Childcare sector 'big enough' for all

THE suggestion that National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) childcare centres are pushing out other players is not an issue, former labour chief Lim Boon Heng said yesterday.

"It's not so much about NTUC crowding out the private sector in setting up childcare centres, but that it has been a pioneer and continues to provide its service," he said.

He added that when NTUC Childcare - now known as NTUC First Campus - was set up in 1977, there were only 15 centres.

Mr Lim, executive chairman of the NTUC Social Enterprise Development Council, said cooperatives help set the benchmark for prices and quality, and to do this, scale is needed.

"With scale, we can bring down unit costs, and we can invest in curriculum research and teaching methods," he said.

Mr Lim was speaking at a celebration marking the milestone of NTUC First Campus' 100th centre. The event was held at My First Skool in Bedok North.

Workers' Party Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Yee Jenn Jong said in Parliament last week that government-linked companies (GLCs) and big cooperatives are crowding out small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

When asked about Mr Yee's comments, Mr Chan Tee Seng, chief executive of NTUC First Campus, said there is strong demand for childcare centres here and the market is big enough to accommodate other operators.

On concerns that NTUC is linked to the Government, he said families "like the idea that NTUC is somewhat associated with the establishment".

He added that "we have a long track record".

Ms Dolly Goh, CEO of the Singapore National Co-operative Federation, said cooperatives compete under the same conditions as private enterprises.

"But unlike private companies, cooperatives do not enjoy the same incentives, especially in areas of government grants and capability-development schemes," she said.

When contacted, Mr Yee said his parliamentary speech was meant "to draw attention to the plight of SMEs which do suffer real competition" from GLCs and big cooperatives.

He reiterated that NTUC First Campus gets to "pick choice sites at hugely discounted rentals". He urged GLCs and cooperatives to leave sufficient space for SMEs to grow.

"While I do not deny that some do benefit from surpluses generated by cooperatives, I prefer that cooperatives compete on more equal terms with SMEs," he said.

NTUC First Campus announced plans yesterday to open 50 more childcare centres in the next two years, adding to its 101 centres.

It will also spend $2.5 million on staff training next year.

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