I READ the letter “There are low cost ways to raise children” (The Star, Sept 12), which was written in response to the report “Malaysians find it’s too expensive to raise a child now” (The Star, Sept 11), with much interest as a working mother. I wish to speak up because gender roles and economics are among my areas of research as an academic. I also wish to speak up as a parent trying to raise two children in Klang Valley.
I do somewhat agree that parents should only spend within their means when deciding on expenditures that are related to their children. This should mean that four-figure strollers and baby shoes that sometimes cost more than adult shoes should be out of the question for the rational parent.
However, I wish to dispel the perception that parents insist on overspending for the sake of their children because they do not know better. Firstly, I gave birth in a private hospital because my 9am to 5pm job and limited days off limit my ability to see healthcare professionals in the government health clinic.
I am the daughter of a public healthcare professional and I saw how she was neglected by an over-burdened public healthcare system while being treated for cancer. Despite going to public hospitals and clinics my entire life, that life-changing experience made me resort to private hospital from then onwards.
As the public healthcare system is already over-burdened as it is, if I can afford it, I should do my part to reduce that burden for the sake of the lower income groups, shouldn’t I? I have seen parents and patients with very expensive cars parked haphazardly in front of the local government health clinic in my area, however, but I digress.
Secondly, there are no free kindergartens run by the government that I can enrol my children in. I did my research and found that the combined salaries of my husband and I put us over the “limit” set by the government for families eligible to enrol their children in these kindergartens.
Sure, there are “economical” kindergartens. However, as childcare and preschools are not strictly regulated, these “economical” kindergartens are operating in shophouses or double-storey corner lot homes and have eight classes (yes, you read right!) of preschoolers crammed into those limited spaces. I, for one, won’t put my children to such risks. What would happen if there is a fire or an unexpected mass evacuation of all the children is required? The safety of my children is my priority.
Infant care is another salary-grabber. I naively thought after the birth of my first child that nannies do not cost more than 10% of my salary. Because workplace crèches are not common and community daycare is also only available to the lower income groups, I had no choice but to send my infant daughter to an unlicensed “aunty” whose fees cost me a quarter of my salary.
As for kindergartens, sure, there are cheaper ones but the nannies in question took care of more than four children, including her own, in premises that looked dirty and unkempt.
If home-cooked food and taking care of my kids by myself is the way to reduce the cost of raising children, and hopefully increase the Malaysian birth rate from the current 1.9 children per woman (which is below the “replacement rate” as demographers put it), I am not for it. I am an individual with career aspirations and I do not think I should sacrifice them to become the de facto caregiver because of increasing childcare costs. I believe this is what the parents in the report are thinking too, which led them to conclude that they should have few or no children at all.
In my opinion, the problem is not that parents want an “expensive” lifestyle for their children but that current policies do not promote affordable, safe daycare and after-school care as well as pre-schools.
Initiatives such as those by TalentCorp to encourage mothers to return to work will not succeed if the cost of raising children is still expensive. Flexible work hours is a unicorn that exists in certain large firms only.
The Malaysian female labour force participation rate as at January 2018 is still below the 55% target that was set way back in 2013 and was to be achieved in 2015. Female participation in the labour force is the easiest way to increase economic output as shown in study after study.
Women hold up half the sky. If we want women to continue to do that, and for our children to stay safe, our policy-makers really need to actively change and implement policies that will ensure that our offspring stay safe and healthy (at an affordable cost) while both their mother and father are at work.
RESEARCHER AND MOTHER