Image: Azmi Athni

Shortly after she started working as a social worker in 1987, Dr Sudha Nair was nearly killed by one of her clients.

The woman was trapped in an abusive marriage so Dr Nair helped to put her children in a home and place her in a shelter.

“I asked her and she said she didn’t want to stay in the marriage any more so I got a lawyer friend to help out with the divorce,” she recalls.

On the morning of the court hearing, the woman was nowhere to be found. Instead, she turned up at Dr Nair’s office later in the afternoon. She broke a glass bottle she had brought with her, lunged at the social worker but fortunately did not succeed in stabbing her.

Traumatised, Dr Nair turned to her mentor and a psychiatrist to find out what she did wrong. “That was my Waterloo. I listened to what she said, but not what she didn’t say. She was probably not ready to divorce her husband and I might have pushed her into it. In social work, you have to listen to what is not said,” she says.

She had a narrow escape in more ways than one. Her client’s husband, she learnt, took someone’s life in a hotel not long after. Eyes widening in mock horror, she exclaims: “My god, he could have killed me too. It left me jittery for months.” The chilling experience did not see her scrambling for the exit. Instead, she stayed and became one of the most dynamic social workers Singapore has ever seen.

In particular, her work on family violence has been groundbreaking, helping to shape public policy. In 1999, she founded the Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence (Pave), the first family violence specialist centre in Singapore. From a voluntary outfit she ran with two other social workers, Pave is now an organisation with offices in Ang Mo Kio and Siglap and a staff of 24, including 19 social workers. “At any one time, we see about 300 cases,” she says, adding that Pave is in the midst of raising funds to run a new child protection service centre next year. 

She passionately believes women and children who are abused must not keep quiet about it, and society must thrash out the issue of family violence. “The people who abuse need help too, we need to reach out to them too,” says the 58-year-old, who was named Her World Woman Of The Year 2016 last week. Since 1991, the award has been given to trail-blazing females who break boundaries in their professions and make outstanding contributions to society.

Dr Nair receiving her award from Her World editor Tracy Lee and Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin last week. Image: Her World

A woman who would rather have a root canal operation than stand in the limelight, her first instinct was to turn the award down. But she came around to the idea, and in her acceptance speech at the award ceremony held at the Shangri-La Hotel, she said: “By choosing a social worker, you recognise my profession – one that’s often underestimated and regarded as little more than a soft option for kind, good-hearted people who hand out financial aid and food rations and visit the needy. Social workers do much more, operating at the point where personal troubles and public issues intersect.” 

It is easy to like Dr Nair, the sixth of eight children of a printing press manager and a housewife. She is warm and self-effacing, funny and girlish. And to do the work that she does, she obviously has nerves of steel and a big heart.

Her formative years were spent in Malaysia. She went to primary school in Kuala Lumpur and completed her secondary education in Penang. Instead of going to university after doing her A levels, she started work as a junior officer at the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP). She was attached to the education department, and her work involved going to villages and estates to talk about consumerism and to teach women about breastfeeding and picking the right food for their children.

“But I was also involved in a lot of environmental stuff. I was struck by fishermen coming to us with dead fish because of pollution. I also interacted with farmers and found out how technology ruined their lives,” says Dr Nair, who believes her social conscience stirred to life then. The work so fascinated her that she stayed for about four years. However, her late sister Asha, a journalist, changed her life. “She got application forms for the National University of Singapore (NUS), completed them on my behalf and sent them in. If not for her, I would not be where I am today. I’d probably still be in CAP or in a prison somewhere because I was fighting for this cause or that,” she says with a laugh.

In 1983, she arrived in Singapore. A big fan of Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen, she toyed with the idea of reading English Literature at NUS but settled on social work instead “because it seemed like what I would like to do”. “The cohort that year was one of the biggest. There were 50 of us, and many of us are still in the profession,” she says proudly.

An ailing economy and a battered job market greeted her when she graduated in 1986. Jobs were hard to come by so she decided to become an unpaid research assistant for Dr Anne Merriman, a respected doctor from Ireland who introduced hospice care in Singapore. “She was amazing. Nothing stopped her from doing what she thought needed to be done. I remember sitting next to her while she cleaned up a woman dying of cervical cancer. I can still remember the stench,” she says quietly.

For more than a year, she went with Dr Merriman to visit homes and offer help and comfort to the dying. “It made me realise how precious life was and how we must appreciate people we are with. It showed me the strength of family bonds and also exposed me to the flip side…when people didn’t care. “It made me realise I had warmth of family, something not everyone had, and that I needed to give back,” says Dr Nair, who is single.

Frustrated by her inability to get a job in Singapore, she tried her luck in Malaysia and was offered a social worker position with the School of The Blind in Penang. Her appeal to be released from her three-year bond, however, was turned down by the Ministry of Education. She became a research assistant to Professor Paul Cheong – former chief statistician of Singapore – for a United Nations project on support systems for the elderly before finally landing a job as a social worker at Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre on April Fool’s Day in 1987. The sole social worker in the set-up, she worked from a small office located next to the garbage chute. By the time she left 17 years later, she had turned it into one of the most cutting-edge social service agencies in Singapore.

“My clients gave me the richest education,” she says simply. One of her favourites was Ah Soi, a woman who had plucked out all her hair. The Housing Board (HDB) wanted to evict her because it heard that she was mentally unstable and thought it was unsafe for her to live alone. “I said, ‘How could you do that? She paid all her bills and had no arrears.'”

Dr Nair later found out Ah Soi was badly abused by her husband and had her children taken away from her when she accidentally scalded one of them. “It set her off, it was grief reaction. I’d try to talk to her from different angles but she would never look me in the eye although she would answer me. I took her to a doctor who certified that she was okay and with that I went to HDB and told them I would be responsible for her. I even got the HDB folks to paint her home when they gave her a new rental flat.”

The two met every Friday. “I’d pass her her food money. I didn’t want her to be cheated and I wanted to keep tabs on her. Every Chinese New Year, she would turn up with two Mandarin oranges for me. When she died, her sons recognised we were her only family and invited us to the funeral.”

Dr Nair won the inaugural Outstanding Social Worker award in 1998, and her passion for social work deepened with each passing year. “Slowly what I learnt in university was coming to life. I found out that I could make a difference, but I needed to have gumption, I couldn’t be scared,” says Dr Nair, who received a scholarship to do her Masters at George Warren Brown School of Social Work, one of the world’s best for social work, in 1990.

And gumption she has, by the truckloads. She wrote white papers, lobbied tirelessly and even paid for her own trips abroad to learn about and fight for causes she believed in. Many of the programmes she started at Ang Mo Kio FSC became nationalised, including Healthy Start, which teaches pregnant women from vulnerable families about nutrition and parenting and includes an early intervention component.

Dr Nair mingling with children at the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre, where she worked from 1987 to 2003.  Image: ST File Photo

The idea for Pave came in 1999. One morning, she received a call from a child telling her that his mother had been severely beaten up by her husband. She went to their home, got the woman to a hospital only to find out that the latter had to fork out money, which she did not have, to pay for treatment and was also told to go and make a police report. “It set me thinking: When a victim is going through such a traumatic experience, should she be running around seeking so many types of services? I came back to the office and talked to my colleagues about starting a one-stop or first stop service for family violence.”

Her work in this area was a game- changer. For example, she and her team worked with the Family Court and brought justice into the heartland by allowing families experiencing violence to apply for Personal Protection Orders (PPOs) through video linked-in services. For three years, she and her colleagues Pang Kee Tai, now Pave’s deputy director, and Soh Siew Fong, head of case work, sought cases in their own time and ran groups for abused women and children as well as men. “That’s what social workers must do. We must find gaps in the system and plug them.”

Pave was officially registered in 2002, and Dr Nair is now its executive director. She has an almost encyclopaedic memory of all the cases which have come through her door. The level of abuse many of her clients go through makes the stomach churn: blinding, sexual torture, non-stop beating from 10pm to 5am. Dr Nair, who left Ang Mo Kio FSC in 2003 and got her doctorate from NUS in 2006, has been asked how she deals with such gut-wrenching situations. 

“Seeing people in emotional or physical pain bothers me tremendously. But I also see people turn their lives around, smile again, and keep their families together,” says the veteran social worker, adding that a former wife batterer is now a Pave ambassador who brings other men to the organisation for help.

There is a lot of work which still needs to be done, she says.

Last year, she and her team submitted a paper to the Ministry of Social and Family Development detailing why unmarried people in dating or live-in relationships should be allowed a PPO. Currently, a person can apply for a PPO only against a family member, such as a spouse, parent or sibling.

Dr Nair’s big heart extends to her family. For more than two years, she flew to Kuala Lumpur every weekend to nurse Asha, who was dying of cancer. A Singapore citizen since 1999, she now flies to Kuala Lumpur once or twice a month to spend time with her 92-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s. Right now, Dr Nair – who last year became the first social worker to be elected a member of the Public Service Commission – is working on leadership renewal for Pave. “In the next few years, I hope to get in place two or three levels of leadership.”

She has no lofty ambitions, she says. Bursting into giggles, she adds: “I want to die in Pave, I want to drop dead while I’m working.”

VIDEO: Find out more about how Dr Sudha Nair has helped change lives.

A version of this story was originally published in The Sunday Times on August 28, 2016. For more stories like this, head to