Children of Tadika Suria Ku learning about the importance of protecting turtles during Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s programme held in conjunction with World Ocean Day in Kota Kinabalu. FILE PIC

IMAGINE a glitzy new skyscraper in the centre of 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 too often for comfort. The residents inevitably panic and move out. Soon enough, the city council sends inspectors who declare the building is unsafe.

What happened? The builders forgot to focus on the most important aspect of any building: its foundation. In Malaysia, this skyscraper is its human capital while the foundation is the preschool.

Given our ambition to match the West in productivity and innovation, it baffles me why preschool is still not compulsory. I admit there is no definitive or easy answers. 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 neighbours, 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 compulsory preschooling but their enrolment rates are near universal. This means their children do not face discriminatory circumstances on the way up the academic ladder.

Prioritising early childhood education is vital for two broad reasons. First, our international obligations. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) contain a strong preschooling 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 Malay-sian 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 per cent of their potential. He identified that compulsory preschooling was absent and that “some children are behind even from the starting line”.

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out the benefits of preschooling. 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 structured play-based learning.

In the Asian setting, we can dig up even 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 some working parents use preschools as glorified nannies for their children while not participating in educating them. Only the teachers get bogged down with blame if any child lags behind academically.

The government is well aware of the importance of preschool education to Malaysians, they would say. Why else would it formalise early childhood education through the Kurikulum Standard Prasekolah Kebangsaan (KSPK) and Genius Negara programmes?

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 Education Ministry and Social Welfare Department oversee a chain of national preschools that prepare children from low-income families for primary education.

Clearly the government is investing a lot in early childhood education, yet based on the World Bank’s feedback, the returns on such investment are average at best. It is for exactly this reason that I advocate making preschool education compulsory in Malay-sia. 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 per cent enrolment 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 per cent of the children be denied their fundamental right? This is where government legislation comes in. The reason Parliament passes or amends laws — the relevant one in this case being the National Education Act 1996 — is not simply to pass time or add layers of red tape. The purpose of legislation in free societies is to ensure continuity of action, allocation and accountability.

Continuity of action means the grand roadmap to achieve public service goals cannot be shelved or selectively ignored. It also sends a strong signal to society that the initiative promotes the greater good. Next, continuity of allocation means politicians cannot defund these programmes on a 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 legislate government projects that ensure transparency in action and spending. Citizens, too, can theoretically request any information on the project and the concerned 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 a Malaysian early childhood educator with a special interest in technology and its impact on young children

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