Why only one child? RM1.1 million to raise a child in Malaysia

Updated (Aug 18, 2013): This article was used as a source of reference by New Sunday Times for their cover story, “Too expensive to have children”, pg. 12-13. I was also interviewed by the NST journalist, Tan Choe Choe.

Updated (May 7, 2011): Local radio station, BFM 89.9, carried a podcast story about this blog entry on Aug. 7, 2010. You can also download/listen the recording here (MP3, 2.76 Mb)

It started in 1896 with a study entitled “Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children” by Granville Stanley Hall who claimed that children who have no siblings (only-child) as oddballs or permanent misfits. Hall went as far as to claim that “being an only child is a disease in itself.”

Time magazine, July 19, 2010 (photo from www.time.com)

Time magazine, July 19, 2010 (photo from www.time.com)

Describing an only-child as a “disease” is appalling and irresponsible. But is it true that only children are “overprivileged, asocial, royally autonomous … self-centered, aloof and overly intellectual,” as written by sociologist Judith Blake in her 1989 book, Family Size and Achievement?

This is the question tackled by Time magazine in their July 19, 2010 issue (vol. 176, No. 3). I read this issue with great interest because my wife (Jennifer) and I have one child too. Before we got married, I told my wife that I would like to have two children, and wife three. However, after our first child, Zachary, was born a year after our marriage, there appears an unspoken agreement between us that no more children are “in the pipeline”. In other words, we decided to shut up shop.

Our only child, Zachary Teh, aged 3

Why? Firstly, I am forty this year, and by the time Zachary goes to university, I would be sixty, probably retired and doing god-knows-what at home. Secondly, Jennifer and I are busy with our respective work and have just enough quality time with Zachary as it now stands.

The third reason has to do with how Jennifer and I see the purpose or point of our marriage. Before we got married, we agreed that our marriage should be a partnership for mutual happiness, fulfillment, security, and support, rather than treating our marriage as an opportunity to maximize our child production rate within our fertile years. In other words, the success of our marriage isn’t tied to the number of children we have, but how well my wife and I fulfill and support one another throughout our lives together. Having children (be it one or more) is a part of our lives together in marriage, rather than the point of our marriage. I think this perspective to one’s marriage is important.

At work, I have several colleagues (who are either hardwired or culturally wired to breed like rabbits) who expressed shock that I should have only one child. One has even told me that my son would feel lonely without siblings. This is a common misconception. There are many cases where siblings (even after they have grown up to be adults) who do not feel close to one another, or end up hating or fighting one another over some issues, petty or otherwise.

I can speak from experience that I never felt close to my sister even when we were growing up as kids. Today, as forty-something adults, my relationship with her is, at best, limited to a single one-minute and awkward phone call a year.

So, back to the question: Are only children misfits? In the Time magazine issue, it reports several studies done in the US that showed that there were no measurable differences in personality between only children and those who have siblings. There was, however, one important difference found between these two groups of children. Only children tend to do better in intelligence tests and achievement than non only children! In other words, there is no truth that only children are lonely, selfish, and maladjusted. Instead, only children tend to be smarter.

But why do they tend to be smarter? As Time magazine points out, there is no “dilution of resources” for only children, meaning that parents get to concentrate more attention and resources on their single child, rather than “diluting” or sharing the attention, time, money, and energy among two or more children. Time magazine ends the article by listing several famous personalities who are only children. These personalities are such as Franklin Roosevelt (former US President), Cary Grant (actor), John Updike (book author), Condoleezza Rice (former US Secretary), Frank Sinatra (singer and actor), and Lance Armstrong (seven-time Tour de France champion).

There is a fourth reason why my wife and I have only one child. It has to do with cost of raising a child from birth right until completing the tertiary education. We have all heard how expensive it is do raise a child today, but surprisingly, finding exactly how much that is in Malaysia is difficult. A search over the Internet revealed no figures for Malaysia, so I had to do some detective work myself, using figures from other countries. In Singapore, for example, the cost of raising a child is between RM400,000 to RM1.6 million, with two-thirds of the cost covering tertiary education. It is amazing to learn that two-thirds of the child’s expense (from birth until university graduation) is concentrated only on the last four years during which the child is at the university.

In US and Australia, the cost of raising a child (excluding tertiary education) were estimated at RM890,000 and RM1.1 million, respectively.

Think again… (photo from www.momlogic.com)

So, what about the cost of raising a child in Malaysia? Rather than working out the nitty gritty details involved in child expense, I chose a shortcut. A child’s tertiary education often bears the bulk of the total cost. In Singapore, for instance, tertiary education is, as mentioned earlier, two-thirds of the total cost of raising a child there.

Using the website, Meshio.com, I determined the cost of a four-year tertiary education in several countries (including Malaysia), then assumed that figure (education and living cost) is two-thirds of the total cost of raising a child here in Malaysia. Note that Meshio.com calculates the tuition fees as well as the living cost of doing a tertiary education, and their calculations include the mean annual increase in tuition fees per year.

The following are the cost of raising a child I calculated for a child born in 2007 (like my son who was born in April 2007):

If you want your child to study at a university in Total cost of raising a child (from birth to university)
Malaysia RM 472,491
Australia RM 1,079,215
Canada RM 900,594
Japan RM 2,054,061
New Zealand RM 993,861
USA RM 1,075,606
UK RM 1,249,091

Hence, if you are planning to send your child for an overseas education, you have to be a millionaire, as it takes an average total of RM 1.1 million to raise a child, born in 2007, in Malaysia. This average of RM 1.1 million excludes Japan, the most expensive country for overseas education. Any plans to study there would set you back a whooping RM 2.1 million, double that for other overseas countries.

Alternatively, you get a huge discount by nearly 60% if you send your child for a local education. The cost of raising a child in Malaysia for a local university education is the cheapest at about RM 473,000. But you pay a “hidden” price for a local education route: lower quality of education. As a lecturer at a local university here, I wish I could tell you that our local university education system is on par with those in US, Europe, or Japan. But the truth is it isn’t. I studied in the UK for my Ph.D., and the difference between their education system and ours is as different as night and day.

RM1.1 million to raise a child in Malaysia. This figure is certainly a sobering pause to those who are contemplating many children. But as for my wife and I, our only child, Zachary, is all we need. In him, lies all our hopes and fears.

Mom, look! Ice cream van!



  1. One thing for sure, having more children means additional financial burden to the parents. Because as modern parents, we tend to try to provide the best for our children. Thank you for this great sharing.

  2. The monetary policy seen here with direct impact on birth rates. My China-nese colleagues are also of the same opinion even with the govt supporting 2 – children family.
    I’m not concerned with the no. children one has, though I find it interesting that you grade only children as “smarter”. What if there are no subjects such as sciences, math, languages, etc can you grade him only in

    Education in MIT are becoming free and students are taught in uni how to pitch for investor funding. All these involve dealing with people and best learnt from young.

    • That only children tend to be smarter is a conclusion from research, not from my personal opinion. The words “tend to be smarter” is important because it does not mean a given individual who is not an only child would be “dumber” than an only child.

      Yes, I am from a Chinese background but I fail to see the relationship between what I wrote and my so-called “race” or my nationality. I am not from China (we are actually all from Africa) and not every Chinese person you meet is from China or is affected by China’s national policies.

      The most important is to raise our children right regardless if they are the only children or not.

  3. What a great article, Chris. I used to tell my husband I want at least 3 kids. Less than a year after my first daughter was born, I’m pregnant again with our second child. I’m happy and excited about it, or so I thought. Only when I start researching about enrichment class, private education and etc, only I realized that I should have stop at one.

    As of now, I already feel that I’m spending most of my resources on my first child. My second child is getting less attention, less resources and going to a free public school. I’m feeling so guilty.

    • Hi, Amanda, thanks for sharing your situation. Taking care of children is never easy, and each child can be so different from one another even if they are raised in the same environment. But children are more resilient than we give them credit for. The important thing is to identify each child’s strengths and cultivate them so your children are increasingly defined by their strengths.

  4. Since you are a professor, i am sure you are pretty good at calculating odds. Based on the law of averages, if anything were to happen to an only child whether through natural or unnatural means,both the parents would be totally devastated since they no longer have any heir. At least more children would help spread out the risk.

    • Well, I have no great wealth or fame, so having a heir is of little importance to me. In the past when medical care was low, children’s (as well as adults’) mortality is much higher than today. The chances of a baby surviving past his/her first year, for instance, is lower than today. This is the reason why some cultures (like the Chinese) place emphasis on celebrating a child’s first birthday.

      But today with higher quality of medical care and knowledge, children mortality has become much lower.

      The loss a child, whether an only child or not, is always devastating to the parents. I find it uncomfortable that parents aim to have many children just so the “spread the risk” of death among their children. Why not be more positive and less self centered and aim to have many children so a child can have many siblings that he or she can depend on, especially later in life?

      Yes, there are many advantages to having many children, but there are also many advantages to having only one child such as giving a much higher quality of life to that only child.

      Being a good parent means giving focus on the child’s quality of life and much less on the parent. This applies whether a parent has one child or many children.

  5. This article justify my decision for having one child only. However, it is crazy because everywhere I go, people keep telling me to have a second child. My neighbour, mother in law, my own mother and even my son pre school teacher! They said since I am a stay at home mum, it will be no different taking care of another child. I enjoy being with my 3 years old boy and we do everything together, shopping, eating out, go to the park. I just don’t see there is any need to have a baby and tie all day taking care of the baby till I have no time for myself and my son.
    Since when there is rule that say we must have 2 kids? I think it is unreasonable to have a second child just to fulfill other expectation. We are the one who going to raise them. For me having a second child will make me crazy (all the crying, housework, terrible two, screaming). I don’t wish to go through that anymore and I don’t think I can cope with that anymore. I just hope people out there will just stop pushing others to get marry, have a baby or have another baby etc.

    • Yes, I agree. When I tell people I have only one child, they either express surprise or be silent, probably wondering if my wife and I have fertility problems. As you have notice from reading one of the comments for this blog article, one visitor was even admonishing me and my decision to have only a child, as if having an only child is some crime against nature. Hang in there. Do what you want. 🙂

  6. Having to read this (sorry for the outdated comment), I can only see fear and reasons not to have another child. The argument arise because you have a perspective of NO Wrong for having a kid for life.
    Money to raise a kid is never an issue, just like how our parents have raise us (me, sis and bro). and of course your parents, u and ur sis.

    As a proud descendant of Chinese in Malaysia, education is important in our line. Do not keep the mindset of “have to be millionaire” to raise more than a kid and sending them for oversea education. That is an issue for you to ponder in the future on ur 60s.

    My dad is never a millionaire and never even close, and still, i am a UK graduate. So do you.

    I am single, but if to have a wife, number of kid will not be an issue, as Life is not about money, is about how much magic you can inject in it to make it beautiful … well not more than 4 kids… maybe 🙂

    • No, it is never too late to leave a comment.

      Since you pride yourself as an UK graduate, perhaps it is prudent to also read my blog article with greater care. I wrote that money is only one part (not the sole) reason for my wife and I to have one child. Besides, who are you to decide how many children we have? Are you planning to give child care support to strangers? Get married first, then after a year or two, revisit this article and leave a comment as an update. It is easy to talk about your dream family and the number of children you want to have when there is no cost to you other than to dream your dreams …

    • I agree with you Steven. The heavens will give you as much money as you need to raise 4 kids healthy and well-rounded (pun intended), as in my case.

      The stark difference I find with Chinese and American is the spirit of lack in the Chinese culture. Westerners no matter how poor , believe in abundance, and therein their very global marketing styles and global economic domination. The more population the more geniuses n entrepreneurs.

      Chinese will only think of saving a single pie to divide amongst the billion population, hence the infanticide policy.

  7. I beg to differ with your opinion your excessive cost of raising a child.

    Having been to many many countries, I find this problem is a matter of perceptions.

    First, we need to understand some facts:
    1. All children when they are born from being a baby, will grow into adult.
    2. No matter what they eat, all children still grow.
    3. Children do not understand the difference between poor or rich.

    I have seen many African children running around still growing up no matter what their daily diet is.

    Assuming an adequate RM 400 per month to provide for its food consumption. By 24 years old, a child would have consumed RM 115,000.

    Education is FREE in Malaysia. The results of the child depends on:
    1. Genes
    2. Environment
    3. Talent
    4. Peer Influence

    I have to accept the facts that IQ are dependent on genes. So, it is always a good idea to marry up. Which explains why children of professors are better academic achievers than the average.

    Environment shapes the personality of the child. The greatest essence in a successes are focus, perseverance, and hard work.
    The parents can provide the study environment by putting the children in such environment such as libraries, good schools, churches, a proper study room at home, cutting off TV, telephone and internet usage by 7 pm. Encouraging participation in clubs and uniformed troops.
    This is where great planning is essential: To prevent bad influences.
    This is similar to growing a tree in a controlled environment.

    Each children is different, and so are their talent. Some are linguistic, some are hand workers, some are thinkers, some are big talkers, some are interest in business, some in leadership, some imaginative writers, some excellent sculpters and painters. Whatever they might be, if they are encouraged, they will flourish.
    Parents play a role as well in providing the environment suited to the child’s talent.
    Here, parents can give specific type of the tree the exact nourishment it required. More fertilizer for corn, or more water for rice, different pesticide for rubber.

    No doubt, everyone is affected by their Jonesses. Which is why if they buy a LCD, we buy one too. If their friends love badminton, they do too, if they are talent resides there. If they are good in softwares programming, then try to bring them to great programer friends who can help accelerate the learning progress.

    This could be tuition classes, painting classes, whatever they might be.
    Here, I think RM 50k is adequate to create this environment.
    Perhaps, I should say that, both my sister and I were never sent to private tuition in our schooling years, yet we turned out ok.

    Then we proceed on to tertiary education. Let’s accept it, not all kids end up in college. There is always an average person. This depends on whether our national averages improves or deteriorate.
    Even if these kids do excel, their education is their own investment.

    It is a consideration by them, to borrow cash now to further studies at the place they prefer, in order to get paid more in the future.
    Not every RM 1 spent on education equals RM 1 increases in future earnings. As this is an investment on themselves, they are the ones who should bear the responsibility of their choices.
    Of course, parents play an important role in guiding them through this.

    Therefore, it is important for parents to learn to be a mentor, a coach, and an example. This is part of the environment.

    I rest my case at RM 165k per child.

    Children grows, no matter what you feed them. Just like trees.
    That is simply how nature intends it to be, so that the old are replaced by the new.

    • Thanks for the rough but reasonable calculation figures. Yes, each child is different and the cost of bringing up the child would strongly depend on the environment. A huge chunk of the cost is spent for university studies, and that is not free but heavily subsidized for local studies. Overseas studies would of course have no such subsidies unless we are unfortunate that our child wins a scholarship (even then there are many types of scholarships).

  8. my in laws would like us to have 3rd kid but i was just afraid of it.
    all the expenses is just too high nowadays.. maybe they still have the old thinking ” why i can raise 5 kids and you all cant?”
    they must be forgotten now is 2011…not 70s’…

    • Do not let the pressure from your in-laws force their decision on you. Don’t have a third child just because of your in-laws — you won’t be fair to your third child because of the additional expenses and commitment needed which you and your husband may not be ready to give.

  9. Thanks for sharing.. this is a good evidence for me to convince my parents and parents-in-law that not to have more kids

    • I can understand why your parents and in-laws would want more than one grandchildren, but at the end, it is you and your husband who have to bear the cost and responsibility of having more than a kid.

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