A TEACHER'S kind act during a difficult time in his life sparked in Mr Loh Wei Hao an interest in helping others.
His secondary school chemistry teacher, who noticed he was looking tired and had lost weight, gave Mr Loh a box of chicken essence.
It was during the Asian financial crisis and Mr Loh's father, a property agent, was not doing well, so the family of five struggled with their finances.
Despite his circumstances, Mr Loh still felt the need to help others; he started doing volunteer work in junior college and also through his church.
"It became clearer what I wanted to do," said the 25-year-old social worker at Pave, the leading agency dealing with family violence.
"You get to enter people's lives, their homes, and help them."
Mr Loh is one of the few men in the social services sector. Data from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) shows that only about 20 per cent of the 600 social workers here are male.
But interest is slowly increasing.
SIM University (UniSIM), which offers a social work degree, had 46 male students enter its degree programme last year, up from 35 in 2010.
The National University of Singapore (NUS), which allows students to major in social work, could not say if the number of men doing social work has increased as many students try different modules and declare a major only in their second or third year.
But Dr Rosaleen Ow, head of the social work department at NUS, said she has noticed more male students attending classes.
Help groups and voluntary welfare organisations say having more male social workers would be helpful in certain areas of work.
Pave says some of its men clients prefer male social workers. Of its team of 13 social workers, two are men.
"Some male clients worry that female social workers may side with their wives when discussing their marital problems," said a Pave spokesman.
Male social workers tend to make men clients feel more comfortable as they understand the male psyche better and clients feel they are empathising with them.
"Male social workers can present their perspective on common issues men face and their thought processes," said Mr Edmund Wong, general manager of Touch Community Services.
When dealing with teenage boys or even adults, a male social worker can also sometimes become a role model.
"Boys may feel more comfortable talking to male social workers about growing-up issues, puberty and their intimate thoughts. They can have a father figure to look up to," said Mr Trevor Xie, director (community partnerships) at Student Advisory Centre.
While male social workers are still in the minority, experts say efforts to improve pay in recent years have helped to get more men interested in the sector. Under the MSF's 2012 guidelines, a social worker fresh out of university would draw a monthly pay of $2,760.
Associate Professor Seng Boon Kheng, head of the social work programme at UniSIM, said: "The profession is gaining more recognition and there are new areas of interest like youth work which some men are interested in."
Clearer progression pathways also helped to attract men to the sector, said Dr Ow.
While Mr Loh agreed that some men may be hesitant to join the social work sector because the pay is low and they worry about not being able to provide for their families, he said: "I don't really feel the pressure to earn much now. My main reason for joining social work is that I want to help people."
Plus, he said, the rewards of social work are great.
"Many people think the relationship between social workers and clients is just one-way, that we just give out financial assistance.
"It works both ways actually - we get inspired by our clients and learn from them as well."