RSOG Policy Discourse Series

Free Breakfast Club – Breaking the Cycle


Mr. Derek Kok

Research Associate at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia and the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development


When: 24 October 2019

Where: Razak School of Government

Guest Speaker: Derek Kok


The framework of the Session 

A nutritionist once put forth a piece of advice: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” However, a study by UNICEF Malaysia in 2018 found that 12% of children living in low-cost flats eats less than three meals a day. This year, the government announced that it will introduce Free Breakfast for all primary school children in January 2020, replacing the existing Rancangan Makanan Tambahan (Supplementary Food Programme) which targeted hardcore poor families. The step towards providing universal nutrition for children in schools received mixed feedback from the public, with detractors concerned over the implementation, citing potential wastage. Proponents of free breakfast see this as an opportunity to address double-burden of malnutrition (under- and over-nutrition) which exists in the same population, removing the stigma of aid-recipient, and more importantly, eliminating pitfalls of targeted assistance. A more recent study found that malnutrition cuts across ethnicities, income levels, occupations, academic qualifications, states and urban-rural divide. Therefore, providing universal access to address malnutrition may be the right step forward. What could be the barriers to materialising this programme? What are the benefits of universal intervention as compared to targeted assistance? What are the best practices of universal interventions in other countries that Malaysia could contextualise and realise? These are some of the key areas that the guest speaker will share during the programme.


Key Takeaways from the Session

One of the contentious questions in social protection is whether benefits should be assigned to all (universal) or assigned for those who meet a certain criterion (targeting). Too often, arguments for or against are based on concerns of efficiency, affordability, and sustainability of providing such assistance, among others. When the government announced the introduction of Free Breakfast for all primary school children to take effect in the year 2020, the reaction came in many shapes and sizes. RSOG felt it was timely to discuss the issue of universal versus targeted assistance further by hosting the Guest Speaker, a Research Associate at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia and the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, who focuses on social protection policies, especially for children.

A consistent, data-driven evidence-based approach should be the cornerstone of governments in instituting policies. Currently, there is a strong case of malnutrition double-burden in Malaysia – an overnutrition and undernutrition of children. Malnutrition affects cognitive development as children under 6 years are in the sensitive growth period. This could then lead to long term impact, affecting educational outcomes. Whether children are conscious of it or otherwise, hunger affects performance. With at least 70% of children skipping breakfast and 35% of those are in primary schools in Malaysia, these statistics are worrying and indicates a strong need for intervention.

The rationale for a universal approach was outlined through a systematic review of related studies conducted locally and globally. While segmenting groups into income brackets may seem a pragmatic option for distributing assistance, it does not factor in household’s wealth volatility and the cliff effect (where a household loses eligibility as income surpasses threshold set) and the value of the lost benefit often exceed the increase in wages. These conditions cost time and administrative burden. Targeted assistance also means that there is a need to demarcate eligibility, which in the case of breakfast for school goers, would be adding additional administrative workload for the schools to manage.

More importantly, a universal approach would eliminate one of the more ignored effects of targeted assistance – the stigma of receiving aid. Children, as early as 10 years are known to be aware of stereotypes of what being poor means and how it affects them in their social networks. The requirement of declaration in order to become eligible for such assistance affects uptake in many instances. The impact of stigma often goes unaccounted for in policy discussion of targeted assistance and it leaves the issue unresolved.

There is also an opportunity for the programme to change the culture of nutrition. Children tend to eat what is provided in the family and often it is based on affordability and preparation time. Nutritious breakfast allows children the opportunity to consume nutrients that they otherwise would not. The act of eating together can also help improve civic consciousness, forge stronger camaraderie and opportunity to get to know one another in a more informal way. These are some of the multiplier effects that a universal approach can garner, although the priority remains to ensure that children are not left hungry in schools, eliminating any possible effects that could prevent them from thriving.

Having said so, free breakfast is only one of the many measures. Longitudinal studies have shown that stunting – a result of impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition – affects educational outcomes and future earnings. To ensure children do not face the adverse effects of malnutrition in early childhood, more can be done. This includes universal provisions of sufficient healthcare and nutrition during the first 1000 days window, from gestation to up to 3 years.

One of the more radical approaches that the government can take is to provide unconditional universal child grant considering that poverty affects people and segments of society differently. Introduction of vouchers or one-off, inconsistent cash assistance restricts the ability to adapt to any financial shocks. Recurring aid makes a difference in shifting spending habits, it allows the opportunity for realistic and timely household budgeting, especially when it is assisted with financial literacy training.

The introduction of Free Breakfast for all may be a useful starting point for a social safety net. It allows policymakers to look beyond breakfast, allowing the opportunity to  deliberate further on the rights to socioeconomic protection and how best to provide social assistance. Rethinking modalities and the types of policies to be introduced can help ensure sustainability, affordability and impact of its implementation.

Key issues raised

  1. Policymakers should refrain from assuming the choices that end-user has. Such choices are likely dependent on many factors such as cost (time and financial), convenience, familiarity, and flexibility. This is especially the case on childcare and why parents opt for informal carers compared to state-certified childcare centres.
  2. Buy-in and political will are the two key success factors of any programmes or policies introduced. It requires buy-in from all stakeholders, especially from end-user and political will from the leaders to institute what is introduced.
  3. Research funding and freedom in the academia could unleash potential in data-driven evidence-based policymaking as it allows the opportunity to provide informed recommendations, run randomised controlled trials and rigorous impact analyses into any programme designed or proposed.

About the Speaker

Derek Kok is Research Associate at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia and the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development. His research interests cover the interactions between law, politics, and social policy, with a specific focus on welfare reform and social protection policies for children. Derek has worked on public policy at both the national and international level – developing policy responses to violent extremism in Malaysia, drafting the national private sector anti-corruption framework for the Bhutan Government, and assisting on land & constitutional reform initiatives in Myanmar. His work and comments have been featured by the likes of Financial Times, South China Morning Post, Malay Mail, and Astro Awani. Derek holds an LLB with first-class honours from the University of Liverpool and graduated with distinction with an LLM in Transnational Law from King’s College London.