Malaysia’s small population has meant that its human resources are stretched thin, hence the need for more women in the workforce. Gender equality also requires that they be given opportunities for employment. In order that this national priority is met there must be childcare centres to take the place of mother, the caregiver and nurturer. Indeed demand for childcare should not outstrip supply. Nevertheless, when supply is horrendously substandard, it should not be tolerated. These places must meet stipulated minimum standards of safety, hygiene and childhood education before they can be allowed to take on the responsibility of what is actually the preparation of a new generation of Malaysians to take the country to new heights of development. Studies have shown that a child’s most formative years are in the pre-school period, which makes childcare centres particularly important.
This is, therefore, a matter of national interest and should not be dismissed as a “woman thing”. The nation cannot go on developing on the basis of imported labour, especially with regard to skilled and super-skilled categories. Women undergraduates outnumber their male counterparts, but their female labour force participation rate remains low. Childcare keeps many professionally qualified women at home to ensure effective nurturing. Therefore, what should happen is that childcare services must be approached as an industry requiring a trained workforce: qualified child minders trained in healthcare, child nutrition and child education. The time has come for the unskilled, intuitive approach to childcare to end. Surely, despite the shortage, centres that have been dangerously negligent should not be allowed to reopen under any circumstances.
Instead, the authorities must look at ways of making childcare a positive force for nation-building. Providing crèches at workplaces, for example, is an approach that lends itself to regulation, supervision and professionalism. This should be an integral part of corporate social responsibility. Where workplaces are considered dangerous, then licensed, registered and supervised government and employer-funded community childcare should be the solution.