Mind the child and grow the country


As the country develops, the need for systematic and efficient childcare grows. Being the culturally pluralistic society that Malaysia is, this issue gets rather complicated. Be that as it may, the cost of getting it wrong is as high as are the benefits of getting it right.

Parents with young children tend to also be at the beginning of their career. And keeping both family and work life going is a tough balancing act. Nursery schools and kindergartens are therefore indispensably useful places where the kids can be left in good hands for a few hours.

The thing is, kindergartens and nursery schools do far more than just mind children. Taking care of the very young has evolved into a complex and multifaceted task. It was not long ago that children were supposed to be seen and not heard. In recent times, their development has gained a respected position in public life. Obviously, how children are brought up impacts on the economy and on society’s wellbeing in general. 

The rights of a child
Access to early care and education has become a basic right of the child. In November 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This protects persons under 18 from discrimination, guarantees their rights to survival and development, safeguards their interests, provides freedom for them to participate in all matters affecting their lives and ensures them the liberty to express their opinions.1

Malaysia is a signatory to the CRC, and the First Action Plan for Children 1990–2001 was formulated with the National Population and Family Development Board acting as secretariat. e Child Act (Act 611) was passed in 2001, taking over from the 1947 Juvenile Court’s Act (Act 90), the 1973 Women and Girls Protection Act (Act 106) and the 1991 Child Protection Act (Act 468).2 Work had also begun to review the first plan in anticipation of the Second National Action Plan for Children 2001–2020. However, the government then set up the National Committee on the Development and Expansion of Children’s Programme to look into learning environment, education and literacy, problem and disadvantaged children, parental education and the family.

Children’s development
Children’s emotional, physical and intellectual growth is shaped in interactions with others and their surroundings. Learning during the formative years has been shown to have effects that last a lifetime. Countless studies show significant differences between children who received early childhood education and those who did not. The positive effects include better cognitive development, higher academic achievements, greater future employment aspirations, higher income earnings and even more home ownership.

Evaluations also show that the ratio of care-givers to the number of children is also important.3 One study followed 82 children from infancy and found that children put in childcare with six children to one adult grew up to become less compliant with their parents at 18 months, got on less well with peers when they were in nursery schools (as three to four-year-olds) and in kindergarten (at ages six to seven). Teachers found them easily distracted, less task-oriented and less considerate of others. Children in childcare where there were three or fewer children to one adult interacted better with their peers by participating in activities, talking and playing with others. These children were less likely to be found crying or spending time reclusively on their own. Social, intellectual and language skills were found to be useful to children when they a ended school.4 Small differences in the experiences of children during their growing years can and do produce significant differences in their lifetime outcomes and therefore it seems worthwhile to be meticulous with childcare at an early stage.

Much public attention
In Malaysia, early childhood care and education follows the International Standards Classi cation of Education or ISCED and divides infants (less than four years old) from preschool (four to six years old).5 The wellbeing of infants is overseen by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD). Children in kindergarten age, on the other hand, come under the purview of the Ministry of Education. Policy developments thus bifurcate between childcare involving infants and preschool education. Meanwhile a host of other public agencies also share in early childhood care and education. They include the Ministry of Social Welfare, the Department of National Unity in the Prime Minister’s Department, the Ministry of Rural Development and religious affairs departments from various states. In 2007, the Setiap Anak Permata Negara (Permata Negara) or Every Child a National Jewel pilot project was launched. Since then, Permata Negara has received regular public funding that has led to the number of its early education centres in the country growing rapidly to some 600 today.

Care of children below four years old
Childcare services in Malaysia are likely to have existed for a long time. According to Chiam (2008)7, nurses and primary school teachers who graduated from the Malayan Teachers Training College at Brinsford Lodge set up nurseries that catered to professional parents in urban areas. These probably received their training in England.

Childcare services expanded quickly in the country. In 1982, a joint Ministry of Social Welfare-United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef ) study8 found that childcare facilities were not regulated and lacked both pre-established health and safety standards. Caregivers had little or no education, and only one per cent had university degrees and these were in fields unrelated to early childcare.9 Consequently, the Childcare Centre Act (Act 308) was passed in 1984, making it mandatory for institutionalised childcare centres (fee-charging facilities caring for 10 or more children under the age of four) to be registered with the Ministry of Social Welfare and to comply with children’s nutritional, health and safety requirements as well as staff qualifications.

While private childcare was common in urban areas, care of infants under four years old in rural areas was typically provided by childcare centres (Taman Asuhan Kanak-Kanak or Taska) run by KEMAS, the Ministry of Rural Development. Many government offices also had childcare facilities. Civil servants earning less than RM2,000 who sent their children there receive a RM180 subsidy.

The MWFCD began to set up Community Childcare Centres (CCCC) which gave subsidies to parents earning less than RM2,000 in urban areas and RM1,200 in rural areas.10 Plans were made to rapidly expand CCCCs throughout the country. Following the mandate given by the Ninth Malaysia Plan (2005–2010) to ensure the total development of children according to their rights and needs, the MWFCD set out to prepare the Early Childhood Care and Development Policy for adoption by the government in 2007. This advocated quality care as well as holistic development to children eight years old and under.11

However, the government then decided to relegate these tasks to the Permata Negara Committee.12 Permata Negara was given an RM20mil allocation under the Ninth Malaysia Plan to set up Permata early education and care centres which adopted the integrated Sure Start Programme used by the Pem Green Centre in Corby, UK.13

Preschool children, 4–6 years old
The policy objectives overseeing preschools, on the other hand, focus on quality education rather than childcare. In 1972, the Ministry of Education introduced guidelines to regulate enrolment procedures, teacher recruitments and membership to the school boards.14 Like the welfare ministry, the Education Planning and Research Division also did a joint study with Unicef15 and subsequently produced a formal early childhood education curriculum document in the form of a preschool guidebook in 1986. This was to coordinate the delivery of preschool education across different institutions in the country. It was later revised into the 1993 Preschool Education Curriculum Guidelines covering activities and teaching materials such as books, cards, building blocks, and etc. Effective January 2003, it became a legal requirement for all public and private preschool facilities to comply with the Education Ministry’s National Preschool Curriculum. Preschool facilities wanting to implement a separate curriculum required the approval of the Education Ministry acting.16

Before 1996, the public school system managed by the Ministry of Education began only with primary schools. With the passing of the National Education Act (Act 550) in 1996, however, pre-school education was officially declared an integral part of the school system. The national education policy now had to provide preschool education to children from age five so that the necessary preparatory foundation for primary school education could be built using the national preschool curriculum. The Education Ministry then began setting up preschools as annexes to existing primary schools. Such annexes developed quickly at the rate of some 800 classes a year in pursuit of the plan to cover all primary schools in the country. Some 1,131 preschools were in existence in 1992. By 2009 the number of preschools had built had grown to 7,717.17

The Ministry of Rural Development’s KEMAS centres have been set up in underserved rural communities since the early 1970s. There were some 8,307 of them in operation in 2007.18 In the mid-1970s, the Department of National Unity and Integration in the Prime Minister’s Department also began to set up Perpaduan preschools in urban areas as part of the Rukun Tetangga neighbourhood watch scheme, some 1,496 of which were reported to be in operation in 2007. Islamic preschools have also been established by state religious departments and by Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia or ABIM.19 

The need for childcare
Dr.Chiam’s (2008) compilation of statistics for the National Family Planning and Population Board showed that in 1999, nine per cent of parents with children under one year old depended on childcare services, while 13% of parents with children aged one to two years old and 15% of parents with children aged three to four years old depended on childcare. In 2006, 13% of urban parents and six per cent of rural parents made use of childcare services. Yet, fewer than 20% of parents took care of the children on their own. About a third of the children received care within the family, i.e. with help from family members. Parents also had help from friends and neighbours, but only six per cent to nine per cent depended on maids. Affordability was found to be a significant issue. 8.9% of house-holds earning more than RM4,000 monthly used childcare services compared to only 4.9% of households earning less than RM2,000 a month.

According to Malaysia’s report on early childhood care and education for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (Unesco) Education for All initiative, the enrolment ratio of those younger than three years old was close to zero in 2003. The proportion increased quickly for older children: 0.1% among three-year-olds, 27% among four-year-olds, 72% among five- year-olds and 92% among six-year-olds.20 The average enrolment ratio among preschool children aged four to six was 67% but lower in Penang which had an enrolment ratio of 57%. Counting only private preschools for children in the same age group, the national average private enrolment ratio was 41% but higher in the case of Penang which had 65%.21

These numbers do not mean much because Malaysia has only 1,831 childcare centres and a total enrolment of 34,100 children on record in 2007. This suggests that many more were unregistered despite the legal requirement to do so that had been in force since 1984.22 Then again, facilities caring for fewer than 10 children do not require registration. Upon entering primary schools, only five per cent of the children claim that they had no preschool experience. This means that nearly all would have some form of early education but for many it might only have been very brief. In total, inclusive of publicly provided preschools, some 665,000 children below primary school age were enrolled in 2007. A third were in KEMAS, one-tenth with Ministry of Education establishments, one- tenth between social welfare and Perpaduan schools combined and the rest (more than 40%) were enrolled in private facilities.23

In 2003, the public sector allocation for early childhood education amounted to 2.34% of the gross national income, but this was only about 0.2% of the total allocation in the public budget to education. By 2005, the allocation to early childhood education had risen to one per cent of the total education budget.24

The future
With the current population of the country at more than 28 million (1.6 million in Penang) the size of the population who are six years old and below would be about four million (a quarter million in Penang). Of course enrolment ratios vary drastically across children at different ages, but if primary schools offer any indication, the current enrolment is about 2.9 million children in the seven to twelve-year-old age group. Inter-polating lineally, the provision of four years of preschool education would still give us about 2 million children in the country, or about 100,000 children in Penang.

Public efforts to address early childhood education have therefore been fairly successful. Recorded enrolment of preschoolers is heading towards the one million mark, not counting unregistered facilities. Children denied access due to family income issues or lack of awareness by parents pose a challenge to policy delivery.

Career development
Alongside the passing of the 1984 Childcare Centre Act, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, a Netherlands-based grant-giving organisation, funded the Alternative Childcare Project which developed the Basic Childcare Course accredited by the Welfare Ministry for compliance to the Childcare Centre (Amendment) Regulations. The course contained 31 modules and was 103 hours long, conducted over 17–19 days. A module for trainers of trainers (TOT) which was conducted by the Department of Social Welfare was also developed.

The TOT module remained basically unchanged for two decades and is largely manned by an unchanged pool of staff from the Welfare Department, even though over the years a large number of trainers have been trained to pass on such know-how to childcare providers throughout the country. In 2006, the MWFCD collaborated with the Department of Skills Development Department in the Ministry of Human Resources to draw up different levels of skills qualifications for child-care providers that correspond to the National Occupation Skill Standard or NOSS. These are the Standard Practice and Standard Content for Childcare Provider (equivalent to SKM Level 2), Senior Childcare Provider (SKM Level 3), Childcare Centre Supervisor (DKM Level 4) and Childcare Manager (DLKM Level 5) which were designed not only to provide the required skills to childcare providers but also offer an accredited career path in the childcare industry.

The Malaysian Teachers College offers a three-year diploma in teaching for preschool including in service training. Several public and private institutions of higher learning have received approval by the Ministry of Higher Education to offer certificate, diploma (90 credits) and bachelor degree (120 credits) level courses on early childhood education. Graduates with a diploma from these, serving as KEMAS and Perpaduan teachers receive appointments equivalent to the N11 grade (RM525–RM1,300) of the Malaysian civil service. Degree graduates serving with Ministry of Education preschools are appointed to DGA 29 and DGA 41 (RM1,100 to RM4,000) grades. Private facilities pay RM1,500, while teachers in childcare facilities are paid about RM800. A few local universities also offer Master of Education (MEd) courses and PhD programmes in pre-school education.25

Other economic and social benefits
Public policy on early childhood education often considers potential increases to female labour participation among the benefits.26 In Malaysia, female labour participation is only in the mid- 40% range compared to males, who are in the mid-80% range. This suggests that marriage is a factor, since a quarter of Malaysian women in the 20–24 age group are married. The proportions rise quickly to 60% in 25–29 age group, 80% past the 30-year age group and 90% past the 45-year age group. Female participation rates are in the mid-50% range among most of the developed nations that Malaysia often compares itself to. Given the country’s positive attitude towards the education of girls, Malaysia might see higher female participation rates yet. For Penang, a rise of female participation to the mid-50% range translates to an increase of about 50,000 additional workers.

In addition to these private bene ts, social benefits from investments in early childhood education are quite astounding. Each dollar of spending for more equitable access to childcare can possibly give rise to a return of as much as seven dollars of lifetime bene ts to society in terms of increased earnings and reduced crime rates.27

The economics of childcare and early education are multifaceted. There are potentially many kinds of benefits to society. Freeing women for the labour force was a policy objective in the provision of childcare in Malaysia under the Ninth Malaysia Plan (2005–2010). However, this report also shows that the intense efforts and legal and regulatory changes that took place over the past decades have addressed much more widespread issues.

Policy intervention continues to be necessary due to market failure from high delivery cost pricing out poor households. Furthermore, many parents are less aware and do not fully appreciate the lifelong benefits when making decisions on early education for their children. Given that there are both private bene ts as well as social benefits, how best to divide the financial responsibility between parents and public financing poses a challenging policy question.

1. Unicef(2009)The State of the World’s Children, Special Edition, New York.

2 Ministry of Education Malaysia (2007) Early Childhood Care and Education Policy, Curriculum Develop- ment Centre, Kuala Lumpur, pp.16; 22,23.

3 Citing a variety of studies reported in (1998) Study on the Economic Benefits of Childcare in Ireland, Commissioned by the Department of Justice, Equality & Law Reform on behalf of the Partnership 2000 Expert Group on Childcare, Dublin, p.48.

4 Howes C (1990) “Can the age of entry in Childcare and the quality of Childcare predict adjustment in kindergarten?” Development Psychology 26:292– 3030. Philips and Whitebrook (1992); Howes and Rubenstein (1985); Vandall and Powers; Halloway and Reichart-Erickson (1988,89).

5 Unesco(2006) Malaysia Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programmes. Country profile prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2007.

6 Early Childhood Care and Education Policy: Implementation Review 2007, Curriculum Development Centre, Ministry of Education Malaysia, p.13; Ministry of Finance (2011), Economic Report 2010/ 2011 p.10; “Permata children show progress in study” Sunday Star June 12, 2011; Permata’s official homepage www. permata.jpm.my/1/.

7 Heng Keng Chiam (2008) “Child care in Malaysia: then and now” International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, 2 (2), p.33.

8 Ministry of Education (1984) Proket Kajian Pendidikan Prasekolah, Education Planning and Research Division and Unesco.

9 Ministry of Social Welfare Services (1983) Child Care Survey: Consultant Report, Kuala Lumpur.

10 Early Childhood Care and Education Policy: Implementation Review 2007, Curriculum Development Centre, Ministry of Education Malaysia, pp.12–13.

11 Ministry of Education Malaysia (2007) Early Childhood Care and Education Policy, Curriculum Development Centre, Kuala Lumpur, p.17.

12 “Early Education for Kids”, 2008.

13 Ministry of Education Malaysia (2007) Early Childhood Care and Education Policy, Curriculum Development Centre, Kuala Lumpur, p.13.

14 Ministry of Education (1972) Kaedah-Kaedah Guru/Kaedah-Kaedah Kindergarten dan Sekolah Asuhan (Penda aran) Warta Kerajaan P.U. (A)414.

15 ProjekKajian Pendidikan Prasekolah.

16 Ministry of Education Malaysia (2007) Op.Cit., pp.8–9.

17 Ministry of Education Malaysia (2007) Early Childhood Care and Education Policy, Curriculum Develop- ment Centre, Kuala Lumpur, pp.21–22.

18 KEMASofficial website: www.kemas. gov.my/111.

19 Early Childhood Care and Education Policy: Implementation Review 2007, Curriculum Development Centre, Ministry of Education Malaysia, p.6.

20 Unesco (2006) Malaysia Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programmes. Country profile prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2007.

21 Early Childhood Care and Education Policy: Implementation Review2007,Curriculum Development Centre, Ministry of Education Malaysia, pp.40–41.

22 Asean (2007) Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) Directory of Resources 2007: Malaysia, p.7.

23 Unesco(2006) Malaysia Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programmes. Country profile prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2007.

24 Early Childhood Care and Education Policy: Implementation Review 2007, Curriculum Development Centre, Ministry of Education Malaysia, p.99.

25 Early Childhood Care and Education Policy: Implementation Review 2007, Curriculum Development Centre, Ministry of Education Malaysia, pp.76–77

26 Seeforexample,(1998) Study on the Economic Benefits of Child care in Ireland. Commis- sioned by the Depart- ment of Justice, Equality & Law Reform on behalf of the Partnership 2000 Expert Group on Child- care, Dublin, pp.58–60.

27 Seeforexamples,Greg Parks (2000) “The High/ Scope Perry Project” Juvenile Justice Bulletin, US Depart-ment of Justice, October; US Dept. of Health and Human Services (2010) Head Start Impact Study: Final Report, Administration of Children and Families, Washington D.C; Lee V E , Brooks-Gunn J, Schnur E and Liaw F R (1990) “Are Head Start effects sustained? A longitudinal follow-up comparison of disad- vantage students a ending Head Start, no-preschool and other pre-school programs” Child Development 61: 495–507; (1998) Study on the Economic Bene- fits of Child care in Ireland. Commissioned by the Department of Justice, Equality & Law Reform on behalf of the Partner-ship 2000 Expert Group on Child- care, Dublin, p.47.

Chan Huan Chiang is a senior research fellow at Penang Institute.

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