Malaysian Fertility Rate : Decline Reaches Lowest in 50 Years

Dr Noor Azeeha Enunar PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIAN Hospital Batu Gajah

The Malaysian Department of Statistics (DSOM) reported 423,124 births in 2022, a 3.% decrease compared to 439,744 births in 2021.

Chief Statistician Datuk Seri Mohd Uzir Mahidin noted that the total fertility rate (TFR) in 2022 was 1.6 children for every woman aged 15-49 years of age, the lowest in 50 years. The fertility rate in Malaysia has continued to drop from 6.7 births per woman in 1957, 4.0 in 1980, 3.0 in 2000, 2.1 in 2010 and 1.7 in 2021.

What Is TFR?

The TFR refers to the average number of children that would hypothetically be born per woman if all women lived to the end of their childbearing years and had children according to a given fertility rate at each age. Simply put, TFR refers to the average number of children per woman. The global fertility rate for 2022 was 2.4.   

The highest fertility rate was observed among the Malays (2.2), while Chinese women (0.8) recorded the lowest fertility rates among all ethnic groups. All states reported TFR below replacement levels except for Terengganu (2.9), Kelantan (2.7) and Pahang (2.1). 

Factors Contributing To Low TFR

The Malaysian government has been providing ample support for family planning services in hopes of improving maternal and child health. Married couples in Malaysia are free to decide the number and timing of having children. However, socio-economic changes have led to a series of events that led to reduced TFR. There are a myriad of causes leading to low TFR in Malaysia, including:

  • Urbanisation
  • Rapid economic growth
  • Declining infant mortality rate
  • Better education levels
  • More women joining the workforce
  • Delayed marriage 
  • Increased contraceptive use
  • Rise in infertility for both men and women

Negative Effects of Low TFR

Human resources directly affect a country’s competitiveness. Malaysia has always emphasised education and skills training to produce well-rounded, educated and highly skilled labour. If the TFR continues to decline, some major issues that may arise are severe labour shortage, rapid population ageing and breakdown of the family system/ structure. 

According to DSOM, Malaysia’s TFR was above 2.1 from 1970 to 2012. This indicated that the average number of children born to a woman between the ages of 15 to 49 was sufficient to replace her and her partner. Since 2013, however, the TFR has fallen below said replacement level and has led to concerns regarding population decline.

If the current situation persists, the Malaysian population will reach its maximum population of 46 million in 2071, just before going through population shrinkage in 2072. This will also result in manpower shortage and increased dependence on foreign labour. 

Doctor’s Insight

Dr Noor Azeeha Enunar, a primary care doctor currently based at Hospital Batu Gajah, echoes the statements made by DOSM. She said, ‘’The current situation is a result of rapid economic growth and social changes. Both men and women are getting proper education and a huge number of women are now part of the workforce. This leads to delays in getting married and subsequently having children. Financial limitations also impact the decision-making among spouses these days. If people are unable to take care of themselves, having children would not be an option’’.

There is no simple method to resolve the dwindling birth rate. Both the Malaysian government and its people need to work hand in hand to overcome hurdles that will arise due to this situation. 

Call for Action

While it might be difficult to alter the dwindling fertility rate immediately, there are things both the Malaysian government and its people can do to mitigate the negative effects of the decline. Some recommendations include:

  • Revamping the education system to provide more technical and vocational human capital
  • Reduce brain drain to other countries
  • A joint effort between the Malaysian government and private sector to fulfil the needs of working women at childbearing age, such as childcare services and flexible working arrangements

The government should also consider the rise of non-communicable diseases due to the increased ageing population. Geriatric healthcare facilities should be increased and improved.

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