The care economy is gaining momentum in Malaysia, with a flurry of policy discussions taking centrestage.
But the question is whether or not we have the right policy narratives — the stories that underpin government initiatives — in place.
This is crucial for effective policy-making, given that they shape desired outcomes.
Current care policy narratives
Our narrative today is individualistic and centred around women as the main care providers.
Combined with the value of filial piety, which emphasises the role of individual family members in providing care, the gender stereotype puts the brunt of care-giving on women’s shoulders.
To some extent, such narratives are embedded in our care policy.
Our care economy initiatives centre around two purposes — achieving 60% participation of women in the labour force and meeting Malaysia’s rising need to look after the sick, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities (PWDs).
To achieve these goals, efforts have focused on expanding care services and providing tax incentives.
For instance under Budget 2024, tax incentives will be extended to women returning to work, the income tax exemption limit on childcare allowance has been raised and more childcare centres are being built.
On the other hand, initiatives to meet rising care needs also involve allocating more funds for elderly care and social assistance for PWDs.
Despite past efforts, women’s participation in the labour force has hovered at around 55% in the last five years.
One possible reason is that current measures only reduce the cost of care, instead of reducing or redistributing the care burden to empower women to pursue their careers.
The Malaysian care system is much like our public healthcare system. In the words of former health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, “we are currently underfunded, understaffed, underpaid, overworked, overstretched, and with overcrowded patients (sic).”
To illustrate the dire shortcoming, one just needs to look at the disparity between the need for and availability of trained social workers.
Malaysia needs 30,000 to 40,000 trained social workers. On the other hand, the Social Welfare Department has only 3,800 personnel, many of whom are not trained for social work.
Given such conditions, channelling more funds into a care system designed on past policy narratives only perpetuates the systemic problems rather than solves them.
Charting new public discourse for care policies
These inadequacies highlight the urgency in setting the right policy narratives for the care economy.
We need bold policy-makers to re-imagine our care system to help us achieve the 60% women labour participation and to meet Malaysia’s rising care needs.
To this end, we should first consider rethinking our care policy narratives in two ways.
We must stop stereotyping men as the primary breadwinners and engage them in the care system.
The old policy has excluded men from sharing the care burden and, admittedly, sometimes men avoid the role.
Moving forward, the narrative should be about creating healthy discourse on the roles in care for both men and women.
For example, starting conversations about promoting male participation in care professions as an equivalent to getting more women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs is a good place to begin.
Second, care is not an individual’s home and family responsibility. The more we view care as an individual’s work, the less we include other actors like the community, civil society and government in the care economy.
The push for recognising the value of care must take an all-of-society approach. This policy paradigm shift will promote innovative ideas for tackling the challenges of care ahead, similar to the community shared care home Shared Lives Plus, local support network Good Neighbour Schemes, and a hotline against loneliness among elders The Silver Line, in the UK.
As Malaysia makes the transition into an ageing nation by 2030, it is crucial for the government to re-imagine the future of care by setting the right policy narratives.
Policy-makers and stakeholders face an ultimatum: continue with an individualistic, women-centred perspective on care or recognise care as a shared societal responsibility amongst genders, families, communities and government.
The decision is ours to make, and the impact will shape Malaysia’s care economy for years to come.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.