June 28, 2022

Looking beyond just the numbers

5 min read

FOLLOWING the recent Budget 2020 speech, we have seen a revival in the debate on extending maternity leave and introducing paternity leave.

The Malaysian Employers Federation claimed that an additional 38 days of paid maternity leave would cost an unbelievable RM3.87bil. Other sources have estimated that in the short term, longer maternity leave and introducing paternity leave would indeed incur significant costs. However, this was countered by yet other sources noting that in the long run, family-friendly policies such as generous parental leave schemes are cost-efficient as they increase employee retention rate and result in healthier children, who will eventually make up the workforce.

There is no arguing that it is important to assess the costs and benefits of parental leave. We need to evaluate these elements to think about who and how we should fund these programmes. But for me, whenever I read papers arguing the cost/benefit of parental leave, I think of my sister.

Growing up, my sister was the ultimate Big Sister – so much so that even my uncles and aunts call her “Kak Di”. Even when she herself was still a kid, she took care of her three younger siblings. At the same time, she was a star student, always getting awards for her academic performance, always active in co-curriculum activities. Nobody was surprised when she graduated from university with a double degree, magna cum laude, no less.

After graduating, my sister took a job at a prestigious government-linked investment company (GLIC). As a young associate at the company, she believed in the ideals of the company’s nation-building mandate and she was eager to do her part to contribute to this cause. A couple of years after starting this job, my sister gave birth to a daughter, my niece, Dina. After taking the full 60 days of maternity leave she was entitled to, my sister returned to her job, where she was then promoted.

A couple of years later, she gave birth to a son, my nephew, Haziq. My sister requested to extend her leave, using her annual leave entitlements as her maternity leave period had been exhausted, but her request was denied by her supervisor at the time. With a heavy heart, my sister once again returned to her job. Haziq, not more than two months old, was sent to a babysitter. “Grandparenting” was not an option because my parents and I were then living in Singapore.

One day, in the middle of Ramadan, my dad got a call from my sister. I couldn’t quite make out what was happening but I heard my sister repeatedly say something along the lines of “he’s not breathing”. It was clear to me something bad had happened, but it didn’t occur to me that the worst had happened. My baby nephew Haziq, barely 70 days old, had died while in the care of his babysitter. We don’t know exactly what had happened leading up to Haziq’s passing. My sister and her husband refused a postmortem, a decision I can only respect – why subject his small body to the procedure, when it wouldn’t bring him back. We wanted to grieve, and we wanted to do so without any anger, just memories of our love for Haziq.

Not long after Haziq passed away, my sister left her job at the GLIC. She instead took on the full-time job of being a mother to Dina, Haziq’s elder sister. A few years later, my sister gave birth to another daughter, Hana. Suffice it to say that Hana grew up never left wanting for love and affection, from her parents, her sister, her grandparents, and her aunts and uncles. Dina has grown up to be an intelligent and loving young teenager and Hana is a thoughtful and energetic girl, albeit extremely cheeky. As with everything in her life, my sister did an amazing job of raising her children.

When my sister decided she was ready to re-enter the official labour force, doing what we as a nation keep telling her and other women like her should do, she found herself failed by a system which is biased against mothers.

In her job hunt, she was often offered a lower salary than the market rate because of the gap in her CV where she took “time off” to care for her kids. On numerous occasions, she faced discrimination on the sole basis that she has children. After one interview with a major telco company, my sister was explicitly told (by text – we’ve kept the screenshot) that she was not shortlisted for the next stage because the decisionmaker was “concerned because she has kids”. Forget the merits of my sister’s academic and professional qualifications, she has children, therefore she must not be able to do the work. I doubt the decisionmaker, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a man, would have the same concerns if my sister were a man with kids.

As a researcher, I usually find myself in an environment where the numbers matter, above all. How much money will this intervention save? How much GDP growth can we expect to see if we implement this programme? How many jobs will this create?

We tend to focus so much on the figures that it’s easy to forget that behind these numbers are human lives and human stories – stories like my sister’s. How is my sister’s experience, and the experiences of others like her, captured in a cost-benefit analysis?

If we only look at short-term monetary cost of family-friendly policies, like having generous parental leave, introducing appropriate childminding standards in informal childcare and legislating against hiring discrimination based on gender, it might never make sense to do it.

To my sister’s former employer, my sister was replaceable. A loss, I can imagine, but not one from which they couldn’t recover. For my sister, however, the lack of sufficient support for her family responsibilities as well as the gender discrimination is a challenge she might well have to continue to face for as long as she decides to be a part of the country’s workforce.

At some point, my sister and other women like her may decide that none of this is worth the trouble; it may be better for their overall well-being to just leave the labour force that has not been particularly kind to them, 60% women’s participation target be damned. And who can blame these women?

Increasingly, we are moving towards evidence-based policymaking, and rightly so. However, the evidence part in this “evidence-based” approach tends to be skewed towards the quantitative and dismissive of the qualitative. This means that our policymaking then usually focuses on monetary implications without giving due consideration to the unquantifiable aspects of the population’s life – aspects that cannot be given a price.As we consider the evidence on implementing a more comprehensive set of family-friendly policies, I hope that we place just as much of an emphasis on the unquantifiable impact of the current lack of these policies on people’s lives, as we do on their short-term monetary implications.


Kuala Lumpur