New Taipei cares about childcare

TAIWAN - Singapore might have a dismal fertility rate - hovering at 1.2 in recent years, one of the lowest in the world. But if there's another island in a bleaker situation, it is Taiwan, where the fertility rate was just 0.89 in 2010.

Facing a demographic time bomb, the Taiwanese government has in recent years embarked on major policy initiatives to correct the ailing birth rate, and this may offer us useful lessons.

Delegates in Singapore got to hear from New Taipei mayor Eric Chu at a day-long meeting recently organised by the Centre for Liveable Cities and the Eisenhower Fellowships chapter here.

Mr Chu, former vice-premier of Taiwan, is the first elected mayor of New Taipei, a city newly created in 2010 and Taiwan's most populous city. Last month, he opened the city's 20th public childcare centre, adding to the 95 private centres in the city. There are 35 public childcare centres in Taiwan and 20 of them are in New Taipei.

The initiative is part of a wider strategy to make it easier for couples to have babies. The strategy is two-pronged: to provide financial assistance such as baby bonuses to relieve the cost of child-rearing, and to provide robust childcare infrastructure aimed at helping overburdened parents care for their children up to the age of two.

The government had realised that while it had provided an adequate schooling system that began from kindergarten at age two, there was a lack of quality daycare centres for newborns and infants, primarily because it was a risky business. To address this, the government identified disused spaces and renovated and converted them into daycare centres for infants.

The government collaborated with higher institutions to recruit and train tertiary students to become childcare teachers. Every childcare teacher must earn a licence to work, and the licence is reviewed annually to ensure quality.

It also began integrating infant care centres with kindergartens and elementary schools so that children "can become students of an elementary school from a newborn age", said mayor Chu. A percentage of the places at these centres are allocated to low-income families.

The efforts have lowered the cost of childcare to US$200 (S$250) per child monthly - significantly lower than the cost in Singapore, where the median fee for full-day childcare is $788 as of August.

Apart from affordability, Singapore today faces a worsening childcare crunch. The newly set-up Early Childhood Development Agency has pledged to add 20,000 more places by 2017 by offering rental subsidies to private operators.

This is to help the Government better regulate the industry in terms of fees and quality. But can it go further by similarly offering some otherwise empty spaces to operators rent-free, which will enable a significant reduction in fees?

Or perhaps even set up public childcare centres as a way of setting the benchmark for the industry?

Singapore also suffers from a shortage of qualified childcare teachers. In fact, childcare centres such as NTUC First Campus have begun hiring teachers from Taiwan as they come with degrees in early childhood education and have a culture similar to Singapore's.

While the Taiwanese government collaborates with higher institutes to develop a large pool of qualified early childhood educators and has crafted an image of these teachers as valuable assets to society who command a lot of respect, Singapore lacks such an approach.

There needs to be a more concerted effort to recruit teachers earlier and improve the image and attractiveness of the industry through public education campaigns.

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