MAY 28 — In a recent news story published by a major daily, bearing the title “Experts call for early-years STEM education to address critical engineering labour shortage in Malaysia,” a senior academic from the University of Malaya asserted that “STEM skills need to be nurtured from preschool...or else Malaysia risks suffering from these labour shortages down the road.”

This appears to be a popular opinion among policy stakeholders and strangely déjà vu. In decades past, we’ve applied this logic to doctors, lawyers and engineers: once the vital engines of national prosperity. This time around, what price are we willing to pay to emphasise science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) in preschools?

When kids as young as four chafe under enough homework to compete with the entire load of my generation’s primary school years, in what new way will we slice into their free-play time that is so essential to nurturing lifelong curiosity and creativity?

I must respectfully disagree with this expert statement because the link between the premise and its conclusion is flawed. Not only does it ignore the crucial role of preschool as a child’s introduction to society and the “art” of getting along with others, it also reduces the yawning skills gap in STEM professionals to a mere bottleneck in supply and not, say, the massive “brain drain” phenomenon birthed of low pay and limited growth opportunities.

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A policy initiative that impairs the development of children’s socioemotional intelligence today to satisfy the theoretical needs of the future labour market by burdening them with another anvil of expectations does not at all serve the nation, even as we want them to become tech-savvy. Preschoolers must enjoy the freedom to explore, experiment, and discover without pressure to fulfil their potential as adults so that they can positively contribute to society and economics.

Needlessly inflating the emphasis on STEM at the preschool level poses the risk of isolating and excluding many students. Success in the tech industry cannot be for everyone because nature has gifted us differently. You cannot compel someone born to be a Ludwig van Beethoven or Warren Buffett to find their purpose in life as a Sam Altman or Jack Ma. This violates our national educational mantra of “leaving no child behind” and will invariably raise a generation of frustrated adults with mediocre careers.

Even more detrimental is a situation where young children apparently have the freedom to pursue their interests, and yet the government’s announcement of such a policy has a negative signalling effect on parents, who slowly begin browbeating their children into focusing on STEM subjects because they’re convinced that material success is achievable only via these pathways.

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Also, even as we pin halos on Singapore and China for their enviable education systems, we should remember that their fiercely competitive practices have created an entire class of individuals who are checking out of the proverbial rat-race, some even permanently.

In glitzy Singapore, this phenomenon has over the years manifested as an alarming rise in pre-teen and teen suicides resulting from a deep shame over not reaching the academic bar set by society. Others, students as young as primary school students, experience heightened anxiety, burnout, and depression. I remember watching a documentary where an 11-year-old high achiever, when asked about what he’d really enjoy, said with a strained smile: “more sleep.”

Likewise, in China, a growing number of young adults burned out by the demands of the so-called “996” lifestyle have chosen to “lie flat” or “let it rot” as a countercultural cry against the oppressive demands of productivity placed on them. Do we wish for Malaysian children to end up similarly?

A lecturer of mine once shared that her close friend’s daughter took her own life by jumping off the bedroom window of the family apartment. This ten-year-old left a note on her maths workbook that read, “I can’t take it anymore.” If, from an early age our children are always under pressure, pushed to achieve more, and stigmatised if they ever fall behind their peers, our vision of the future must be misguided indeed.

What may be key to unlocking the potential of young people may very well invite disaster if they can’t pace themselves. There is a reason all famous educational theories include milestones: they are age appropriate and within the child’s ability. Are we allowing our kids to pace themselves?

Finally, I wish to share a story about a child in my class that illustrates the challenges facing education systems across Asia. When, in a casual sharing session, I asked a five-year-old boy named L about his career aspirations, he instantly proclaimed he wanted to become a scientist and a police officer.

Intrigued and mildly amused, I asked why, to which he replied his parents had told him scientists make a lot of money and police officers are highly respected. But what about the creative arts? I asked, knowing his fondness and talent for role-play and acting. He instantly made a face and said “it’s too hard”.

This innocent comment encapsulates much of what is wrong with our world view. We routinely talk up Western modes of education and their Ivy Leagues, but conveniently forget that what keeps them at the summit of innovation and the global economy is intellectual property ownership.

From Microsoft to Meta and everything in between, the modern titans of industry all started with an outlandish idea and individuals unfettered by the herd mentality to success. Sustainable economic growth, if that truly is our bottom line, requires public policy to empower the visionary individual and not the other way around.

* The author is an early childhood educator based in Ipoh.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.