Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On fertility and ethnicity in Malaysia

This news item got a certain amount of coverage, here thanks to Aslak as well as more widely.

An increasing number of Malaysian couples are seeking fertility treatment as the country's birthrate declines, a newspaper has reported.

A recent United Nations report showed the country's fertility rate dropped from 3.6 babies per couple in 1990 to 2.6 babies currently, the New Sunday Times said.

A key reason for the decline is an increasing fertility problem among Malaysian women, with as many as half of those who visit gynaecological specialists asking for treatment to help them conceive, Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai said.

"Many of the couples will remain childless unless they are helped using the 'assisted reproductive technology' technique," Liow told the paper.

Liow said between 10 and 15 percent of childless couples in the country, aged between 30 and 40, had fertility problem.

A 2004 government study predicted that Malaysia's fertility rate would decline 0.1 percent every five years, as women postpone marriage and having children.

The study also revealed the number of children being born varied widely according to the educational level of the mother. Women with no formal education had almost twice as many children as those with a tertiary education.

What this news item doesn't begin to mention is that Malaysia's population is famously diverse, and that this diversity has strongly influenced the country's population history and future. Malaysia is home to three major ethnic categories. The largest ethnic category, now numbering some 15 million, are the Malays, a relatively diverse category including tribal populations of Sabah and Sarawak, as well as partially assimilated communities with diasporic links, like those uniting the Minangkabau of Sumatra with their co-ethnics in Negeri sembilan state or those linking the Cham of Vietnam and Cambodia with Kelantan. Their defining bond is use of the Malay language and profession of Islamic faith, their perceived indigeneity leading the country to define members of this group as bumipetera deserving of special state subsidies in business and education. The second-largest major community is that of the Malaysian Chinese, numbering more than seven million and concentrated in urban areas. The smallest of the three major communities are the Indians, mostly descended from Tamil migrant workers in rubber plantations and now relatively badly off. Other minority populations, mainly migrants from Malaysia's poorer neighbours, are relatively unimportant.

Fertility, whether TFR or cohort, varies very considerably between each of these populations.

Between 1957 and 1977, the total fertility rate (TFR) in Peninsular Malaysia fell from 6.2 births per woman to 4.0, with all of the principal ethnic groups (Chinese, Indians, and MALAYS) Registering fertility declines. However, in 1988, the TFR among the Chinese and Indians was 2.3 and 2.8 births per woman, respectively, but the rate among the Malays was 4.5 births per woman. The leveling of Malay fertility in the past 10 years is mainly due to a rise in fundamentalist Islamic principles, coupled with pronatalist governmental policies. Data from the 1984-1985 Malaysian Population and Family Survey indicate that currently married Chinese and Indian women are considerably more likely than Malay women to practice contraception (64% and 66% vs. 41% respectively). Furthermore, between 1974 and 1985, use of effective contraceptive methods increased among Chinese and Indian women, but declined among Malays; by 1985, a higher proportion of Malay women were using traditional folk methods of contraception than were using the pill, which had previously been the most popular method.

why? The spatial and occupational distribution of the different ethnic groups in colonial Malaya differed from the start, with the traditional Malay society surviving--as evidenced by its very unusual monarchy--alongside Chinese and Indian migrants who immigrated to Malaya under British auspices to extract local resources, like tin and rubber. Once displaced, these migrants urbanized fairly rapidly, eventually producing significant disparities, particularly between Malaysian Chinese and more traditional Malays. One consequence of this greater Malay traditionalism, as Puzziawati Ab Ghani concluded in the paper "Modelling of Cohort Fertility Changes Among Major Ethnics in Peninsula Malaysia", which compared cohort fertility schedules of Malaysia's three major ethnic groups, meant that Malay cohort fertility patterns over three generations did not obviously differ. "Marital fertility schedule of the granddaughters’ cohort tends to espouse that of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ especially after certain reproductive age. For the Malays, fertility experiences acquired by the mothers throughout their reproductive age and values of children in a family seems to be shared or passed down to their daughters. [. . .] This phenomenon leads us to conclude that intergenerational continuities in fertility behaviour are evident among the Malays, but not among the Chinese and the Indians.

As Tey Nai Peng describes "Social, Economic and Ethnic Fertility Differentials in Peninsular Malaysia", despite general economic growth, signfiicant differences in the spatial and occupational distribution of ethnic groups cotninue to exist.

The various ethnic groups are at different stages of demographic transition. Mortality rates have fallen to a low level for all segments of the population, with a crude death rate of less than 5 per thousand population. The infant mortality rate is lowest among the Chinese (5 per thousand live birth) and highest among the Malays (9 per thousand live births), with the Indians in-between. Female life expectancy ranges from about 73 years for the Malays to 78 years for the Chinese (Department of Statistics 2001b). Substantial fertility differentials still exist among the various sub-groups of the population.

With increased rural-urban migration, about two-thirds of the population now lives in urban areas, compared with just 25% in the 1960s. In the past, most Malays were in the rural areas and engaged in agricultural activities, while the non-Malays were mainly in the urban areas. However, the Malays have been urbanising rapidly in line with the objectives of the economic policies implemented since 1970. The urbanisation rate of the Malays increased to about 54 per cent in 2000, up from about 15 per cent in 1970. During the same period, the rate of urbanisation of the Chinese and Indians has increased from 47 to 87 per cent and 35 to 80 per cent respectively (2).

Peng's description of regional patterns of fertility follows the expected lines, more rural, less economically developed, and more conservative areas producing higher fertility rates than more urban, more economically developed, and more untraditional areas.

The total fertility rate varies widely across states and regions. The pronounced state level differentials in fertility can be attributed largely to differences in socioeconomic structures. In 1998, total fertility rate is highest in the predominantly Malay East Coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu. These two states are currently ruled by PAS, an Islamic fundamentalist opposition party. Both states have relatively low level of urbanisation. The TFR was lowest in Pulau Pinang and the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur where the Malays made up less than half the population, and where the majority of the population lives in urban areas. The fertility level is negatively correlated with household income at the state level. The mean age at marriage among women in the high fertility states is about 3-4 years younger as compared to those from states with low fertility. At state level, total fertility rate is negatively correlated with contraceptive prevalence rate (see Table 2).

[. . .]

Within each state, substantial fertility differentials can be observed between urban and rural areas, and between the ethnic groups for each location. Hence, it may be inferred that social cultural factors and differential response to government policies has resulted in fertility differentials among sub-group that are exposed to the same level of socio-economic development (6-7).

The most obvious consequence of these differences for Malaysia lies in the changed proportions of different ethnic categories. Swee-Hock Saw in his 2007 The Population of Malaysia expects the Malaysian population to reach a total of some 41 million people by 2035, with natural increase flagging first among the Malaysian Chinese, then among the Malaysian Indians, with the Malays following in behind. He doesn't expect any of these populations to experience negative growth. As a result of this, he expects the percentage of Bumiputra citizens will rise from 65.9% to 2005 to 72.1% in 2035.

But. Asan Ali Golum in his Growth, structural change, and regional inequality in Malaysia suggests that the major migratory trends in Peninsula Malaysia are directed away from relatively poor areas in the north and east--i.e. the least developed and more traditional areas of Malaysia--towards the prosperous southern and western regions. This migration, accompanied by the continuing intrusion of modern values throughout Malaysia can't help but alter demographic patterns, perhaps more radically than expected. As this study concluded, education and the number of living children seemed to play the most significant role in completed fertility regardless of ethnicity. As Saw concluded in a 1990 study comparing Malaysia and Singapore, there is little reason to expect Malays to retain high fertility rates indefinitely. "By 1987, the Malays experienced the highest fertility rate in Peninsular Malaysia, while the Chinese had the lowest rate in both countries. It is noted that the Chinese fertility rate in peninsular Malaysia (Malays 4.51, Chinese 2.25, Indians 2.77) is greater than the Malay's fertility in Singapore (Malays 2.16, Chinese 1.48, Indians 1.95)." Some of the major differences separating high-fertility Malaysia from low-fertility Singapore was more traditional gender mores, lower incomes, and less urbanization. Later data shows that between 1991 and 2003, Bumiputra fertility rates fell sharply, from exceeding Chinese TFRs by 68% down to a smaller if still significant gap. Peng's conclusion is worth noting.

Increased education, urbanisation and female labour force participation represent strong social forces that would bring about continuing decline in fertility among all groups. The eventual reduction of direct assistance from the government that looks to promote competitiveness in light of globalisation, will also increase the cost of children among the Malays. The switch from extended families to nuclear families is eroding the family support system for childcare. The Malays are still relatively less urbanised and few are using efficient contraceptive methods, and as such they have a bigger scope for the fertility decline. The religious barriers for fertility decline of the past may also be giving way. This can be seen in the sharp fertility decline in a number of Islamic countries, notably, Indonesia (with a TFR of 2.4), Bangladesh (with a TFR of 3.7), Iran (with a TFR of 2.9), Brunei (with a TFR of 2.7), as well as the Muslim population in Thailand and Singapore that have experienced below replacement fertility (UN, 2000). The sharp decline in the total fertility rate in Kelantan and Trengganu points to the fact that with social and economic development, the fertility level will probably be declining at a faster pace among those that lag behind, resulting in the narrowing of the differentials (17).

Malaysia will very likely become increasingly Malay in terms of population proportions, sure, but not nearly as thoroughly and almost certainly not as quickly as some have predicted. The New Economic Policy adopted after ethnic riots in 1971, heavily subsidizing businesses, education, and sundry other elements of Malays, has accelerated this trend by bringing Malays fully into the Malaysian economy. As all Malaysians continue to progressively adopt the same sort of low fertility rate regime that being taken on by other middle-income countries, that assisted reproductive technology will certainly be more common used by people of all ethnicities.


Cicerone said...

Maybe the most interesting question: Why is the fertility of Chinese people, regardless of their place where they live, always lower than the fertility of the major population? Even in Canada, the fertility-rate of Chinese people is at 1.2 whether the average is at 1.5. Developed Chinese nations (Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao) have the lowest fertility-rates on earth, without one-child-policys!

Cicerone said...

Addition: Here are the latest TFR-figures for Malaysia. Seems that Malaysia is heading for replacement-rate, TFR has fallen to 2.3 in 2008. Kuala Lumpur reached 1.7, and Kuala's suburbs reached 2.3.

Link for PDF:


Nobody said...

Hong Kong and Macao can be explained away by over urbanization and population density. Probably Singapore too. What's about Taiwan by the way?