Marriage and population growth beyond the pandemic

Population growth issue might not be very obvious in the short-term but this unprecedented crisis should provide us the signs to take actions.

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Published by Free Malaysia Today & New Straits Times, image from Free Malaysia Today.

Marriage is only one element in one’s rite of passage, but it has a profound and far reaching effect on the country’s national productivity and hence, growth through its influence on fertility rate and the dependency ratio.

In Malaysia, the population is projected to increase from 28.6 million in 2010 to 41.5 million in 2040. Despite seeing an increase in number, growth rate is expected to decrease from 1.8% in 2010 to 0.8% in 2040.

As it now stands, our country’s population is now at 32.6 million.

Within the population, younger age group (0-14 years) would see a drop from 27.4% in 2010 to 18.6% in 2040 due to lower fertility rate.

For the working group aged 15-64 years, the population growth from 2010 to 2020 is estimated to grow but from 2030 onwards, the rate would fall.

For the elderly group aged 65 years and above, population growth will rise from 5% in 2010 to 14.5% in 2040.

According to the Department of Statistics, total fertility rate for women aged 15-49 years in Malaysia has dropped significantly from 4.9 babies in 1970 to 1.8 babies in 2018.

Fertility rate refers to the average number of babies born per woman throughout her reproductive life.

Since 2013, fertility rate has been below the replacement level of 2.1 which suggests that the number of babies born per woman is insufficient to replace herself and her partner.

At the same time, the mean age for women who delivered their first child has also ascended from 27.3 years in 2009 to 27.8 years in 2018.

Within the Asian region, fertility rate is slowing based on the World Bank’s latest data for Philippines (2.6 babies), Indonesia (2.3), India (2.2), Vietnam (2.0), China (1.7), Thailand (1.5), Japan (1.4), Hong Kong (1.1), Singapore (1.1) and Korea (1.0).

A survey conducted by the National Population and Family Development Board in 2014 showed that population estimate of the single individual stood at 9.7 million of which 5.97 million were male while 3.70 million were female. Of the same total, 4.72 million were aged 30 years and above.

The same survey has shown 86.8% of single individuals intend to get married but hindered by these factors:

  1. Financial problems – 56% (Male) and 26% (Female);
  2. Unsuitable candidate – 18.4% (Male) and 35.7% (Female); and
  3. Career-related reasons – 9.4% (Male) and 18.1% (Female).

These reasons are indeed understandable as it is each individual’s right when to get married, but this could create a long-term problem – shortage of working population which is vital to increase national productivity and support growth.

Apart from that, the country’s dependency ratio is also estimated to increase from 47.8 in 2010 to 49.5 in 2040, mainly due to the burgeoning elderly age group.

The economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has caused the younger generation to lose jobs and having to face pay cuts. There is a possibility of a higher share of younger generation becoming dependents in a family.

An increase in number of dependants within the society could lead to a rise in anxiety for those who plan on embarking the next stage in life which is marriage.

Aside from marriage, fertility rate can also be affected by family planning. In the midst of unstable economic conditions, some couples might hold their plans to have children.

So, what are the policies that are marriage- and family-friendly which can be considered amid this challenging time in order to address the expected decline in population growth followed by decreasing working population?

Firstly, stable employment needs to be established for those who have low social protection and had experienced income shocks due to the movement control order such as the self-employed. Comprehensive and sustainable job creation to utilise the unfortunate local talents should be one of the key focus in the economic recovery plan.

Secondly, direct assistance namely cash transfers such as Bantuan Prihatin Nasional (BPN) should be extended so long the crisis continues and is targeted toward those who remain vulnerable.

Next, learning by example, a birth rate adjustment programme by state such as the one recently approved in Vietnam (until 2030) can be considered for Malaysia as an initiative to encourage early marriage and to start a family, which can then form part of a long-term National Population Strategy.

In Vietnam, the programme sets the target to increase birth rate by 10% in localities with low rate (less than two children per couple) and reduce the rate in localities with higher birth rates (more than 2.2 children per couple).

Incentives such as lower income tax, assistance to pay for children’s tuition fee, for house rentals and social housing purchase are also provided.

Lastly, support for mothers who have to juggle time between work and family matters should be given as an encouragement for the newlyweds to be more confident in starting a family or for couples who plan to have more children.

Measures such as the implementation of seven-day paternity leave for the private sector should be discussed in the Cabinet in the medium to long term horizon.

Fiscal assistance for the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) sector should also be given in a move to support parents who are unable to afford childcare fees as well as parents who have begun returning to work.

Population growth issue might not be very obvious in the short-term but this unprecedented crisis should signal us to be more forward-looking in terms of policy formulation.

Nur Sofea Hasmira Azahar is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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