With parents having fewer kids, Malaysia is facing a decreasing fertility rate

  • Family
  • Tuesday, 02 Jan 2024

The lack of good yet affordable childcare is one of the reasons why some couples have fewer children. — 123rf.com

IT’S AN accepted truth that raising children is both difficult and expensive. In urban areas, the pressure to make ends meet, coupled with the difficulty in finding reliable childcare and lack of extended family to help, have pushed many families to limit the number of children they have.

Decreasing fertility rates, however, does not only impact family size. It also reduces population growth, which accelerates the country’s course towards an ‘ageing nation’.

Over the past 50 years, the fertility rate among Malaysians has decreased rapidly, from 6.7 children per woman in 1957 to four in 1980, three in 2000 and 2.1 in 2010. Last year, the rate dropped yet again to 1.6 children per woman aged 15-49 years old. It was the lowest rate recorded in the country.

National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) population and family research division director Irwan Nadzif Mahpul says the latest report released by the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) observed that the country’s ageing population is growing at a faster-than-expected rate.

“More than 15% of Malaysia’s population will be above the age of 60 by 2044, classifying the country as an ‘ageing nation’. If the fertility rate continues to decline with no intervention, the country’s population is expected to reach a maximum of 46 million in 2071 before it starts shrinking the following year,” he adds.

The decrease in fertility rate will also result in a significant reduction in the family’s social support and resources, especially in caring for elderly parents.

“Another socio-economic impact of a shrinking population is a marked decline in the nation’s workforce, which will impact the progress of the country,” he says.

LPPKN director-general Abdul Shukur Abdullah (second from left) and Merck Sdn Bhd managing director Pixie Yee (right) signing the MoU, with Nancy as a witness. — Photos: HandoutLPPKN director-general Abdul Shukur Abdullah (second from left) and Merck Sdn Bhd managing director Pixie Yee (right) signing the MoU, with Nancy as a witness. — Photos: Handout

Economic burden

Irwan says Malaysian families face a huge economic burden in bearing and rearing children.

“Raising children involves childcare, education, savings and healthcare, and the rising cost of living can make it difficult for couples to afford having more children,” he says.

Findings from LPPKN’s 2011 study “Fertility at The Crossroad: Children Now, Later or Never” revealed that the rising costs of education and current financial status are among the main factors influencing a wife’s decision to decrease the number of children.

“For young parents today, having children means being prepared to bear a high financial burden in the future,” he says.

Irwan says that traditionally, total fertility rate (TFR) is higher among low-income households compared to higher-income households. There are several factors that contribute to this, including education, access to contraception and urbanisation.

“Several policies and programmes are in place to help couples have more children, even on a tight budget. These include, among others, an income tax exemption limit for childcare allowances received by employees or directly paid by employers to childcare centres which was increased in Budget 2024 to RM3,000 from RM2,000, and tax incentives for women returning to work, which has been extended to Dec 2027,” he adds.

State governments, Irwan says, have also taken steps to introduce initiatives to increase fertility rates. Kedah has its Childbirth Incentive Scheme (Ika), Selangor has the Selangor Children’s Heritage Fund (Tawas), which involves incentives in the form of savings in the National Higher Education Savings Scheme (SSPN-i), the Asuh Pintar Scheme and the Selangor Kindergarten Assistance Scheme.

Other states like Perak has the Amanjaya Education Fund as an education and learning initiative, while Terengganu provides birth incentives through the Permata Sejahtera Scheme (also via SSPN- i). Melaka does so through the Melaka State Education Trust Fund (Tapem) for each birth.

Irwan says Malaysian families face a huge economic burden in bearing and rearing children, so there should be policies in place to improve the country's fertility rate.Irwan says Malaysian families face a huge economic burden in bearing and rearing children, so there should be policies in place to improve the country's fertility rate.

Expertise exchange

To help counter the spillover impact of the decline in fertility rate on the nation’s progress, LPPKN signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Merck Sdn Bhd to exchange expertise and research findings on population and reproductive health.

It aims to provide support to relevant stakeholders in formulating policy proposals and effective strategies on reproductive health.

Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri says the nation’s population and family agenda should be fought for by all parties.

“The government needs more research findings to be used as input in policy-making, intervention and other related programmes,” she says.

The MoU is part of Fertility Counts, a regional platform established by Merck to address social, economic and societal challenges associated with low birth rates in Asia-Pacific.

Irwan says a roundtable discussion held during the 2023 National Population Conference (PERKKS 23) last November and guided by a Merck report, has produced 15 resolutions on childcare and workplace support policies, financial incentives, reproductive health assistance and complementary policies, all designed to encourage families to have more children.

“Among others, the government and private sectors are urged to increase fertility treatment centres and not limiting them to specific areas. They also must ensure the services’ affordability,” he says.

The resolutions also recommend the availability of various forms of quality and affordable childcare, cash incentives for each birth beyond the second child and for insurance companies to cover fertility treatment.

“Among the proposals are expanding subsidies for childcare costs to reduce expenses in raising children, improving maternity leave periods, giving additional paternity leave according to suitability, establishing family-friendly workplace policies, and having affordable housing scheme for married couples,” Irwan says.

“Other proposals include offering flexible working hours, remote work, and work-from-anywhere policies, tax reduction for baby-related purchases, awareness and encouragement on low-cost weddings, and improvement in public financing facilities for fertility treatments,” he says.

Irwan says the lack of awareness about the benefits of having children is one of the factors contributing to declining fertility rates among women, so all 15 resolutions of the conference will be extended to the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to be used as input for a Cabinet paper to be presented this year.

“The best we can hope for is to slow the decline and try to increase TFR as close as possible to 2.1 children per woman, to ensure a broadly stable population. An ideal TFR is said to be 2.1, which is the rate at which a population replaces itself from one generation to the next,” he concludes.

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