Faced with mounting challenges, childcare centre operators are looking to the Government, employers and parents themselves to ensure our children get quality care and education.
NATIONWIDE, there’s a critical shortage of registered childcare centres, or taska, that provide affordable services.
Malaysia’s population, as of July 1 this year, is 30,751,602. More than 40% of the population are children aged below 18 years. And of this group, children aged between zero and four years are the majority.
With an annual population growth of about 3%, there’s a growing demand for childcare centres, says Association of Registered Childcare Providers Malaysia president P.H. Wong.
Wong is also a member of the Ramping Up Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) task force under the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, and a Positive Parenting management committee member. Positive Parenting is an expert educational programme for parents initiated by the Malaysian Paediatric Association and various non-governmental organisations.
In almost all states – especially in the rural and semi-rural districts – there are not enough registered centres, says Wong.
Few operators want to run centres in low income communities where parents cannot afford the fees. And existing ones are struggling to meet rising operating costs, especially with the minimum wage ruling effective July this year.
Wong, however, stresses that the minimum wage ruling is long overdue. The problem isn’t that operators don’t want to pay – it’s that they cannot afford to.
“Operation costs are already high because of the strict space and staff ratios, compulsory CCTV and exorbitant local council licensing fees. Minimum wage just makes it worse. It’s tough to break even, what more make a profit,” she says.
And access to financing and difficulties with getting regulatory approvals are big challenges, she laments.
The problem is compounded by the perception parents have of childcare centres and early childhood development. They think it’s the same as sending the child to a babysitter who will, most likely, simply offer custodial care; early childhood development care, on the other hand, has activities for the holistic development of children aged zero to four years.
Parents, Wong feels, are unwilling to pay a fair price for licensed childcare because they think “the-aunty-next-door” does as good a job for much less.
“About 70% of centres nationwide charge below RM350 for 20 days of full-day care. This works out to RM1.75 per hour. It doesn’t reflect the importance of having a qualified professional look after your child,” she says.
There’s a lack of trained care providers and operators as salaries are still very low even after the minimum wage ruling. And, very few youngsters are interested in early childhood care and education because there’s no career pathway.
“Currently, childcare providers only need to finish the SPM and Permata Basic Childcare Course – a compulsory certification under the Social Welfare Department. But as long as qualifications remain at certificate level only, the quality of service remains a challenge and the importance of investing in the first four years of brain development is severely undermined,” Wong says, adding that out of 18,769 childcare providers in the country, only 1,551 are degree holders.
Quality early childhood care and education allows mothers to contribute to the workforce and is a social equaliser, she believes. It provides children with a level playing field to have a head start in life.
The majority of school dropouts and juvenile delinquents come from economically and socially deprived families. They grow up without the benefit of quality early childhood care and education, she shares.
Quoting economist James Heckman, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago, Wong says it makes financial sense to invest in early childhood education because it will lead to increased productivity and better outcomes for children in health, nutrition and cognitive development later on.
“Since the inequality begins before or at birth, Heckman believes that the best time to address those issues are during early childhood.
“If investments are not made in the early years, lower earnings, unemployment, healthcare costs and even increased crime will be the consequences for society to bear when the child grows up,” she says, pointing to how we have one of the lowest early childhood and education enrolment rates in the region.
With just 5,421 licensed childcare centres catering for 53,497 children, it’s clear that almost 90% of our children are being looked after by stay-at-home mums or illegal centres and babysitters – which puts the children at high risk of maltreatment and neglect, she sighs.
Many women in low and middle income communities don’t seek employment as childcare expenditure would negate their salaries, she observes.
“The prevalence of single income households increases incidences of poverty and further reduces access to childcare.
“In Singapore, public funding for early childhood and education covers 75% to 85% of childcare costs. But here, even lower income families must bear most of the costs, which can range from RM300 to RM2,000 in the Klang Valley,” she says.
Malaysians, she notes, are already having fewer children because they want to provide the family with a higher quality of life. If childcare service is not made affordable, fertility rates will drop even further, she says.