Bernardo M. Villegas
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Rebalancing Strategy
published: Mar 31, 2017



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Aging Thailand

           Advocates of fertility control among the poor in the Philippines defend their view by declaring that it will take a long time before the Philippines suffers from the negative economic consequences of an aging population.  They maintain that even if the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) goes down from its present 3.1 babies per fertile woman to less than two in the next twenty years, the momentum of population growth will continue for a long time to come and that there is no need to worry about losing our great advantage of still being in the "sweet spot" of the demographic cycle or enjoying the so-called "demographic dividend."  What they fail to realize is that even if population continues to grow when the TFR goes below the replacement rate of 2.1 babies per fertile woman, the population growth will be due to more people living longer rather than babies being born.  In other words, the proportion of people over 60 will grow more rapidly than those in the labor force. 

          Those who are not worried about the disappearance of the demographic dividend should  focus not on the absolute size of the population but on the age profile.  After all, Japan has still a huge population of over 130 million, still the third largest in East Asia after China and Indonesia.  But with its retired force nearing more than 25 percent of its population, there is the tremendous burden on their pension and health systems and not to mention the lack of young workers to take care of the senior citizens both financially and physically.  The birth controllers are also wrong when they say that it will take a long time before the Philippines reaches this point even if we aggressively promote the contraceptive mentality among the masses.  The case of Thailand provides a very important lesson.

          Thailand is usually presented as the model of a country that attained rapid economic growth as a result of an effective population control program in the last century.   As a result of this well-publicized program, in a little over one generation Thailand's aging profile has become almost identical to that of Singapore whose frantic efforts to increase its TFR are very well known in the mass media. Because of Thailand's premature aging (the country is still poor with only $4,000 of per capita income compared to $40,000 of Singapore), investment bankers and investors no longer consider it as among the promising emerging markets in the coming years.  In the Next Eleven emerging markets enumerated by Goldman Sachs (after the BRIC), Thailand is conspicuously absent.

          A recent article by Suriyan Panyawai in the English publication The Nation of Bangkok (December 19, 2012) reports of  a severe labor shortage in Thailand.  Let me quote from the article datelined Bangkok:  "In the next 10 years, four industries in Thailand will have some 300,000 vacancies for unskilled labour, the private sector said yesterday as it proposed that the retirement age of workers be extended from 55 to 60 years old.   Poonsak Wuthikul, vice president of the Thai Auto-parts Producer Association, said workers in the automobile industry were getting older, while the younger generation tended to spend more time studying rather than entering the workforce.  Also, the retirement regulation forces people out of the industry too early at the age of 55, he said.  By 2030, up to 25 per cent of the Thai population will be aged 60 or more, Poonsak said."

          The experience of Thailand in population control should make our leaders think twice before aggressively brainwashing the poor households, who constitute more than 60 per cent of the population, to limit their fertility.  The poor should be given the freedom to have a large family, if they freely choose to do so, and then be helped by the State, business and civil society to provide for and educate their children who will grow up to be the most valuable resources of the nation.  With very few exceptions, the Filipino poor are poor not because of any fault of theirs but because they have been victimized by erroneous economic policies (e.g. criminal neglect of rural and agricultural development) or by, as President Aquino himself is constantly repeating, rampant corruption.  In a society where there is a scandalously unequal distribution of income and wealth, it is unrealistic to expect the rich to be the ones to produce the manpower necessary for a growing economy.  The rich, because of materialism and consumerism, are usually the ones who already have a contraceptive mentality. It would be tragic if, because of a misplaced compassion for them, the State and society will try to convince the poor to have few children.  Because of their fixation on birth control, those who pushed for the RH Bill tend to exaggerate the prevalence of unwanted pregnancies among the poor.    They may not realize it, but those whose battle cry is "to reduce the fertility of the poor" are sounding too much like Hitler.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.