IN the 10th Malaysia Plan (10MP) tabled at the Dewan Rakyat last year, one of the highlights was for children to begin school earlier, from age 6+ to 5+ in line with the trend in many developed countries.
The government planned to implement the policy in stages, where schools in rural and plantation areas that are under-utilised would be given priority to kick-start the policy.
To facilitate the implementation, early childhood development and preschool programmes will be stepped up to ready more children to enter schools at a younger age.
Efforts will also be made to raise preschool enrolment for children between the ages of 4 and 5 from the current 67 per cent to 87 per cent by 2012 and 92 per cent by 2015.
According to earlier statements by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also education minister, the age 5+ schooling plan would involve more than one million children, as opposed to the 500,000 to 600,000 pupils for which the school entry age is fixed at 6.
The government is confident that the plan can be fully implemented before the end of 10MP.
The immediate reaction from the public has revolved around the same basic concern -- whether the government already has what it takes to carry on with the plan, i.e. infrastructure, sufficient teaching materials and an adequate number of trained teachers to cater to the significant increase in enrolments.
Proponents of the policy would be quick to debunk public scepticism by pointing to the advantages of the policy, which includes speeding up efforts to produce more well-trained human capital and its positive implication on the supply of human capital.
Furthermore, the children would mature faster.
With the government taking a vigilant approach in implementing the policy in stages while continuing its ongoing programme in teacher-training and upgrading infrastructure in schools, opponents of the policy appear to have very little reason to accuse the government of rushing another important education policy into execution.
Nonetheless, it seems that even those in the teaching fraternity have their reservations about the feasibility of the policy.
National Union of the Teaching Profession secretary-general Lok Yim Pheng recently voiced her concern that 5-year-old children could not be treated the same way as 7-year-olds because they had different needs in school.
She opined that the curriculum for Year One must be adjusted accordingly to suit the abilities and development of 5-year-old children if the policy is to be implemented, in addition to the need for suitable sanitary facilities and resting places to accommodate these 5-year-olds as they are still very young and may not adjust well to the long hours in school.
The fact that children have different rates of development and many parents still remain unsure whether their children will be ready to start formal schooling at a very young age are perhaps some of the reasons why the government has been careful in commenting on the issue publicly.
As of today, the plan is one of the key items in the Education Ministry's interim strategic plan, where the government is still gauging public sentiment and sourcing feedbacks via various channels.
On June 24, TV2's Mandarin talk show What Say You , which I hosted, joined the effort of gathering public feedback on the schooling at age 5+ policy by inviting two education experts to share their views.
It sparked a lively discussion and the audience at home also phoned in to offer their views.
During the one-hour show, the two panellists presented their opinions on the pros and cons of the policy, its benefit to future human capital, what the government should do to ensure smooth implementation of the policy and the role of parents in preparing their children for early schooling.
One of the panellists, an expert on child development, highlighted the issue of the significant implication of the policy on children with learning disabilities.
Analysing the policy from the perspective of children with special needs, the panellists pointed out that there was a genuine need to care about the welfare of children troubled by learning disabilities and urged that they do not be marginalised.
Overall, it is still premature to draw a conclusion on whether the policy is worth pursuing with the full weight of government resources, given the fact that the government is still studying ways to implement the policy.
But the biggest speed bump perhaps is that every critical decision by the government would be subjected to the effect of its noble pledge of "People First" and it is no mystery that the Malaysian public can be avidly critical towards certain education policies which they don't sit well with.
How critical in the case of this policy one might ask. To take one indicator as example, the show aired on June 24 received four phone calls from TV viewers from Penang, Perak, Kuala Lumpur and Johor. All four conveyed one clear verdict in unison -- "No".