Early Childhood Development Centres Bill – Speech by Leon Perera

(Delivered in Parliament on 28 February 2017)


Madam Speaker, it is important that we regulate our early childhood development centres sensibly and responsibly to ensure good outcomes for our precious children who will carry the light of Singapore forward into the future. While I do not oppose the intent of this bill, I shall raise questions about specific provisions and its implementation.

Firstly the requirements spelt out in this Bill – for example on registration of personnel laid out under Clause 25 in the context of the shortage of qualified child care teachers, as well as the greater administrative requirements – may trigger many smaller, independent centres to either merge with or be acquired by larger players or else close down altogether. I am concerned about the status of smaller centres that offer niche services, for example to children with special needs.

Madam, the quality of education and child-care services should come first, ahead of industry considerations.

But at the same time, if we foster an industry landscape which is effectively an oligopoly of the AOPs, POPs and MOE kindergartens, that may pose some risks in terms of losing an element of diversity and competition. Diversity is important particularly in respect of centres catering to children with special needs.

In fact in 2000, Dr Aline Wong, then SMS for Education, said: “Today, different pre-school providers, with their different philosophies and approaches to child development, offer a wide range of pre-school education models in Singapore. …There is merit in this arrangement, as it promotes healthy competition and provides a fertile arena for innovative practices.”[1]

I would like to ask the Ministry – does it expect a major consolidation in the industry as a result of this Bill and if so what will be done to ensure that this takes place in a way that protects diversity and choice while also safeguarding the interests of the children? For example, will other government agencies like SPRING reach out to the sector to provide advice and assistance in respect of M&A or alliance possibilities?

Next on licensing requirements, will ECDA demonstrate flexibility on a case by case basis in line with the spirit of the regulations? A case in point might be where individual teachers may possess good qualifications from institutes abroad or at home and could be required to undertake an abridged or accelerated form of the current PQAC-accredited Advanced Diploma that is required. Will ECDA practise flexibility and accept different pathways to accreditation taking into consideration individual professional qualifications and experience or will it rigidly require all professionals to conform to the same PQCA-accredited pathway?

Next will the Ministry consider setting up an independent advisory body to inform policy formation? This was the recommendation from a study authored by Dr Lynn Ang for the Lien Foundation in 2012.

I quote from the study:

“While the increasing government involvement to regulate the sector is generally welcomed by most participants in the study, there is a concern that the overwhelming influence of government may stifle the independent voices of preschool teachers and other stakeholders. As such, a consultative approach to policy development and implementation is seen as key in galvanising support and moving the sector forward. One example of a consultative approach could entail the setting up of an independent advisory body comprising representatives from different key stakeholders such as preschool teachers, service providers, teacher training providers, health professionals, family educators, community workers, social workers, parents, voluntary welfare organisations (VWO) and other relevant agencies and experts who are involved in the care and education of young children.” (Pg 12)[2]

Such a consultative approach to policy formation, recommended by experts as I have quoted above, is advisable given the rapid pace of research and innovation in this field. Since the opening of the 13th Parliament in January 2016, the government has stated that one of its key themes is “partnership.” Such consultative policy formation would demonstrate that such commitments are being honoured in practice and not only in rhetoric.

Next, as my colleague Prof Goh has argued, the exemption for MOE kindergartens is hard to accept. In its consultation paper of 20 Nov 2015, the ECDA said that MOE Kindergartens (MKs) are exempt because of strict oversight from MOE HQ and because MOE is accountable to Parliament. This seems to conflate two functions – broad oversight on the one hand and operational inspection responsibility to ensure quality standards in service delivery on the other. If indeed MOE’s regulation of MKs is more strict than the standards required under the ECDA Act, that is problematic from the standpoint of equity. If it is on a par with the standards required under this Bill, would it not be more reasonable to transfer supervisory oversight over MKs to ECDA, thus alleviating the oversight burden on the part of MOE HQ and levelling the inspection and enforcement playing field?

Lastly I would like to make a very exploratory suggestion. The quality of pre-school education has been shown to be a critical factor in determining educational success downstream. This was argued by an EIU report entitled Starting Well, commissioned by the Lien Foundation in 2012. The same report placed Singapore 30th in a global ranking of preschool education quality and 21st in terms of affordability.[3]

And we do face a challenge of inequality in Singapore, with Gini co-efficients above 40. These have been coming down but they are still very high by the standards of other developed countries.

Breaking the poverty cycle should be a priority for Singapore. Not only is this the right thing to do from the standpoint of social justice. Not only will this help cement social solidarity and protect us from the divisive politics that is being seen in some other countries. It will also help unlock talent that could power our economic future, fire our imagination and inspire our spirits. One of the children in a large, poor family living in a HDB rental flat could be the next Ron Sim or Sim Wong Hoo, the next Joseph Schooling, Yip Pin Xiu or Theresa Goh, the next Iskandar Jalil, the next Catherine Lim.

We know how important it is to ingrain good learning habits at a very young age. Children who miss the boat because their families lack the money or understanding to invest in their pre-school years will struggle in primary school and are likely to become demoralised, widening the gap with their peers.

This could be why a director of a social service centre I spoke to shared that he is now seeing cases which are the children of the at-risk clients he served over 20 years ago.

It is well accepted that programs that reward poor families for keeping their children in school help to break the poverty cycle. The pioneering program here was the Bolsa Familia in Brazil, which has inspired many similar programs around the world. The Bolsa Familia basically incentivised poor families to keep their children in school. It is also well known that many other developed countries offer free or partly free pre-school education. In Sweden, all children receive at least 525 hours per year free of charge, beginning from when the child reaches the age of 3.[4]

In the longer term and as a first step, will the Ministry explore the idea of making a more aggressive financial intervention to provide free good-quality kindergarten and child-care to all at risk children in poor families, perhaps tied to certain conditions? There is already an initiative – Kidstart – that can serve as a platform for a more expansionary vision here.

Moreover there is anecdotal evidence that children from many poor, low-income families sometimes attend kindergartens or child-care centres only a few times a month, which is the minimum to continue receiving the KIFAS or CFAC subsidies. In other words absenteeism by children from poor families may be very high.

Will the Ministry conduct a study of this absenteeism phenomenon and also consider policies to address that? Such policies could include making pre-school compulsory or providing some conditional benefit to parents from such families to ensure high attendance rates, which is the idea behind the Bolsa Familia policy.

[1] https://www.moe.gov.sg/media/speeches/2000/sp11112000_print.htm

[2] http://www.lienfoundation.org/sites/default/files/vitalvoices_1.pdf

[3] http://www.lienfoundation.org/sites/default/files/sw_report_2.pdf

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/02/25/is-public-preschool-a-smart-investment/what-preschool-means-in-sweden