As a child turns 3 years old, parents clamber for potential pre-schools to enrol their children in, hoarding pamphlets of possible establishments and reading online reviews.
Preschool refers to educational programs provided to children between 4-6 years old and serves as a crucial stepping stone between the early years at home and the journey of formal schooling ahead.
To many parents in urban areas, sending their children to preschool is a given. In truth, however, preschool education in Malaysia is non-compulsory and is not a prerequisite to attending Primary or Standard One of the national school system.
One of the aims of Malaysia’s Education Blueprint 2015-2025 was to achieve universal preschool enrollment by 2020. This goal was not met. The Ministry of Education in 2023 reported that preschool enrollment is currently at 80%.
In 2021, 286,861 (26.9%) children between the ages of 4-6 were unable to attend preschool facilities before they receive their Standard 1 education, according to Untuk Malaysia, an NGO with the vision of reshaping Malaysia through greater awareness of educational issues . The number is higher than in 2019 (174,933, 17.1%) and 2020 (234,476, 22.2%) respectively .
The reality is that children under the age of six in both urban and rural areas are missing out on an education that could set the tone for the rest of their lives in terms of social, emotional, cognitive and physical aspects. Accessing preschool education presents unique circumstances in both rural and urban locations.
Preschool Providers In The Nation
In Malaysia, the lion’s share of preschools are run by the public sector including the Ministry of Education (MOE), Department of Community Development (Jabatan Kemajuan Masyarakat or KEMAS) and Department of National Integration and Unity (Jabatan Perpaduan Negara dan Integrasi Negara or JPNIN).
However, there is a growing number of private preschools that meet rising demands for preschool education.
- Currently, there are more than 16,700 government-established preschools in Malaysia, and more than 9,100 privately established ones.
MOE and KEMAS are the main providers of public preschool education, each accounting for 24% and 33% of preschools in Malaysia in 2021 respectively.
- Another provider of public preschool education is JPNIN (7% of preschools) through the establishment of Tadika Perpaduan.
- Private preschools refer to privately owned facilities including those that are run by state Islamic religious departments (JAIN or Jabatan Agama Islam Negeri) and by the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia or ABIM) which accounts for 11% of private preschools in Malaysia.
- In the last decade, the enrollment in private preschools has exceeded those in public preschools. In 2020, the private sector accounts for 52% of all enrolled students aged 4+ and 5+ in more than 9,100 establishments.
The Musical Chair Tussle To Enrol In Preschools In Urban Areas
There are many reasons why it has become difficult to enrol children into preschools despite how important it is to get a child into early education.
#1: Public preschool seats are capped
States and territories with dense urban populations like Selangor, and Kuala Lumpur have received more applications than the available seats can accommodate.
With government-run kindergartens, you can only register your child if there is a spot available and it is on a first come, first served basis. It’s all down to luck.– Nadia Syazana, 34, a parent 
With limited seats at publicly-run preschools in urban areas, parents sought private preschools for their children.
#2: The expense of sending a child to preschool can be comparable to tertiary education
The high cost of sending a child to preschool has led parents to adopt a frugal lifestyle or take on additional jobs to manage the financial burden.
Azira Azmi and her husband, for example, had to juggle part-time employment to cope with the costs. Azira revealed that she allocated over RM500 per month to enrol one of her children in kindergarten. This was the cheapest option she could find.
The sky-high cost may be too much for lower-income households. One parent decided not to send their children to kindergarten.
Those who have more money can send their children to private kindergartens whereas those who can’t afford it must wait until their children are old enough for school. – Hafiza Nek Man, 37, a parent 
#3: In the last few years, the reduction of preschool fee assistance has jeopardised enrollment rates.
According to the World Bank, from 2010 to 2017, the government allocated RM166 million in fee assistance. It has resulted in an increase in preschool enrollment within the timeframe with over 227,479 children benefiting from the initiative.
However, in 2016, the allocation halved to RM18 million and in 2018, the initiative ceased to exist .
In the midst of the pandemic, fee assistance was renewed with a lower allocation than before. This was RM1.3 million in 2021 and RM1.1 million in 2022 . With a lower allocation, only 1,811 of them received free assistance.
#4: It was reported in 2023 by the World Bank that many private preschool operators struggle to register their establishments
As such many operators are forced to operate their preschools illegally in areas such as Sabah.
A private preschool operator in rural Sabah shared that they would have to travel long distances to renew their yearly licences, and renewal fees are costly. 43% of potential preschool operators wanted an easier registration process to meet demand .
#5: Private preschool operators face a dilemma to reduce costs in light of increasing living costs and RM1,500 minimum wage in 2022
A World Bank 2021 report showed that school attendance was lower and a low-cost preschool in Sentul that subsidised their fees from RM180, has seen increased dropout rates.
But if we don’t increase the fees, we will not be able to retain the staff for long. If more staff leave soon, some operators are at risk of shutting down their business. – Sharifah Maisarah Syed Mohamad, Kedah Early Childhood Educators Association secretary
Private operators face the challenge of maintaining their centres amid a constant barrage of obstacles, such as increasing living costs and escalating food expenses. These obstacles may jeopardise the continuation of their services and consequently opportunities for children to attend preschool.
Still A Mirage To Many Rural Communities
Some states such as Kelantan, Perak, Terengganu, Pahang, Sabah and Sarawak have an oversupply of seats in government-run preschools. And yet conversely, many still struggle to maintain full classrooms.
#6: Rural classrooms are still inadequate
In Seberang Perai, on the outskirts of Pulau Pinang, the existing classroom does not meet the demand.
Due to the number of applications received exceeding the set student capacity, the school had no choice and had to screen students who are truly qualified to attend preschool classes here. – Farid Suwardi, President of Parent and Community Involvement (PIBK) Seberang Perai Selatan 
#7: In 2021, 1.6% of 617 children in Sarawak who entered Year 1, never attended preschool
By contrast, most children in rural Sabah have never even attended preschool. Some factors include the lack of awareness of the necessity of preschool education.
Indigenous communities such as the minority Penan living deep in the interior of Sarawak have long been sceptical of sending their young ones to preschool.
Before, they could not go to school because their parents did not want to be separated from them, and vice-versa. – Maister, 59, the headman of Long Leng
The establishment of five preschools in Apoh Baram’s five Penan villages in 2019 and 2020 proves that providing essential facilities is achievable. In the past, parents in the Upper Baram villages hesitated to send their children to preschools due to fears of separation and distance. However, with the preschools now conveniently located nearby, a noticeable shift in mindset has occurred within the community.
Now that there are preschools available in our villages, our children have no problem attending classes and there is no issue with separation. – Maister, 59, the headman of Long Leng
#8: For the Orang Asli community, attending preschool is no walk in the park
Compounded with the limited and lack of quality preschool facilities in the areas, many would have to walk an hour or more to neighbouring villages.
It is quite far. Sometimes we are too busy to walk them to the preschool on the other side. – excerpt from IDEAS Contextualising Education Policy to Empower Orang Asli Children report 
In certain villages, requests have been made with JAKOA to run their preschools nearer to their home – to no avail.
A teacher who taught our children at home applied to open a preschool here. It’s been years, but still no preschool has been built. – excerpt from IDEAS Contextualising Education Policy to Empower Orang Asli Children report 
On top of their trouble finding a preschool for their children, Orang Asli parents struggle to pay the preschool fees.
There’s no assistance for preschool fees. Parents would have to pay for their children. Teachers allowed us to pay according to our ability and for important things like insurance and registration fees. – excerpt from IDEAS Contextualising Education Policy to Empower Orang Asli Children report 
Putting A Stop To The Issue
The need to improve preschool attendance has been an important goal for the Malaysian government to achieve. And with compulsory preschool education on the horizon, this goal may be possible.
Minister of Education, Fadhlina Sidek compared the enrollment rate of preschool to primary school education which is compulsory in Malaysia;
Preschool enrolment is currently at 80%, while secondary school enrolment is around 78%, which is quite low compared to enrolment in primary schools, which is made compulsory, at 98%. – Fadhlina Sidek, Minister of Education 
Data from the World Bank suggested that free and compulsory preschool education has been beneficial to 46 nations in ensuring an increase in enrollment in preschools .
Organisations Helping Kids Get Into Preschool
As it is still a work in progress in pushing for universal enrollment in preschool education in Malaysia, these organisations have taken the step ahead to provide affordable preschool, especially for marginalised communities; SUKA Society, Dignity for Children Foundation and Global Peace Foundation.
Explore our sources:
- The Borneo Post (2023). Minister: MoE targets 90 pct preschool enrolment, measure to prevent dropouts. Link
- F.Rahim. (2023). Lebih 170,000 murid sekolah di Malaysia tidak mahir membaca. Astro Awani. Link
- World Bank Group (2023). Shaping First Steps: A Comprehensive Review of Preschool Education in Malaysia. Link
- Y.Abdul Latif. (2023). Lack of govt pre-schools, kindergartens tough on B40 parents. Free Malaysia Today. Link
- A. Zulkifli & M.Mukhtar. (2022). Expand childcare subsidies to reflect rising costs, says group. New Straits Times.Link
- M.Iskandar Othman. (2023). Sekolah luar bandar juga perlu tambahan kelas prasekolah. Sinar Harian. Link
- P.P. Goh. (2021). Sarawak ensures rural children access to quality early childhood education. New Straits Times. Link
- Malay Mail. (2023). Preschools testament of Sarawak govt’s desire to help rural people, says Penan headman.Link
- IDEAS. (2021). Contextualising Education Policy to Empower Orang Asli Children.