Malaysia's shrinking families

KUALA LUMPUR (The Star/Malaysia/ANN) – Malaysia's fertility rate is at an all-time low and and is expected to dip even lower in future.

Malaysia's fertility rate is at an all-time low.And it’s expected to dip even lower in future, says the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.

From 4.9 babies per woman in 1970, the rate dropped to 1.9 in 2017 and 1.8 in 2018, according to the latest data by the Department of Statistics Malaysia. 

More women also do not have any children, with 8.6% in the reproductive age group (15 to 49) having zero kids, based on a 2014 survey."By now, this rate could be around 10%,” the ministry tells Sunday Star.The low fertility rate is mainly due to couples marrying later in life, and the rising cost of living, especially when it comes to the cost of raising kids.Younger Malaysians are also increasingly open to the idea of being child-free, choosing not to have any children at all.But the desire for children is still high across generations, says the ministry via its National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN).“Traditional family values on marriage, eldercare, and children among Malaysians across generations are still relatively intact and strong.“Malaysians generally want to get married, have strong feelings of responsibility towards taking care of elders, and believe that having children is a positive thing,” the ministry says.Such values are also ingrained in Malaysian millennials born between 1980 and 2000, despite many saying they don’t mind being child-free.“This shows that family values in 2030 will likely echo those of today.“As such, the family type landscape in 2030 will likely be very similar to the present,” the ministry says.Quoting a study, the ministry says millennials are more open to the idea of not having children, with the younger ones even more open.This is due to a shift in priorities, with career and personal achievements being their primary drive.These findings are from a study titled “A Review of The National Population Policy: Strategic Action Plan for Sustainable Development towards 2030.”It reveals that 51% of single youths aged 29 and below are either neutral about or agree with the increasing number of couples who decide to be child-free.However, most or 57% of married youths in the same age group disagree with the trend.“Given that the desire for children is still high across generations, the key takeaway here is to ensure that youths are able to meet their career and personal aspirations first.“Following that, then they are able to meet their aspirations for children,” the ministry says.

Fertility rate to drop furtherDespite the relatively high desire for children, the ministry expects the total fertility rate (TFR) to keep falling.TFR is the average number of babies born per woman throughout her reproductive life.Since 2013, the rate hasn't been enough to replace an individual woman and her partner in our population.This happens when the TFR is below the replacement level of 2.1.It's mainly because of the changing status of women, says the ministry.Women have outnumbered men in furthering studies to college or university, leading to higher participation in the workforce.

“From a participation rate of 46.1% in 2011, it increased to 55.2% in 2018.“Educational and job opportunities have led women to delay their marriage,” the ministry says, adding that the average age at first marriage among women was 26 in 2010.Late marriage results in delayed child-bearing for women and a shorter reproductive period.On top of that, tight finances hinder couples from having more children.Some 65% of married Malaysians would want more children if finance weren't an issue, according to LPPKN’s Fifth Malaysia Population and Family Survey in 2014.“About 36% of women and 18% of men cited difficulty in finding a compatible partner as the reason they are not married,” the ministry notes.Nevertheless, steps are being taken to encourage Malaysians to have kids.The Budget 2020 allows couples to withdraw from their Employees Provident Fund (EPF) savings to pay for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments.Income tax relief of up to RM6,000 to treat serious illnesses will also be expanded to include fertility treatment.Quality over quantityCalling the low TFR a significant concern, Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Malaysia president Dr Harris Njoo Suharjono says couples generally opt to have fewer kids.“This is primarily due to the financial impact of raising kids. Couples choose quality above quantity,” he explains.Infertility among couples is also another factor, as couples delay starting a family, he adds.“This could be due to various reasons such as the pursuit of higher education, careers, stress, or simply because they aren't having enough sex!”With such delays, a woman's fertility gradually decreases after 35 years of age while sperm quality among men appear to be deteriorating in general, Dr Harris says, applauding the government’s move to allow EPF withdrawals for IVF.“The number of couples who suffer from subfertility (reduced fertility) is rising. Many cannot afford treatments, even with subsidised costs in government facilities,” he adds.He suggests that the government consider providing free IVF treatment for couples in the low income group who do not have EPF savings.Datuk Dr NKS Tharmaseelan, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Melaka-Manipal Medical College, says the falling TFR is a global phenomenon.“In the United States, the rate dipped to an all-time low in 2018, down 2% from 2017. American women are now predicted to have an average of 1.7 children over their lifetime,” he says.But while Malaysia’s TFR is now 1.8, it does not mean the population is shrinking. It's just growing at a slower rate, Prof Tharmaseelan says.The falling fertility rate is also associated with economic development leading to better opportunities and quality of life for many citizens.“As the economy grows, so will the standard and the cost of living. Thus, one would probably consider all these factors before starting a family,” he says.Expectations are also higher, with parents considering funds for tuition, piano lessons and others.“So many lament the difficulties in raising kids. Thus, limiting fertility is usually self-imposed,” he adds.Lauding the government’s initiatives to boost the TFR, Prof Tharmaseelan says the government should take a holistic approach to health.“Infertility can place untold mental stress on couples, and as a result, may require counselling,” he says.

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