A couple of days ago there were reports in the newspapers about the decline of Brunei’s annual birth rate. According to the Department of Economic Planning and Development (JPKE), Brunei's annual population growth rate was at 1.7 per cent in 2011 down from 2.5 per cent in 2001. As a general guide, a country’s birth rate should be above 2% in order to maintain a constant population, in order to keep a “replacement rate”, that is, births keeping up with deaths.
On the other hand, the figures also show that the total population, including foreign workers, their dependents and permanent residents increased over the ten years from 2001 to 2011, to 393,162 from 332,844. This suggests two things, people are living longer (births outnumber deaths), and that the population has increased as a result of immigration.
So, as one would expect, on-line, every smart aleck had an opinion on how to increase the birth rate/population. It was last weeks’ running joke.
Firstly, and obviously from the guys - make it easier to marry four, nay, encourage it! Given that men outnumber women by 3%, it means that you would have to import the extra brides. On-line the choice seems to be from Venezuela, Bulgaria, and Thailand. Obviously that one won’t fly with me, or the rest of the female population. It would also make for a colourful, tall and Spanish speaking population in the second half of this century.
Then there is financial incentive for more children. The problem is, what more do people need? We already have a substantial welfare structure in place. Would you give allowances for the third child and above? - yaaawn enough already with the spending, and also, you might end up with the wrong kind of people trying to take advantage, and therefore having the wrong kind of population.
Some suggest more “rabbit time” – perhaps we could organize rolling blackouts and a cut of satellite and Internet transmission in the evenings? Legitimize “Valentine’s day” every month?
How about physiology? Mass deep breathing exercises could be encouraged. Ban tofu and tight spendet for men.
But seriously, there are some who view a global trend towards a decreasing population growth rate as a good thing. Substantially more people on this earth means greater competition for scarce resources and a strain on the environment. A decrease in the global population over time may be said to be beneficial and environmentally sound.
For us in Brunei, it can be said that a decrease in the birth rate would be in fact expected and a natural consequence of better living standards and education. As women especially, gain greater education and opportunities in the work place, they will put off marriage and children to later on in life. They would prefer to concentrate on first getting their careers on track. As our life styles have changed – you now don’t need 10 children to work the fields - couples have made an economic choice to have fewer children. People would prefer to concentrate time and resources on fewer children than to spread them over more.
There may be a view that a smaller population for Brunei is a good thing. It means that there is less demand for state resources, making existing welfare arrangements sustainable.
I don’t believe that the issues can be taken lightly. Policy makers will probably need to grapple with these over years to come, as they will affect the future cultural and social make up of the nation.
As stated by the JPKE, one needs to consider that a small population will not be able to support any real kind of industry or commerce. At the moment, it is not a pressing issue, but as every one says, the oil and gas industry may not be able to keep up with existing expectations.
A point to be made is that as neighbouring countries prosper, the supply of cheap foreign labour may be constrained. People may not want to work for a low income in Brunei when job prospects and incomes are similar back home.
So where does that leave us? We have a strong sense of national identity, but this should not lead us to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, and particularly neighbouring countries. In order to trade effectively I believe we are going to have to be more accepting of outsiders. More able to allow them to grow and have a future alongside us. In a sense, so that all can grow together.
Illustration by Cuboi Art.
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