Social worker extraordinaire
A shooting star gave hope to a high schoolleaver and set her on her life’s journey.
THERE is a saying that when you wish upon a shooting star, your dreams will come true. But Barbara Yen Yoke Wah, then 21, took the sighting of one as a sign to get out of her rut and left her hometown in Masjid Tanah, Malacca. That was the boldest move she had made at that point and it changed her life for the better.
After high school, Yen could not find a job and gave home tuition for two years. Still, she aspired to either be a teacher or a writer.
In 1967, Yen was overjoyed to be accepted into the Teacher’s Training Centre in Malacca. But two months into her training, she was “devastated” to be informed that she did not pass her medical examination.
Her history of spinal tuberculosis (which she had since she was two) had finally caught up with her, almost rendering her immobile at one point.
That same year, she saw a shooting star and decided to “seek her fortune” elsewhere.
Fate saw to it that she ended up at the Spastic Children’s Association of Selangor in Petaling Jaya, as a volunteer.
Shortly after, Yen was offered a job as a temporary teacher and took on the profession for five years.
In 1972, she was accepted by the University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore) to pursue Social Work studies. “It changed my life,” said Yen, who is the middle child of seven siblings.
Upon graduation in 1974, she returned to work as acting head of the spastic centre.
In 1975, she joined the University of Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) in Kuala Lumpur to begin her career as a medical social worker and served at various departments until her retirement in 2001.
Recently, Yen, 67, fulfilled one of her childhood ambitions (to be a writer) when she launched her new book, Moment 2 Moment: Breathless In Kuala Lumpur!, which took her two years to write.
In the book’s foreword, Ajahn Brahmavamso, her spiritual teacher, wrote that her stories are “full of warmth, humour and wisdom.”
“They will lighten up a gloomy heart and remind a person who has forgotten about kindness that it is out there in many places, giving warmth and purpose to all our lives,” it read.
Yen said: “I was inspired to be a social worker to help people in need. My inheritance was a huge amount of experience and many great friends.”
But she joked: “Another thing about social work is the risk of getting breathless (work never seems to end)!”
Yen was a paid social worker right up to her retirement. At the spastic centre, she drew the salary of a tem- porary teacher and at UMMC, she earned a graduate’s wage and her job was pensionable.
A hard day’s work
“Life as a social worker is challenging. It can be memorable and sometimes not short of drama, excitement and risks, too. It can be very emotionally draining as well,” she enthused.
Medical social workers, Yen explained, help medical and nursing students to see the social implications of ill health on patients and their families.
She experienced “altruistic joy” when things went well with her patients. When the going got tough, she simply “ploughed on”.
Yen (who studied Buddhism after retirement) said Brahmavamso told
her that “a counsellor should be like a dustbin with a hole at the bottom. At the end of the day, all its contents will be emptied”. She added: “If not, one is kept awake all night!”
She recalled her last day at work rather fondly. “I went around the different units of the hospital to say goodbye to the staff I worked with.”
Her first day of retirement was equally memorable, as Yen reminisced: “I was glad that I didn’t have to get up so early to rush to work.”
But such bliss lasted about a month before restlessness set in. “I felt like I had lost my identity,” she said.
“Before retirement, I could say I was a medical social worker in UMMC. After retirement, I was a nobody.”
Yen struggled with what to do next, having been firmly entrenched in the grind for so long. “I used to dream that I was still working and had my punch card,” Yen said.
When she told her ex-colleagues, they burst out laughing and teased her that her dream was “outdated”.
“Mana ada punch card lagi? (Where are there punch cards anymore?) We use name tags now lah.”
A month after retirement, Yen took up a job at All Women’s Action Society (Awam) as an administration manager.
In 2003, Yen worked for the Buddhist Gem Fellowship (BGF) by helping coordinate training courses for para counsellors. She stopped working in July this year after 10 years of service.
“It’s to make way for younger volunteers. However, I am still in the exco of the BGF’s counselling unit,” she said, adding that she still conducts lectures and counselling on mental health and marital matters.
“These days, I go for meditation retreats, do a bit of travelling, meet with friends or have an occasional karaoke session with my sisters,” she said. “I hardly have time to read books except sutras (aphorisms).”
Yen is fond of reading biographies and autobiographies, which are her sources of inspiration.
She has also written a draft of her second book titled, Moment 2 Moment: One Foot Loose In The World.
“It’s about my childhood and travels. The stories are more lighthearted,” she said.
Stories to tell: barbara yen with prominent activist datin Paduka marina mahathir at her book launch. The book, moment2moment:breathlessinKualaLumpur features her experiences as a social worker.
yen (left) gettting a grip on the concepts of art therapy at University Hospital.
blind couples with relationship conflicts get a taste of yen’s tender loving ways during a talk.