Speech by Second Minister for Education, Dr Mohd Maliki Bin Osman, at SUSS Webinar on Creative and Ethical Use of Technology in Counselling Post-Covid-19

Published Date: 18 June 2022 06:00 PM

News Speeches

Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President, SUSS

Associate Professor Lim Lee Ching, SUSS

Associate Professor Timothy Sim, SUSS

Ladies and gentlemen

1. A very good afternoon, I hope everyone is well today. I'm very pleased to join you at this webinar organised by the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), to celebrate the 12th anniversary of its Master of Counselling (MCOU) Programme.

2. Since the SUSS MCOU started in 2010, a total of 163 students have successfully graduated from the programme — my heartiest congratulations to all the graduates and to the MCOU Programme. Half of these graduates did not have prior training in counselling or related fields. I would like to commend them for stepping up as it is not an easy field to enter. For those counsellors who chose this programme for further specialisation, I am encouraged by your deep passion for the profession and your continued perseverance in this field.

3. One of these graduates is Ms Karon Ng. Karon had more than two decades of experience in the media and communications line when she enrolled in the programme in 2019. She was looking for a career change to counselling as she sought to help individuals and wanted to do work that directly benefits the social good.

4. Being new to the field, she benefitted from the bridging modules that the programme offers. She also underwent 180 hours of supervised clinical practice which helped her hone her counselling skills. Overall, the programme has helped her development at both the personal and professional levels.

5. Graduates from the SUSS MCOU have gone on to find positions in both the public and private sectors and have established themselves as leaders in the field. I understand from the feedback that SUSS has received from students that they become more confident in integrating theories and practice using specific models such as cognitive behavioural therapy and systemic family therapy in serving their clients in specific settings such as schools and family service centres.

6. An example is Ms Nur Adilah. She works with individuals, couples and families experiencing child abuse and family violence in a specialist centre. Having a strong passion in the work that she does, she made the decision to enrol in SUSS MCOU to further develop her competencies. The programme offers couple and family therapy courses that were relevant to her work. Her repertoire of skills has expanded. She is also more confident in integrating systemic family therapy especially for more complex cases, and helps her peers grow in the job as their supervisor.

7. As SUSS takes stock at the 12th anniversary of this programme when Singapore is transiting into COVID-19 endemicity, it is apt that the theme of this webinar focuses on the creative and ethnical use of technology in counselling. During the height of the pandemic, in-person counselling was not possible. Many counselling services thus had to innovate and rely on technology to stay in touch with their clients. Even as restrictions are lifted and in-person interactions have re-started, it is important that we continue to explore various ways to use technology in counselling responsibly and safely, for the benefit of our counsellors and their clients. Let me share with you two ways we can do so.

Technology as an Enabler in Counselling

8. The pandemic has had a profound impact on counselling. First, it brought to the forefront the importance of mental health. There was a surge in awareness of the difficulties many people faced during the pandemic. An Institute of Mental Health (IMH) study in 2020 found that individuals and families experienced increased stresses during the Circuit Breaker period. Alongside this increased attention on ensuring mental wellness, it is equally important that we have sufficient professional counselling resources to cope with these mental health needs of individuals of varying ages and backgrounds.

9. Today, in Singapore, there are around 1,000 registered counsellors with the Singapore Association for Counselling as of February 2021. As this is an emerging sector of need, programmes such as SUSS MCOU provide a valuable talent pipeline to grow the requisite manpower. I hope that SUSS' MCOU can prove to not only be a valuable talent pipeline for this emerging sector, but also a strong pillar that practitioners and researchers can rely on with the rapid changes to the field that is to come.

10. At the same time, we recognise that manpower resources are finite. This leads me to my second point: that the pandemic has propelled a change in how counselling services are delivered.

  1. In the last two years, practitioners adapted to the COVID-19 restrictions and conducted their counselling services online instead of through in-person sessions to ensure the continuity of counselling support. In Nanyang Technological University (NTU), online, text and phone counselling services have been added to complement in-person counselling support.
  2. Some Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) adopted a 24/7 counselling chatbot service, which reduced barriers to help-seeking and provided various self-care exercises for students. Student feedback has been positive.
  3. With the launch of mindline.sg in 2020 by the MOH Office for Healthcare Transformation (MOHT) to address the need for a trusted platform to improve the wellbeing of people in Singapore through technology, IHLs have been encouraging their students to tap on this national platform. This platform also features an emotionally intelligent Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbot that is available 24/7. I understand that some IHLs are partnering MOHT to incorporate features tailored to youths.

11. In Singapore, there unfortunately is still stigma associated with mental health problems. This deters many from seeking professional help, and we must continue to address this issue.

12. While in-person counselling sessions have resumed, we must have the foresight to continue to explore how technology has enabled counselling safely and responsibly.

13. There has been good research and development on how video conferencing and online chat applications, such as Whatapp and Wechat, can be used to improve and complement current practices. The relative anonymity and greater accessibility of these tools lower the barriers to entry for individuals who would otherwise remain untreated to seek initial counselling support and basic services

14. The limitation however is that these are short messaging platforms while counselling requires detailed expression of feelings and concerns articulated within relevant contexts and experiences. There is also a lack of non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and body language which can limit the ability of online counsellors to empathise and build rapport in counselling. In counselling, we know that what is not said can be as important as what is said. There are also ethical complexities of online counselling-like services like telehealth consultations, such as client privacy, security, and risk management. I understand that SUSS is planning to develop a course on Telehealth and online counselling, to teach students about these online tools and manage the related complexities.

15. Keeping these trade-offs in mind, we currently have the opportunity to innovate and change the way we do things, for the better. In this webinar, you will learn from various experts about the use of social robots to improve quality of lives, independence, and social isolation among older persons in the community, as well as the use of AI to support children with ADHD. These are some examples, and I encourage practitioners to reflect on your own professional experiences in the provision of counselling with the support of technology, as you hear them, and conduct thorough assessment before deciding the suitability of such modalities on the respective clients.

Situating Counselling in Singapore's Context

16. As we train our counsellors to leverage technology, we must always remember that the practice of counselling is situated in the community and in the lived experiences of the individuals seeking counselling help. We must learn how to continuously adapt to the changing social norms and contexts in our community.

  1. Singapore has its unique social and multicultural context.
  2. There are also generational differences in the interpretation of what counselling means and can do for the individual or community.
  3. In view of these, while most of the counselling and therapeutic models largely based on western theories and findings are validated for use in Singapore, as academics and practitioners yourselves, it is important that you are aware of situations where some of these models may not be as relevant for us and, therefore,work towards developing our own models of intervention. For example, there are cultural difference in how mental health is perceived and interventions models need to be relevant to the cultural contexts. Also, western concepts of marital and family therapy may be alien to some cultures due to differing world views.
  4. I look forward to SUSS MCOU setting an example in this mission of developing and researching on models that are relevant and responsive to our culture and contexts and can bring out the best of individual strengths to strengthen resilience and contribute to a broader community. We certainly need to grow more of our own indigenous models of counselling that will serve our people better.

17. As you reflect on the learning points from your professional experiences, I hope that you will also actively take part in the discussions today.

18. It is only with a greater understanding of the issues in our own context, that we can better support and counsel those in our community who need help.

Closing

19. Before I end, I would like to pay tribute to all the counsellors who have worked tirelessly especially during the pandemic to help their clients manage the many complex issues that they face during those difficult times. Despite the increased caseloads and intensity, you have not flinched and continue to be steadfast in your work. Like the other frontliners, you are our unsung heroes. Thank you for all your effort.

20. Finally, thank you, everyone, for being a part of this important discussion and to SUSS for organising this webinar. I hope that you will have the opportunities to share ideas and learn more about the use of technology in the field of counselling and build ties with other professionals providing counselling support. I wish all of you an inspiring webinar. Congratulations again to the SUSS MCOU on celebrating its 12th anniversary.

Share this article: