NOVEMBER 8 — It’s no longer a surprise that as a country develops, its birth rates begin dropping. But it did come as a surprise to me to find out that Malaysia’s birth rate has been falling steadily over the years; in fact, at 1.7 babies per woman in 2020, our fertility rate is at its lowest in 40 years.

Apparently, we’ve already moved past the “replacement rate” of 2.1 babies — not exactly an intuitive conclusion especially after you visit a Klang Valley mall and see the truck loads of kids running about. 

Hence, I never thought much about our country’s birth rate until, interestingly enough, I began meeting people who (each time the subject came up) immediately told me they would never have kids. 

This was intriguing because most folks I hang out with are, like me, parents. It simply never occurred to me that there is a growing segment of Malaysians who are adamantly against having and raising kids. 

What follows is a brief recounting of some of my conversations with such folks on the topic.

It’s well-known that as a society grows wealthier, attitudes towards child-bearing change. This is somewhat ironic because one might imagine that as more money is available, this would translate to having more money to raise kids.

But we all know this simply isn’t the case. 

In fact, the wealthier a society is, the more sophisticated individuals’ wants become, resulting in more people thinking further and further ahead with respect to children. 

Eventually a salient idea about children is that they represent a super long-term commitment which begins at the point of conception all the way until at least his or her first degree or diploma. 

And — surprise surprise, I guess? — many modern urban yuppies simply do not want such a commitment.

I spoke to Reuben, a strategy and planning manager, recently. We both agreed on the (immense) costs involved in raising kids. Diapers, medicine, nannies, milk formula, clothes, prams, toys, education, “stuff” like phones and what-nots — all this applies to only one kid across at least two decades, now try three children raised by struggling corporate executives in today’s financial circumstances and it’s almost no wonder our collective mental health is deteriorating.

Sure, we can always try to buy cheaper stuff but let’s face it these aren’t always available, are they? Furthermore, there is quality to consider, isn’t there? 

And if you’ve bought one kind of item for one kid, can you honestly buy an inferior grade product for another kid and prevent a civil war?

To this substantial material burden, Reuben added another point: The fact that you can’t legally “opt out” of child-raising and if the child suffers or isn’t given the best it can be given, it’s on you. 

This doesn’t only relate to the thorny issue of “terminating a pregnancy”; it’s also about parental commitments continuing even if, say, the couple divorces. 

One can always become an “ex-husband” but you cannot really become an “ex-parent.” And perhaps people like Reuben are concerned about the thousands of wannabe ex-parents out there who’ve abandoned their offspring and families, causing immeasurable pain. 

Why didn’t these people just choose to be childless, right?

Likewise it’s a terrible thing — according to Fariz, a bank executive — if some parents see children as their “retirement plan.”

Malaysia’s birth rate has been falling steadily over the years; at 1.7 babies per woman in 2020, our fertility rate is at its lowest in 40 years. — Bernama pic
Malaysia’s birth rate has been falling steadily over the years; at 1.7 babies per woman in 2020, our fertility rate is at its lowest in 40 years. — Bernama pic

On this note, I can fully agree with him that if parents have kids as a sort of back-up walking financial trust fund it’s not likely to end well. Most Malaysian parents today will be lucky if their children don’t become a financial drain on them even after retirement, let alone help pay for it. 

Unfortunately, I’ve also heard numerous stories of kids cheating their folks, abandoning their folks, etc. i.e. your very own flesh and blood sucks you dry and chucks you aside after you’ve suffered so much for them.

It’s no surprise at all that people like Reuben and Fariz, hearing of such cases, would opt out from the very start.

Bee Han, a financial director, also added that she sincerely wished her parents didn’t choose to have her, given how much they struggled to raise her. 

Although she no doubt loves her parents very much, her (ironic?) point that they should have had one child less (she has a sibling) or none at all so they could’ve had a better life informs her own decision to never have kids.

She also says that she would be mentally and emotionally incapable of prioritising her children over and above her career; like many others, she recognises that her career is the #1 thing in her life right now (and for the foreseeable decades) and, especially given dire economic uncertainties, she feels it would be wrong for people like her to have a kid without the corresponding ability to set her career aside. 

This isn’t just about “preferring” to earn money over taking care of children; it’s also about the emotional and psychological costs of raising kids (already alluded to above).

Human younglings aren’t like puppies or kittens whom you can just feed and perhaps ignore throughout the day (or week). As every dad and mum who’s had to spend hours pacifying and “bargaining” with kids know, parenting is not unlike being a head of department who has to deal with multiple staff with their own sets of problems compounded by the fact that they all hate each other.

To be able to endure the grumblings and protestations of a two-year-old until she turns 28 and has her own family isn’t something to be taken for granted. 

Parenting demands absolutely real and extensive emotional management skills, a fact that not every young person (like Been Han) can honestly say they possess in sufficient amounts.

In my view, Been Han’s position is both noble and sad. I know quite a few folks like her who brighten up in the presence of small children, who in fact enjoy playing with and helping kids, but who (perhaps) cannot see themselves as anything other than a failure if they were to become parents. 

They, maybe more than some actual parents(!), view the responsibility of parenting so strongly, they’ve set the bar so high for themselves and their kids, they can’t accept anything other than being a full-time mum or dad — a position irreconcilable with a corporate career (which they, of course, also desire).

Sheila, an accountant, is even more blunt. She says that with thousands of orphans nowadays, opting to have kids (and adding to a drain on society’s resources) is a form of eco culpability. If you love kids so much, you should adopt. Win-win. Requiring a child to share your biological DNA is just selfish! (smile)

I won’t argue with Sheila (I have two kids of my own); I will, however, echo her point about caring for orphans if we can (the fact that many orphans are themselves abandoned kids also sorta makes Reuben and Bee Han’s points above, I suppose). 

We see so many movies about orphans being taken in by well-to-do couples and being given a new life yet, admittedly, it’s rare to see similar cases in real life (for me, I only personally know one individual who’s adopted).

Long and short, having kids should never be a trivial default decision. While I don’t resonate with everything my friends above said, I value the concerns raised and I think parenting can only become more responsible if would-be parents think carefully about why they want kids in the first place and whether or not they can commit themselves fully to their families, year after year.

A falling birth rate for a country of more than 32 million isn’t something to celebrate. But, if we’re honest, it’s hardly a national tragedy either.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.