Brunei’s total fertility rate drops below replacement level

Azlan Othman

Brunei Darussalam, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam are among the ASEAN member countries which have the total fertility rate (TFR) below the replacement level, World Bank data revealed.

TFR refers to an average number of babies born per woman throughout her reproductive life. Brunei’s TFR is the third lowest after Singapore and Thailand in the region, according to a World Bank report.

Brunei’s TFR dropped to 1.7 per cent per woman in 2018, compared to 1.8 per cent in 2017, 2016 and 2015. In 2012, the rate was 1.907 per cent.

Statistics from the Department of Economic Planning and Statistics (JPES) indicate that the birth rate throughout the Sultanate in 2017 was 6,452; 6,437 in 2016; and 6,699 in 2015. Gross rate of births in 2018 for every 1,000 population was 14 per cent in 2018, compared to 15 per cent in 2017; 15.4 per cent in 2016 and 16.2 in 2015.

ASEAN member countries’ fertility rates have been drifting with the Southeast Asia’s TFR dropping from 5.5 in 1970 to 2.11 in 2017.

A 2019 report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) titled, ‘The disappearing workforce’ highlights the need for ASEAN member countries to think about fertility rates before it’s too late. As ASEAN member states transition to aged societies, a large portion of their spending will go to healthcare and infrastructure costs for the elderly, while the working-age population that drives the region’s economic growth decreases. The EIU found that factors driving the fall in fertility levels include rapid urbanisation and migration from rural areas to the city, which contributes to the higher costs of raising children and the lack of affordable housing for family building.

Another factor is the shift of focus from ‘quantity’ to ‘quality’ where a greater emphasis is placed on raising fewer children with a better quality of life as opposed to having as many children as possible.

Declining fertility rates is also due to a cultural shift where women are increasingly gaining access to higher education and pursuing economic opportunities and consequently delaying marriage and motherhood.

There is a need for the region to address the issue of a low TFR and foster a supportive environment for childbirth and child-raising. The EIU recommends a few principles around which governments can build effective policies.

The first is to extend family-friendly policies that give greater flexibility for parents to both, work and raise a family. The second is to invest in raising the population’s awareness on family planning and fertility preservation. The third is to improve access to infertility treatments, such as assisted reproductive technology (ART). Infertility may not be perceived as a sufficiently urgent problem, but making ART affordable by providing subsidies has often found to increase the number of births.

ASEAN states are in the process of becoming ageing societies. A demographic makeup of ageing generations who are less productive will place a burden on the healthcare systems of all these countries while a shrinking workforce can also result in institutional, economic and social issues.