Fertility as a political weapon

Malaysia: Fallacy and folly of Malay Population Dominance

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

Recently newly appointed Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed pronounced that population or demographic changes caused by the higher fertility rate of Malays compared with other ethnic groups may make race politics permanent in Malaysia.

Official statistics show that Malays had a fertility rate of 2.6 children, compared with 1.6 children for ethnic Chinese and 1.5 children for ethnic Indians. Trend data indicate that the number of Malays is expected to rise to 54.1 per cent of the population by 2040, followed by other bumiputra groups at 13.4 per cent, resulting in a bumiputra population of 67.5 per cent in total.

Meanwhile, the percentage of ethnic Chinese and Indians of the Malaysian population is expected to decrease to 18.4 per cent and and 5.9 per cent by 2040, from 22.5 per cent and 6.7 per cent in 2010.

Table on population statistics projection 2010-2040

When Nur Jazlan drew attention to the phenomenon of higher Malay fertility, he omitted to mention that population change aimed at enlarging the Malay share of the country’s population has been used as a racial political weapon in Malaysia for several decades now.

The broad objective of Malay demographic dominance appears to be derived from the thinking that numbers matter in a multi-racial society; and that a predominantly Malay populated country will lead to greater Malay political and socio-economic strength, and a corresponding dilution of the non-Malay composition and character of the country.

National policy aimed at Malay population dominance

Scholars of Malaysia’s recent demography history have traced the country’s Malay pro-natalist policy to former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who, in September 1982, proposed an ultimate population size of 70 million for Malaysia.

In his presidential address to UMNO’s General Assembly, Mahathir argued that Malaysia needed a large population to provide a large local market in response to what he saw as a protectionist world market. This concept of a large population was in sharp contradiction to the country’s existing population policy. It is significant that the newly minted PM was pitching the proposal to an entirely Malay audience; and the objective of “ketuanan Melayu” from the population size angle must have been a key consideration in his thinking, even if it was not voiced out.

Mahathir’s proposal was the catalyst in the declining support to the government’s family planning programme which was subsequently geared towards a deceleration of the declining fertility trend among the Malays. To bolster this new policy, incentives were provided through the country’s civil service employment and taxation systems to encourage larger family sizes.
Besides Mahathir’s role, the wave of Islamisation and growing conservatism that has swept Malays since the 70s can be seen to have contributed to the decline in family planning practices among Malays and to the large size of Malay families.

Downside of large families

Thirty years after that key speech and population policy change, it is urgent that policy makers – and the public – assess the impact and ponder on the consequences of the growing Malay population dominance in the country.

Firstly, it is undeniable that the “more is better” and numbers game logic has worked out to the advantage of UMNO and BN in at least one respect. The electoral balance of power in the country has increasingly passed into Malay majority constituencies. Together with the bias which favours rural voters by several times more than their urban counterparts, it explains the longevity of UMNO and BN dominance in the country’s elections and political system.

Secondly, the demographic change has been a crucial factor pressuring the government to retain pro-bumiputera policies even when they have long gone past their officially pronounced shelf lives.

But if “Malays are the absolute majority now in the country” as noted by the Pulai Member of Parliament, it is difficult to think about what other advantages this has brought the Malay community, apart from political supremacy and the continuation of pro-bumiputra policies.

In fact, what has appeared to be an irresistible political strategy has now backfired on the Malay community if one takes into account the burden that large families have to struggle with in meeting their health, education, housing and other basic needs.

Studies all over the world have definitively established the direct correlation between large family size and poverty. A similar finding has been found by the few studies that have examined this subject in Malaysia. Both Mak TY, et al.’s study on urban poverty and Che Hashim bin Hassan’s study on poverty in Kelantan, a predominantly rural state have found household size to be an important, and often the most important, determinant of poverty outcome.

Besides poverty, larger Malay families face a host of social, psychological and emotional challenges and problems. The children of those stemming from single mothers, absentee fathers, broken families and polygamous marriages become the victims of disadvantaged backgrounds from which many cannot overcome in later life.

One more important reality is that poor families tend to have larger families thus bringing about the reproduction of poverty. This is why Malay poverty may be so intractable and resistant to amelioration.

Small stable families comprise the bedrock of development in most if not all countries. It should be no different for Malaysia. The political and religious leaders of the Malay community do not seem to be aware of this truism or if they are, they are in obvious denial. As a result, they have led the community in the opposite direction.