Make pre-schooling compulsory in Malaysia!
Imagine a glitzy new skyscraper in the center of town, any town. A shimmering modern marvel of glass and steel, it rises majestically into the clouds like a highly-polished precious jewel.
Now imagine windy days when the top floors of this high-rise sway dangerously far too often for comfort. The residents inevitably panic and move out. Soon enough, the city council sends inspectors who announce the building unsafe for residence.
What happened? The builders forgot to focus on the most important aspect of any building: its foundation. In Malaysia, the high-rise skyscraper is its human capital while the foundation is preschool.
Given our lofty ambitions to match the West in productivity and innovation, it baffles me why pre-schooling is still not compulsory.
Yet before I argue in favor of making preschool compulsory for Malaysian children, I will admit upfront there are no definitive or easy answers here. If we zoom out to the macro view, there are as many arguments against mandatory early childhood education as there are for.
After all, neither of our more academically distinguished neighbors Japan and Singapore have made preschool compulsory for their children, so why should we? But these comparisons are distorted.
Japan and Singapore may not have legislated compulsory pre-schooling but their enrollment rates are near universal. This means their children do not face discriminatory circumstances on the way up the academic ladder. Malaysia’s preschool enrollment percentage meanwhile languishes in the 70s according to official stats.
Prioritizing early childhood education is vital for two broad reasons.
First, our international obligations. The United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) contain a strong pre-schooling component. In fact, SDG 4.2 urges all member states to “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”
Next, the all-important Malaysian context. In mid-June, the lead World Bank economist for Malaysia, Richard Record, revealed at a local conference that Malaysian children end up fulfilling only 62 percent of their potential. He identified the absence of compulsory pre-schooling as a key driver of this sorry statistic, explaining “some children are behind even from the starting line.”
You don’t have a to be a rocket scientist to figure out the benefits of pre-schooling. A quick Google search will pull up a long list of credible studies that found preschools give young children the opportunity to develop their social skills, lay the cornerstone of future academic excellence, and unlock their creativity through play-based learning.
Yet you will also find plenty of equally compelling naysayers who dispute the findings of such studies by highlighting their self-serving research designs. Who to believe?
In the Asian setting, we can dig up yet more evidence against preschools in general. For instance, if Japan and Singapore are doing such a great job of attuning young children to the stress of test-based societies, why are suicide rates and mental health issues rising to historical highs among their teenagers and young adults?
Moreover, in Malaysia we routinely see working parents use preschools as glorified nannies for their children while ignoring their co-responsibility in educating them. Yet, only the teachers get bogged down with blame if any child lags behind academically.
At this point, I imagine some readers are shaking their heads. They probably think I am conjuring up a problem where none exists.
The government is well aware of the importance of preschool education to Malaysians, they would say. Why else would it formalize early childhood education through the Kurikulum Standard Prasekolah Kebangsaan (KSPK) and Genius Negara programs?
Also, the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 explicitly outlines key enhancements to preschool education through greater focus on STEM subjects and ICT expansion.
And the Ministry of Education and Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat (JKM) oversee a chain of national preschools that prepare children from low-income families for primary education.
What else could anyone want?
But you see, this is precisely the problem. Clearly the government is investing a lot in early childhood education, yet based on the World Bank’s feedback, the returns of such investment are average at best.
It is for exactly this reason that I advocate making preschool education compulsory for all Malaysian children. Let me elaborate why.
First, spending taxpayer money on a national need without everyone receiving its benefits is inherently discriminatory.
Now, going by the 70-something percent enrollment rate, let us assume there are pockets in the country where preschool education is not an option for children because they are either too far, too expensive, or both.
And let us also assume the many studies highlighting preschools as key to future academic excellence and social mobility are also on point.
So why should 30 percent of the children be denied their fundamental right?
This is where government legislation comes in. You see the reason parliament passes or amends laws—in this case the National Education Act 1996—is not simply to pass time or add layers of red tape. The function of legislation in free societies is to ensure continuity of action, allocation, and accountability.
Continuity of action means the grand road-map to achieve public service goals cannot be shelved, renamed or selectively ignored. The rulers of the day are answerable to friends and foes in parliament about its progress and general trajectory.
It also sends a strong signal to society that the initiative promotes the greater good and incentivizes them to embrace, or in the very least debate, the plan so they become stakeholder in the process.
Next, continuity of allocation means politicians cannot defund these programs on whim, or divert funds to their own pet projects. They must be made part of the national budget on a consistent basis.
And finally, and perhaps most significantly, there are multiple layers of accountability to legislated government projects that ensure transparency in action and spending.
Besides cross-party oversight committees in parliament and the Auditor-General’s office, citizens can theoretically request any information on the project and the relevant state agency is obliged to furnish it.
Preschools are the foundation that Malaysian children need to excel in life. By making them compulsory, we will ensure this fundamental right does not fall prey to social attitudes or lack of privilege.
The writer is an early childhood educator based in Malaysia.