Most of the children at E.'s daycare are Singaporean. This does not make financial sense.
Most Singaporean household that can afford it, have a live-in domestic helper. Her wages are, usually, a little cheaper than the cost of full time daycare, the arrangement is a lot more flexible than daycare (even though hours usually run from 7am to 7pm, breakfast, lunch and dinner are included, as are Saturday mornings) and the employer gets the added bonus of a clean house and a meal on the table.
Those Singaporeans who cannot afford a helper, usually have a family arrangement to help them out with child care, either an aunt, a grandmother or grandfather who looks after the child (it's not unusual to be told by an elderly taxi driver that he prefers working the night shift so he and his wife can look after their grandchildren during the day).
From the age of eighteen months old, children are deemed old enough to go to school - including uniforms, backpacks and, in some cases, homework. This is an important decision, since it's actually quite hard to get into a good school - making sure they get in at the earliest possible stage ("playgroup") makes it much easier enter the highly competitive "kindergarten" and "primary" phases. However this is not the same as daycare: most children go to school from 9am to 12am, three to five mornings a week. This is often supplemented by enrichment classes, for example Chinese, ballet or public speaking (or swimming - which we do).
Such enrichment classes are part and parcel of "kiasu" parenting, making sure your little one is ahead in the race for education and knowledge. "Kiasu" is a Chinese Hokkien term meaning "afraid to lose" and it is a well-known characteristic of all aspects of Singaporean life (for instance: if you go to a presentation with a buffet afterwards, Singaporeans will start off by loading their plates with as much food as possible before going in to listen, out of fear of losing out on the food). Unfortunately, because almost all Singaporean parents adhere to the kiasu-style, it gets harder and harder to get ahead. Which is why toddlers might go for enrichment classes in English and calculus.
But knowing all this, understanding the differences, I was still wondering why parents were shelling out for their little ones to go to E.'s daycare centre. Why were they not cared for by a helper or a family member? Why were they not in school? Why choose the expensive option of a childcare centre?
Looking for answers, I asked the Singaporeans I know and searched the kiasuparents forum. The answer is so much simpler than I would have imagined. Helpers are generally non-Singaporean and are not trained childcare professionals. So though they might love the little ones with all their hearts, they are not to be entrusted with the filling of the brain during the golden years. (They tend to stick the child in front of the television while they get on with cooking and cleaning, was an often voiced fear.) Grandparents are generally doting, which is lovely as the exception but not on a day-to-day-let's-raise-a-responsible-human-being basis. Schools only fill a few hours every week, don't feed the children and necessitate enrichment classes.
E.'s daycare centre on the other hand takes care of all her meals (this is why E. generally has two breakfasts and two lunches - one Asian and one Western each) and is known for it's strong educational slant. Mommy Agnesost notes on the kiasuparents forum: "... I can see positive improvements (discipline and language ability) within my child. His mandarin level has improved drastically. So far, I do no send for my child for any enrichment course. I find that the school is suffice to provide strong academic base for my child." [sic]
Education is of the highest importance in Singapore - so maybe, after the costs for tuition, school and enrichment classes are added up, our expensive daycare centre is actually quite a bargain.
I don't know if E. speaks Mandarin yet. But she does speak English. The teachers taught her how to say "teacher" - and that's what she calls me now too.