Something happened over the last few years which has slipped largely unnoticed, Anil Netto writes.
The total fertility rate for the country has dipped below 2.1 and now stands at 1.8.
What this means is that each woman in Malaysia is now likely to have an average of 1.8 children in her lifetime, going by current trends.
That is less than the 2.1 children required to replace the population (replacement level fertility).
It is a far cry from the situation in the 1970s, when the birth rate in Malaysia was about four children per couple.
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Malaysia is not alone in this. Countries across the world are experiencing plunging fertility rates.
According to one projection, global population is expected to rise from the current 7.9 billion to peak in 2040-2060 at less than 10 billion before falling to six to nine billion by 2100.
For Malaysia, the population could rise from 33 million in 2020 to peak at around 40-45 million in 2060-2070 before dipping to 35-41 million by 2100. (That’s only about half the population of 70 million that was once targeted.)
But in places like Penang, the plunge in fertility rate has been even more pronounced, with the current rate now standing at 1.3. That is almost reaching the level of Singapore, where the total fertility rate last year stood at 1.1.
What all this means is we are rapidly heading towards an ageing society, and this will have far-reaching implications for society. Who will care for the elderly in years to come?
All this is a far cry from the alarming scenario of the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, who wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, predicting a grim scenario. He believed global population would grow at a rate faster than the growth in food supply and other resources, creating misery for the world.
There are several possible reasons for the fall in fertility rate, apart from the obvious ones, such as higher education levels, wider career options for women and more family planning.
One key factor could be the impact of neoliberalism on families. In many households, both parents have to work long hours and this limits the ability of families to have more children.
The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the squeezing of labour for more profits leaves many workers with incomes that are barely sufficient to raise a family.
That’s not all. With Big Capital looking for fast profits, speculation has intensified in property development (until the coronavirus pandemic), pushing up the prices of homes for many families.
The huge amounts that people have to pay to buy new apartments and houses eats into their savings and household budgets for food. This leaves very little extra for savings for children’s higher education and healthcare emergencies.
It wasn’t always like this. In the past, many relied on public education and the virtually free healthcare provided by the government. But as neoliberal policies crept in, budgets for public healthcare and education were curbed while the expensive private options expanded. Even food prices have soared over the years.
So it is not surprising that many couples are opting for few children, given their relatively flat real income and limited budgets.
The plus side is that the shrinking birth rates may just afford the planet a lifeline – it could curb the projected rise in carbon emissions that worsen climate change. That could be a hidden blessing.
However, much would depend on whether we are still fixated on maximising gross domestic product or ‘economic growth’ without looking at how that growth is distributed.
With the population now not expected to grow – some countries like Japan may even find their population being halved by 2100 – there is no reason to push for unlimited growth.
The falling birth rates should also make us rethink our economic planning. For instance, do we really need to reclaim so much land from the sea? Do we really need to build so many high-density high-rise apartments that are beyond the reach of the local people? Do we really need to plan infrastructure to accommodate more people than we are likely to have?
Even in our places of worship, we should think carefully before embarking on large-scale building projects, given the smaller growth in population expected.
All said, the falling birth rates could be a blessing in disguise, given the ecological destruction taking place and climate change. But much would depend on whether we can ditch the fixation with unlimited GDP growth and live more sustainably.