Demographic trends in Southeast Asia

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Addressing challenges related to urbanization, gender equity, and internal migration shifts will be crucial in shaping Southeast Asia's future

By Walter Minutely

In the lively and culturally rich region of Southeast Asia, known for its rapidly expanding economies, demographic challenges are emerging. While major powers like China, Japan, and South Korea are struggling with alarming population declines, an interesting opportunity arises for Southeast Asia. For instance, in 2024, China continued its downward trend with a mortality rate surpassing the birth rate, resulting in a population decrease of over 2 million. China also faces the issue of an increasingly ageing population, similar to Japan, one of the highest globally. However, attention must also be given to Southeast Asian countries, as they play a crucial role in the global demographic context. While Asian giants deal with declining birth rates and an ageing population, a closer look at demographic trends in Southeast Asian countries reveals a story of growth and transformation.

Examining the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), one of the five regional economic commissions reporting to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, we observe that, contrary to major Asian countries, Southeast Asia is experiencing a significant demographic improvement.

This favourable trend is primarily the result of various significant elements occurring in this specific region. Influenced by political strategies related to urban development, economic expansion, and infrastructure improvement, efforts have facilitated notable progress, including the current life expectancy of 73.2 years at birth, with projections indicating it will rise to nearly 78 by 2050.

Demographic data also highlight the favourable median age of the population, currently just above 29 years. Considering a birth rate exceeding 2, it becomes evident that the Southeast Asian region anticipates strong demographic growth in the coming years.

Naturally, the regional perspective does not align perfectly with all ASEAN countries. Within the socioeconomic landscapes of Southeast Asia, some countries experience significant demographic growth, while others face challenges similar to Eastern nations, adding depth and complexity to the overall narrative. This phenomenon is closely tied to a series of factors emphasising the unique characteristics of each nation.

Indonesia, with its expansive geography and rich cultural heritage, undergoes continuous demographic growth. Family planning initiatives and prioritising education, especially in rural areas, play a fundamental role in fostering an increase in fertility rates.

The Philippines, with its rich blend of cultural influences and diverse economic conditions, increasingly adopt policies promoting gender equality and improving access to healthcare, generating significant demographic growth. This unique combination of factors contributes to maintaining a remarkable birth rate.

Thailand, facing rapid population ageing, seeks to manage this demographic transition through policies aiming to support families, with a particular focus on balancing work and family life. 

Malaysia, on the other hand, grapples with changes in family dynamics and economic pressures, partly due to accelerated urbanisation in recent years. Therefore, work-family balance policies are crucial to adapt to these transformations.

However, in the context of these demographic dynamics in the Southeast Asian region, it's crucial to note the cases of Singapore and Vietnam, facing unique challenges. 

Despite Singapore's historic policy of recruiting foreign workers to support economic growth, it grapples with the complexities of a demographic inversion. According to government reports, a quarter of Singapore's population will be over 65 by 2030. The accelerated ageing of the "super-aged" population and declining fertility rates pose a threat to Singapore's social and economic fabric, further accentuated by the need to attract and retain healthcare personnel, as highlighted by recent financial incentives for nurses who often migrate for higher compensation.

Vietnam, known for its rapid economic progress, stands out for improvements in living conditions and a growing urbanisation process. These factors, along with policies supporting family planning and ensuring equitable access to education, converge to support balanced demographic growth. However, despite Vietnam's positive outlook, it's projected that the number of individuals over 60 will triple before 2050. With a birth rate that has declined from 6.5 decades ago to 2 currently, Vietnam may face a significant demographic decline, reaching just over 70 million inhabitants by 2100, compared to the current over 100 million. Consequently, the Vietnamese government is actively intervening to economically support large families, seeking to stimulate an increase in the birth rate.

Thoroughly analysing the demographic, economic, and social policies of each country is essential to fully understand the reasons behind these demographic trends and anticipate their future impacts in the complex Southeast Asian region. According to experts, family support policies, access to education, and job opportunities will significantly influence the region's demographic direction. Furthermore, managing challenges related to urbanisation, gender equality, and internal migration will be crucial in shaping the future of Southeast Asia.

It can be inferred that Southeast Asia presents a complex variety of demographic scenarios, each with its own peculiarities. Carefully monitoring these dynamics and understanding the socio-economic context of each country is essential to accurately outline the demographic future of this region, which is gaining increasing importance in the global scenario and currently appears to be on a rising trajectory with promising future prospects.

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