Bernardo M. Villegas
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Vietnam Benefits From Young Population

           Vietnam is stealing the thunder from Thailand.  Increasingly, foreign investors are finding the former more attractive than the latter.  As Tony Diep and Hawkins Pham, both of Indochina Capital wrote in Asian Management Insights (Vol 2), “…the overall view is that Vietnam is heading into several good years.  The macroeconomic picture is better than it has ever been.  There is a young and optimistic population with a real ‘can’ attitude.  Trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) provide the potential to further accelerate exports.  And the growth of private domestic players provides for enhanced liquidity and more attractive investments in both the public and private markets.”

          In contrast, as the national New Bureau of Thailand (July 21, 2015) reported, Thai investors will be short of some 300,000 workers in manufacturing  positions in the next five years, according to a survey of businesses by the Office of Industrial Economics.  This shortage is most acute in metal products, garments, and food and drinks.  This labor shortage is a result of the rapid ageing of the Thai population of about 60 million (compared with 90 million of Vietnam).  The agribusiness sector of Thailand, which has been its strongest competitive advantage in the ASEAN, is also being endangered by the lack of young farmers to take the place of their parents.  The average age of a Thai farmer is already over 60 years.  As can be gleaned from the experience of Singapore, it is very difficult to reverse the decline in the fertility rate after decades of aggressive birth control programs for which Thailand was being praised by international agencies in the last century.  Hopefully, the remaining ASEAN countries that still have young and growing populations, like Vietnam. Indonesia and the Philippines (the VIP countries) will think twice before falling into the trap of “population management.”

          For the evangelizers who are proposing the Christian message to non-Christian Asian countries, Vietnam also presents bright prospects.  The country has some 6 million Roman Catholics, about 7 per cent of the entire population.  It has the fifth largest Catholic population in Asia, after the Philippines, India, China and Indonesia (Wikipedia).  In 1988, all Vietnamese Catholics who died for their faith from 1533 to the present were canonized by St. John Paul II as Vietnamese martyrs.  There are 26 dioceses, including 3 archdioceses, 2,668 parishes and 2,228 priests.  Its young population augurs well for a rapid increase in infant baptisms and conversions.  Vietnam will be one of the Asian countries in which the Roman Catholic Church can experience an increase in its faithful, together with Africa and Latin America, as the number of Catholics decreases in the Old World that is suffering from a serious demographic winter.

          In his recent trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, Pope Francis referred to the advantages of a youthful population.  In his trip back to Rome, he was interviewed by a group of journalists from different countries.  In his reply to the question posed by Andrea Tornielli from the Italian group, he said:  “The Latin American Church has a great wealth.  It’s a young Church.  And this is important…I’ll say something that really struck me.  In all three countries, all three, along the streets there were moms and dads with their children, showing their children.  I’ve never seen so many kids!  It’s a people, and also the Church is like this…It’s a lesson for us, isn’t it?  For Europe, where the decrease in birthrate is a bit scary.  And also the policies for helping big families are few.  I think of France, which has a good policy for helping big families.  It has arrived to a higher than two percent birthrate, but others are at zero per cent or less…We need to learn from this and correct it because if children don’t come, it’s a waste. Children are thrown away.  Elderly are discarded…On the contrary, these nations of young people give us more strength…And for the Church I’d say a young Church can have so many problems…Don’t be afraid.  This youth has this freshness of the Church.  It can also be an undisciplined Church, but with time it will become disciplined.  But it will give us much good…”

            I hope, that like Pope Francis, more of our leaders will see that a young and growing population is a very valuable asset both for the economy and the Christian faith.  Instead of seeing large families as a problem, let us apply all the means to deliver quality basic education, health services, potable water and other necessities for the poorest of the poor so that in addition to attaining what is called inclusive growth, we can also avoid the almost irreversible demographic crisis that many of our Asian neighbors, especially to our north, are experiencing.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.