president who has a ceremonial role and is required to adhere to cabinet decisions. The cabinet is formed by the political party that gains a simple majority in each election. The People's Action Party has won every election since independence.
In the first 20 years of nation building, Singapore focused on developing a national identity, forging social cohesion, and building technical skills that would attract foreign investment (Tan, 2002a). The dominant educational value during this period was literacy. Quality education was rapidly developed as a means to increase and equip the workforce. To ensure national survival, the government enacted policies that were pragmatic, with an emphasis on maintaining social stability. For example, it was during this time tUat policies regarding racial integration in housing were put in place and English was established as the national language. From the late 1980s through the 1990s, the dominant value became efficiency as tbe country grew in affluence. This period also marked a significant and broad shift Ui education from specific skill development to concerns for the social and emotional wellbeing of the individual (Rivera et al., 2008; Tan, 2002a).
History of the Development of Counseling in Singapore
The development of counseling in Singapore has its roots in the 1960s. Like many other developing nations, Singapore borrowed heavily from developed countries as it built national capacities. The development of counseling was no exception. Its introduction began in 1964 when a group of doctors, pastors, and missionaries formed the Churches Counseling Service, with the aim of providing help to people who were emotionally distressed (Tan, 2002b). The center director was an American Methodist pastor, the Reverend Gunner Teilmann, serving at the Wesley Methodist Church in Singapore. To prepare him for his role as the center director, Teilmann traveled back to the United States to study counseling at die American Foundation for Religion and Psychiatry in New York. The public's reception to tbe first ever counseling center steadily grew from 56 persons in the 1 st year to 220 persons in the 3rd year of operation. In 1975, this counseling center became secular and was renamed the Counseling and Care Center (CCC). It is noteworthy that CCC continues to provide counseling services today for all people, regardless of race or religion. Since the establishment of CCC, Singapore has developed a growing number of organizations (i.e., social welfare agencies, religious institutions, tUe military, scUools, and other government institutions) that provide counseling services to the masses. Examples include Samaritans of Singapore, Singapore Association for Mental Health, Care Corner Counseling Center, Singapore Anglican Welfare Council, Singapore Armed Forces (Counseling Center), Ministry of Education (MOE; Guidance Branch), and Family Service Centers. A large number of social service agencies also provide counseling services. Additionally, most public and private hospitals provide inpatient counseling services.
Just as the types of centers offering counseling services have developed and expanded over the decades, so too have the definition and identity of counseling evolved. In the early years of nation building, churches, corporate sponsors, community groups, and social agencies constituted the willing nands that came together to render counseling support for the masses. At that time, counselor was a term loosely applied to individuals (social workers, welfare volunteers, and pastoral counselors) wUo assumed various helping roles. Because counseling referred to a wide range of helping behaviors, establishing a strong professional identity was difficult (Shek, 1999). The perception of counseling is changing rapidly with professional training of counselors and with it a more informed understanding of the nature of counseling. The late Andiony Yeo, a pioneer of professional counseling Ui Singapore, defined counseling as a collaborative process in which the counselor or psychologist facilitates the expansion of people's view of life; enlarges their repertoUe of coping resources; and enables them to make choices for change in themselves, the situation, and the environment without destructive consequences to self or otiiers (Yeo, 1 993). MOE has adopted this definition of counseling for its social and emotional learning program in Singapore schools (MOE, n.d.).
The development of school counseling, like the development of counseling services for the community at large, began in the 1960s. School counseling has been led by MOE and the National Institute of Education (NIE). Initially, student welfare in the schools focused on providing financial supports for needy students from lower income families. Students who experienced social and emotional problems did not receive counseling within the school setting but were referred to external social welfare agencies. With leadership from MOE and NIE, student welfare efforts developed to include counseling services. For example, in 1973, MOE established the Social Work Unit, a team of counselors who handled the cases referred to them by classroom teachers. In addition, at the community level, the Singapore Anglican Welfare Council set up a School Counseling Service in 1968 to provide professional help to students from the Anglican schools and eventually expanded die service to students in other Singapore schools. In the 1970s, the demand for counseling within the school setting increased and led to the secularization of the School Counseling Service, which was then renamed Students Care Service. Thus, the provision of counseling services was extended to all students from all schools, irrespective of race or religion. In 1974, the Institute of Education (now known as NIE) established the Guidance Unit to promote the need for guidance and counseling and to provide counselor education to school teachers.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned attempts, although commendable, were unable to make a significant impact within die school setting (Tan, 2002b). The lack of an impact was further compounded by the disbanding of the Guidance Unit in 1977. However, the tide changed in 1 986, a watershed year in die development of counseling and career guidance in tUe Singapore school system. A report titled "Toward Excellence in Schools" highlighted the need for counseling and career guidance, which was lacking in Singapore schools despite strong preparation of students for academic excellence (Tan, 2002a). In 1987, MOE establisUed the Pastoral Care and Career Guidance (PCCG) Branch to plan and implement guidance programs Ui schools. The establishment of the PCCG Branch (renamed Guidance Branch Ui 2006) was a milestone in the development of school counseling, because it paved die way for the systematic implementation of school counseling services, with youth guidance becoming a regular feature of Singapore education by the mid-1990s.
With the development of school counseling, career counseling in schools also began to gain recognition and importance. Between 1989 and 1993, a research team at NIE developed a computer-assisted career guidance software - die Job Orientation Backup System (J.O.B.S.) - for secondary school students (Tan, 1995). J.O.B.S. was so well received it was upgraded to a web-based interactive system called Orientation System for Careers (OSCAR) with a website launched in 2004. The objective of OSCAR, like its predecessor, was to support the work of career guidance teachers and school counselors in the areas of information giving and vocational assessment, thus freeing teachers to assist students on personal aspects of career guidance. In 2008, MOE and the Center on Education and Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison jointly developed an e-portal for education and career guidance (http://ecareers.sg; MOE, 2009), which was officially launched in February 2009. OSCAR closed in October 2009 after transferring its database of some 300 occupations to the e-portal. The user-friendly and comprehensive career e-portal was made available to all Singapore schools by 2010.
Coinciding with this greater awareness of the need for counseling for students was growing recognition of the need for greater psychological services to support the work of counselors. The need for psychological services within the school system became pressing with growing awareness that more help than counseling is necessary in the push for excellence in education, particularly for schoolchildren who are unable to make academic progress on account of myriad learning, developmental, behavioral, and social-emotional behaviors. School psychological services in MOE began in the late 1980s. Prior to this, access to psychological help for schoolchildren was available through the Child Guidance Clinic (CGC) staffed by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists in the health care system. CGC is a government children's clinic under the auspices of the Singapore Institute of Mental Health. Fully operating in the early 1970s, it continues today to be a major provider of multidisciplinary psychological services to school-age children until the age of 19. In the late 1980s, MOE initiated a psychological service with expertise from the United Kingdom and offered overseas postgraduate scholarships for the training of educational psychologists. By the early 1990s, the Specialized Pupil Programs Branch (now known as the Psychological Services Branch) provided psychological services (e.g., psychological assessment, educational remediation, and counseling) to Singapore primary schools with its multidisciplinary teams of educational psychologists, educational counselors, and reading specialists.
Following the release of the "Toward Excellence in Schools" report, emphasis on counseling and career guidance resulted in an increasing demand for training for teachers to serve as counselors. In response to this need NIE introduced a comprehensive, eight-course, in-service diploma program in pastoral care and career guidance in 1988 to train teachers to serve as career counselors. To improve the rigor of counselor and career guidance training, NIE replaced this diploma with an advanced diploma in guidance and counseling in 2001 (Tan, 2002a). Later, in 1 997, NIE launched the Master of Arts in Applied Psychology (MAAP) program that, for the first time, combined psychology and counseling in the training of professional counselors. In 2005, NIE developed an intensive, 6-month Diploma in School Counseling (DSC) program in response to the government's impetus to equip every school with a counselor by 2008. The DSC program comprises five courses in the theories and practice of counseling and a 15week practicum in the schools. As of 2010, approximately 280 counselors have been trained and deployed to schools.
Recent efforts have focused on developing specialized training to further equip professional counselors in the schools and community and build a culture of clinical supervision. For example, in August 2008, NIE launched the Master of Arts in Counseling and Guidance (MACG) program to provide specialist training in counseling for teachers and community counselors. In the early 1 990s, postgraduate programs in educational or school psychology were not available in Singapore, so educational psychologists typically received training in the United Kingdom or the United States. The aforementioned MAAP program, currently in its 14th year, is the first local master's degree program to provide specialist training for educational psychologists and counseling psychologists.
Since the late 1980s to the present, Singapore practitioners in the field of counseling and psychology have been working closely together to provide community and school mental health services, albeit each playing distinctive and separate roles. Counselors and psychologists work in a variety of settings: communities, hospitals, schools, government ministries, and private organizations. The bulk of the psychologist's work is assessment-related and directed at evaluation of clients' issues, whereas the counselor's work is supportive and directed at enhancing clients' coping and self-management. Given the acute shortage of educational psychologists in Singapore, they typically provide intervention support for children by working closely with allied educators in school.
Like the United Kingdom, Australia, and Hong Kong, Singapore advocates a whole-school approach to address the social and emotional needs of students (Yuen, 2008). In all schools, a tiered system is used to more effectively address students' needs. Teachers provide students with the first line of support, followed by the teacher counselors, allied educators, and guidance specialists and/or educational psychologists, depending on the complexity and severity of the referral complaints. This comprehensive system of counseling service delivery is evidence that counseling is currently recognized as an important element Ui students' academic, personal, and social development.
Research on Counseling in Singapore
Following the introduction of formal counselor training programs in the 1990s, a research culture soon emerged as the need to understand counseling in the local context became apparent to counselor educators, practitioners, and students. Tan (2009) alluded to three categories of local research: exploratory, validation, and evaluation studies. Exploratory studies examined help-seeking attitudes (e.g., Ang & Yeo, 2004). Validation studies investigated the validity of established theories on career development and career interest in relation to the Singapore population (e.g., Tan, 1990). Evaluation studies examined existing counseling practices Ui terms of client and counselor preferences (e.g., Soong, 1997). The research culture is growing stronger as more counselors undertake research as part of postgraduate professional training to further advance their counseling knowledge and expertise. However, a great need for researcU that validates culturally relevant, evidence-based practices remains.
Professional Issues: Licensure, Counselor Identity, and Ethics
There is currently no requirement for certification or licensure to practice as a counselor or a psychologist in Singapore, although a professional counselor identity is emerging. Counselors who have received formal training in counseling in a recognized institute of higher learning and who have completed prerequisite practicum hours are eligible to become registered counselors with the Singapore Association for Counselling (SAC). SAC serves as the professional body to which counselors in Singapore can be professionally identified. Set up in 1983, it currently has 137 registered counselors, 32 ordinary members, and 1 53 associate members. Only registered members may call themselves SAC registered counselors. Membership is renewed once every 2 years upon completion of 50 hours of continuing professional education and 400 clinical hours. SACs specific professional aims are to promote the professional practice of counseling, to enhance public awareness of the profession of counseling, to advance counseling as a mental health discipline in Singapore, to foster cooperation among counseling professionals, and to advance research on counseling theories and practice (Blakely, 2010). SAC also recognizes training programs that qualify its graduates for registration. Currently, there are 13 programs recognized by SAC. It also recognizes clinical supervisors qualified to provide supervision hours for registration. SACs code of ethics was adapted from ethical codes of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the Association of Psychological and Educational Counselors of Asia, the American Psychological Association, and the American Counseling Association. Registered counselors and all SAC members are expected to abide by the code of ethics, which upholds standards for professional conduct among counseling professionals. Thus, counseling in Singapore is emerging as a recognized profession with its own set of ethical principles to guide delivery of services.
Nonetheless, membership in SAC is voluntary, and counselors who are nonmembers may not be aware of the code of ethics nor are they bound by it. Although professional organizations, such as SAC and the Singapore Psychological Society (SPS), promote and support global standards for counseling and psychology, they have no authority to enforce standards. Thus, the current limitation in regulating the practice of counseling in Singapore hinges on the absence of a governmental body that has the legal mandate to enforce these etiiical standards and to impose accountability to an ethical code (Chong & Ow, 2003). However, this may change in the near future with the government's recent move to begin regulating allied health professionals.
Chong and Ow (2003) noted that, apart from the lack of a legal mandate to regulate the practice of counseling in Singapore, etiiics was not taugUt as a separate course Ui undergraduate university courses in social work and psychology. However, in recent years, the importance of a strong code of ethical principles undergUding mental health practices among counselors and psychologists has gained strong emphasis in local postgraduate counseling and psychology training programs. Two postgraduate programs offered by NIE, Nanyang Technological University - the MACG program and the MAAP program - include training in professional ethics.
The MACG program has made ethical, legal, and professional issues in counseling a core course requirement and a prerequisite for the counseling practicum. The MAAP program has infused the discussion of ethics across all program courses, including time set aside during practicum group supervision sessions to discuss ethical dilemmas that arose from students' recent practicum experiences. The latter helps to integrate the code of ethics into daily practices, increases awareness of the applicability of existing ethical codes, and facilitates their active implementation. Hence, even though there are still no licensure or certification laws, counselors and psychologists are better informed of their ethical and moral obligations and equipped to uphold standards of professionalism as trainees and eventually as beginning practitioners.
*Challenges and Future Directions
Like otiier countries where counseling and psychology are emerging disciplines, Singapore faces several challenges in the development of a world-class mental health system. Because there is no mandatory regulation of counseling or psychological services m Singapore, anyone can call himself or herself a counselor or psychologist and provide helping services. There are no governmental requirements holding counselors and psychologists accountable to any standard of training or service. Such requirements are held only by professional organizations such as SAC and SPS. Hence, a wide range of "counseling" services is offered by persons with vastly different credentials. There is strong indication, however, that this will change in the next 5 to 10 years as the government begins to systematically regulate allied Uealth professionals, and this will eventually include psychologists and perhaps counselors. On January 10, 201 1, the Singapore Parliament passed the Allied Health Professions Bill to provide for registration of prescribed allied health professionals (i.e., physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists). This bill is expected to pass into law by 2012. Currently, professional organizations are working together to provide input regarding this upcoming legislation.
Additionally, there remains an insufficient supply of adequately trained counselors and psychologists. Although the number of school counselors is increasing and all schools have one, the ratio of counselors to students is approximately 1 to 2,000. A conservative estimate of the ratio of educational psychologists to primary school students is approximately 1 to 20,000. This shortage is compounded by inadequacies in clinical supervision, a concern shared by professional counselors in Singapore. Increasing numbers of individuals are entering the field with basic training, but there is limited opportunity for high-quality clinical supervision. Newly trained counselors and psychologists are often hired and expected to dive into a broad clinical practice with limited supervision. Part of the problem is a severe shortage of experienced counselors and psychologists with formal training in supervision. However, this is changing as the counseling profession quickly grows. There is a critical core of professionals who recognize and are committed to the development of supervision practices that meet global standards for quality mental health care. CCC offers a 9-month, part-time diploma program in clinical supervision. Several professional groups and mental health agencies regularly provide quality workshops to build capacity and equip counselors with the skills needed to provide evidence-based services. For example, Shan You Counseling Center, a nonprofit organization funded by the National Council of Social Service, has been conducting workshops in motivational interviewing for the past 5 years. Since 2010, the Psychological Studies Academic Group at NIE has begun offering an annual weeklong series of skills-based workshops to counseling professionals in the community with the objective of honing clinical knowledge and skills.
Counseling in Singapore has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1964. TUe state of counseling in Singapore is still emerging, but it is steadily developing a stronger identity as a profession in its own right. The increase in counseling-related research in Singapore in the past decade (Tan, 2009) is evidence of the rapid rate at which relevant counseling practices are developing in Singapore and assuming its own cultural identity. Increasingly, professionals are questioning the relevance of theoretical frameworks and practical interventions developed for other contexts and are conducting research to identify and validate culturally relevant, evidence-based practices. In the next decade, counseling professionals can expect to see governmental regulation of counseling and psychological practice and greater accountability to global standards of care. The search continues for creative solutions to the ongoing challenge of how to meet growing demands for services while simultaneously building capacities.
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Lay See Yeo, Soo Yin Tan, and Maureen F. Neihart, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lay See Yeo, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, 1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616, Singapore (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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