Thursday, September 29, 2016

Rosmah Mansor, PERMATA and Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in Malaysia

Article written by Yeo Bee Yin, State Assemblywoman for Damansara Utama on Thursday 29th  September 2016 in Petaling Jaya.

Rosmah Mansor, PERMATA and Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in Malaysia

For the past two weeks, Rosmah Mansor, PERMATA and her supposedly “UNESCO” award have flooded the news portals. While how the story develops is rather interesting to follow, I believe an important issue that we should also look into is PERMATA, which was first conceived to develop early childhood education in Malaysia. 

James J. Heckman, Nobel Laureate in Economics and an expert in the economics of human development, has been advocating government invesment in early childhood care and education (ECCE). Heckman’s Equation proves statistically that investing in early childhood saves taxpayer monies in the long run - good ECCE results in lower social welfare cost, decreased crime rate and increased tax revenue.  In fact, ECCE investment produces the highest rate of return on investment in human capital development (as shown in the figure below).

Therefore, any government initiatives to develop ECCE including PERMATA should not be brushed off immediately just because of the person who advocates is not likable.  Nevertheless, despite funding PERMATA generously every year, there is generally a lack of strategic direction by Putrajaya in ECCE development. There is no plan to ensure there are good quality childcare and pre-school education at affordable price for all Malaysian children. 

Now, full-day childcare monthly fees in Klang Valley ranges from RM 350 to more than RM2,000 per child depending on the quality of the childcare centers. Childcare expenses have become an increased burden to many young families. And only those who are well-to-do can send their children to good quality childcare centers. The lack of good quality childcare at affordable price drives women out of the workforce as it is more economical for them to stay at home to teach and take care of the children. When women stop working, the households go from dual-income and single-income, reducing the total household incomes. Worse still, various reports have shown that this is more likely to happen in low and middle income families, resulting in increased gap between the rich and the poor.

Furthermore, women dropout from the workforce is an economic loss to the country. This is especially true for Malaysia as our women are increasingly better educated than men -  the enrollment to tertiary education is currently about 60% women and only 40% men.  As of now, Malaysia has one of the lowest female labour participation rate in South East Asia with only 54% of women in working age in the workforce. The United Nation Development Program (UNDP) calculated that increasing female participation rate to 70% would boost Malaysia gross domestic product (GDP) by 2.9%, which is equivalent to around RM 33 billion every year.

In short, by pushing and facilitating good quality yet affordable childcare in Malaysia, we will be able to gain the best return of investment on human development, increase household income, reduce inequality and keep women’s talents in the workforce hence benefiting the country’s economy as a whole.

To provide good and affordable childcare, Malaysia can learn from Singapore, Australia, Finland and many other Scandinavian countries. Childcare in those countries are subsidized by the the government whereby tiered subsidies are given - amount of subsidies differ according to household income level. The childcare centers in those countries are mainly run by private operators at competitive market. To be eligible for the subsidies, they must meet certain requirements set by the government, which usually comprise of student-teacher ratio, qualifications of the teachers, safety standards and so on, to ensure good quality childcare.

The Selangor government has similar subsidy programs such as TUNAS (Skim Bantuan Tadika Selangor) and Si Kembar (Skim Bantuan Asuhan Selangor). However, they are only limited to households with the income level less than RM2,500 and provide only small amount of subsidies. To expand the program to middle income families and increase the amount of subsidies to include better quality childcare centers are beyond the state government’s financial capability and jurisdictions. The Selangor state government budget is only 1% of the federal government budget and ECCE is supposed to developed by Education Ministry as well as Women, Family and Community Development Ministry. (I believe PERMATA is strategically wrong to be parked under Prime Minister Office.)

Early childhood is an important phase for cognitive, socio-emotional, physical and intellectual development for children. Whether Permata gets international recognition or not does not matter, what matters is that Putrajaya will make and execute a comprehensive and holistic plan to ensure that good quality childcare is available at affordable price, so that all our children will have equal opportunity to learn and develop in the early age, regardless of the income levels of the familes.