KUALA LUMPUR, August 1 – The total fertility rate (TFR) in Malaysia has been declining over time, according to the UNFPA report Enhancing Human Capital through Sexual and Reproductive Health Investment and Family Support Policies in Malaysia.
The decreasing fertility rate involves all age groups, with the largest reductions occurring among young women between the ages of 20 and 24. As a result, the mean age of childbirth also has risen.
This pattern suggests a shift in cultural and societal norms, with women staying longer at school, and delaying marriage and childbirth, according to the report.
There are noteworthy differences in fertility rates across ethnic groups, with Malay fertility about twice as high as that of Chinese and Indians. This gap has remained for over a decade.
In 2019, the TFR was 2.3 for Bumiputera, 1.1 for Chinese, and 1.2 for Indians. For the entire population, the TFR was 1.8.
According to the UNFPA report, the Bumiputera population is expected to continue having relatively high fertility rates in the future.
The difference in fertility rates are linked to differences in contraceptive use and propensity to marriage among ethnic groups.
At 52.2 per cent in 2014, the modern contraceptive prevalence rate (mCPR) in Malaysia is significantly lower than both the average in high-income countries and the world average. The prevalence rate of modern methods in Malaysia was 34.3 per cent.
During the same period, 62.6 per cent of women of reproductive age globally were using any given contraceptive method, and 56.2 per cent were using contraception.
In its report, the UNFPA cited the Fifth Malaysian Population and Family Survey 2014 as its source in determining that 12.5 per cent of surveyed married women aged 15 to 49 reported an unmet need for contraception, and 27 per cent reported an unmet need for modern methods.
The continued decline of TFR against the backdrop of stagnant mCRP is surprising, noted the report, which suggested three possible factors to account for the paradox.
Malaysia’s Approximate Abortion Rate
Firstly, Malaysia’s approximate abortion rate, which is 12.9 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. The number is probably underestimated, since legal, economic, and social barriers are likely leading to higher numbers of unsafe and unrecorded abortions, which could also explain the decreasing TFR in Malaysia.
It is important to acknowledge the relationship between abortion and mCPR, noted the report, as in countries like Malaysia where TFR is relatively constant at lower levels, subsequent increases in mCPR can lead to decreases in induced abortion without causing significant declines in TFR.
Secondly, rising infertility is also a possible factor, although there are no official statistics to confirm this. While increases in infertility have been attributed to higher ages at marriage for women, the median age of marriage for women in 2019 was 27 years — an age that does not exhibit notable decreases in fertility.
Increasing infertility among men has also been raised as a concern. According to the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development, 60 per cent of sperm analysis tests conducted by the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) were found to exhibit abnormal results.
The causes of increasing infertility in Malaysia are unknown, and may be associated with a combination of age, psychosocial, and environmental factors.
Current mCPR Only Considers Married Women
Finally, only married women are taken into account in determining current mCPR in Malaysia.
It is likely that the mCPR would be higher across all women of reproductive age, making it more of a possible factor in declining TFR.
Economic uncertainty and lack of social support structures could also result in individuals or couples deciding to size down their family, leading to declining TFR.
Malaysia’s low mCPR could possibly contribute to greater uncertainty for couples regarding timing and spacing of births, and therefore reproduction beyond the first or second child is avoided through non-contraceptive methods such as abortion or postpartum abstinence, leading to declining TFR.
According to the report, this hypothesis is supported by the fact that the desired number of children in Malaysia is higher than the ideal number of children.
The desired number of children does not take into account current circumstances such as finances, while the ideal number of children does.
Reducing the uncertainty about the spacing and timing of birth through universal mCPR will not only minimise the negative impacts of unintended pregnancy and child rearing on female human capital, but might even lead to a sustainable increase in TFR.