BY 2030, Malaysia can expect its population structure to see a dramatic shift towards aged nation status, if existing trends in fertility and life expectancy rates are to continue on their current trajectory.
In simpler terms, here’s what’s happening: Malaysians are living longer, which means death rates are decreasing. Conversely, birth rates are not increasing, as younger marriage-ready Malaysians choose to focus on their careers over starting families, while economic pressures means young couples cannot afford to raise large families.
The result of this is an aged nation, a phenomenon the country is ill-prepared to face.
The challenges wrought by such a demographic crisis will have an adverse impact on the struggling former tiger economy, from increased healthcare costs to a shrinking workforce and tax base, mobility issues, as well as added pressure on the country’s pension fund, among others.
The government says currently, senior citizens aged 60 years and above make up 9 percent of the country’s 30.49 million population but that number is tipped to rise sharply in the next 14 years.
By then, Deputy Women, Family, and Community Development Minister Chew Mei Fun said at least 15 percent the population will be made up of the aged group, making Malaysia an aged nation.
The graphics below from Malaysia’s Statistics Department clearly illustrate how the country’s demographics are expected to change over time.
With 2030 looming closer, Chew said the government has already set up a task force to figure out ways to better accommodate the expected boom in the country’s senior citizen population. The task force has already held consultations with several stakeholders and non-governmental organisations to study the issue.
“The latest developments is a debate on a study by the Malaysia Aging Research Institute (IPPM) to identify issues as well as strategies to overcome them,” Chew said, as quoted by The Star in February last year.
But even with this and few other measures in place, can an emerging economy like Malaysia’s thrive as an aged nation come 2030?
According to Dr Renard Siew, a project adviser with the youth-oriented Global Shapers Kuala Lumpur hub, the country is not ready for the pressures ahead.
From a lack of care centers for the aged, to insufficient senior citizen-friendly infrastructure and retirement savings, Malaysia can expect its fill of problems when more of its citizens leave the workforce and enter their graying years.
Siew places part of the blame for this on ageism, which is the discrimination of individuals due to their age.
“There are a lot of cases reported about ageism where people are, in a way, bullying the elderly,” he told the Asian Correspondent recently.
“This is because the younger generation see them as more of a burden to society rather than a contributing member.”
Siew, who does research on ageing populations in the country and region, says this is why creating awareness on the matter is pivotal. And his organisation has set out to just that: addressing the complex issue by challenging stereotypes and prejudices facing the aged.
During the recent “Living Library” youth and elderly engagement programme organised by Global Shapers, a World Economic Forum- affiliated non-profit organisation, Siew said more than half — or 65 percent — of the 75 youth participants said they never considered the ageing population as an issue at all.
“When we talk about building environments like townships, what we find is that they are built without senior citizens in mind.
“We are also talking about things such as having proper pedestrian walkways; for instance, the traffic lights, when you’re trying to do a cross way, it would typically take 15 seconds to cross, but if you look at an elderly person, they might require more time to do that.”
“For some of them, they say that it is like actually going through a sprint,” he says.
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Siew adds that addressing the issue is a huge challenge as his research entails getting master planners and township developers to include in their plans this often neglected demographic of aged citizens.
“Once their plans have been approved, it will be set in stone for the next 50 to 100 years, so if you put yourselves in the shoes of an elderly person, it might not be very convenient for them.
“And also we talk about things like accessibility or public transport, I think that is also an issue that we need to consider because the reality is that currently in Malaysia, in terms of punctuality, we are not quite there yet.”
Siew says the main issue among most developers is that they hardly consider elderly or disabled friendly facilities because of aesthetic and monetary reasons.
“It either doesn’t look good or involves higher cost – the additional cost that they would have to incur to actually ensure that there are proper lifts are being installed, that there are proper ramps that are allocated for the disabled – all of that involves an initial amount of investment,
“And when the economy is tight, most developers would try to slash out and control their budget as much as possible, which is disappointing at the end of the day because when they’re building it needs to be for all facets of communities,
“At the end of the day, it’s the ageing population, like the disabled people who are at the huge disadvantage.”
Although it may be a modest effort, Siew says engagement programmes such as the Global Shapers’ Living Library could help bridge the gap between the young and the older generations. The programme held last November sought to identify the reasons for the disconnect between the two generations by promoting engagement via talks and conversations among those of different age groups.
Just like books, Siew says he believes every individual has a unique story to tell as they come from different backgrounds, upbringing and values.
He adds that the Living Library is a place where “real” people are on “loan” to readers and are able to share their stories, enabling the promotion of better understanding and empathy.
“What we are trying to do here is set up a platform to engage in dialogue for people to raise up concerns and ideas.
“Stories from our senior citizens will be captured and ‘immortalised’ so that the next generation can be further enriched by looking at things through their lenses,” he says.
But in the long term, Siew says apart from the focus on education and awareness, Global Shapers also has a research team collecting data that could help form or improve policies that have been set for the ageing population.
“Hopefully, we want to work our way into the policies and push property developers and anyone who is involved in infrastructure development to consider some of the proposals that we have highlighted.”