Indonesia's Population Explosion: No Longer an Issue

A 40-year-old West Java villager who goes by the single name Deni has only two children, a considerable change from his own parents. He has seven siblings. He thus illustrates the change that has taken place over the last four decades in Indonesia as the country’s family planning program and changing cultural mores have caused birth rates to fall dramatically.

As World Population Day approaches on July 11, Indonesia’s extraordinary success in cutting its population growth is a lesson for a world whose total numbers are on course to soar to as high as 9.5 billion by 2050. The key to Indonesia’s success has been its National Family Planning Coordination Board, known by its Indonesian initials BKKBN, which worked together with the United States Agency for International Development to produce the results.

The program got underway in the 1970s under the late strongman Suharto who, whatever his shortcomings, recognized that a population explosion could wreck his country. Suharto allowed his planners to put together a strong and effective family planning organization. Today the program is recognized internationally for its success in lowering average family size, increasing contraceptive use and improving the health of women and children.

As one of eight siblings, it is obvious that Deni parents were unaware of family planning or even the fact that families could regulate the number of children they could have. Even if they knew it, it was difficult and expensive to find contraceptives.

Deni’s experience is thus strikingly different from that of from his parents. He and his millions of fellow Indonesians live in a time when people are not only aware that they can regulate their family size but they have relatively easy access to modern contraceptives; when there are many other aspirations than simply having large numbers of children; and when people realize that they can raise their standard of living by having fewer children rather than more.

Indonesia today is very different from the Indonesia of the 1960s and even the 1990s. The country’s total fertility rate, the rate arrived at by calculating the number of births per woman of childbearing age, has fallen from its 1967 peak of 5.6 births per woman to 2.28 today, just around the replacement rate of 2.2 births per woman. (Although globally the replacement rate is 2.1 births, Indonesia’s level is slightly higher because of higher mortality rates.)

Nonetheless, because of those vast numbers of births in the previous four decades, and because of dramatically increasing life expectancy, Indonesia’s population has soared from 97.1 million in 1961 to 237.6 million in 2010. In 1960, the average Indonesian could expect to live about 38.0 years. By 2005, that had risen to about 69.0 years, an astonishing 31.0 -year increase as health care and better nutrition took effect.

The country has experienced a relatively fast demographic transition during the last four decades. The initial high fertility rate meant the population was projected to grow very quickly, with lots of young children who were still dependent on the adult population, making it difficult for Indonesian families to save and invest. The quality of health for children would be damaged by malnutrition and other problems, in turn affecting the quality of the labor force and restricting economic growth.

Faced with this gloomy scenario, the government successfully engineered individual behavior so that families saw a large number of children as a burden rather than an asset. The government campaigned on the concept of a two-child family as a happy family. In the 1960s, Indonesians accepted whatever number of children they were going to have, with women producing babies as long as they were in their reproductive ages. But, nowadays, they can make choices on how many children they want -- or they can decide not to have any children at all.

Therefore, the current challenge is providing “quality contraception,” giving families all available information about contraceptives, including the side effects. The contraceptives should also be easily accessible and affordable.

The issue is no longer to lower fertility, because fertility is already low. Indonesia’s fertility is already around replacement level. If fertility continues to go down, and goes much below replacement level, Indonesia will experience a shortage of labour like what some countries such as Singapore, South Korea, and Japan are facing now. These countries need to bring foreigners to fill in the shortage of labour and this “import” of foreigners has resulted in social and political tensions in these countries.

It is true that the number of Indonesian population will keep growing though fertility rate is already low. By 2025, Indonesia may have an additionaal 40 million population compared to that in 2010. It is also true to say that the rising number of population may burden development in Indonesia. Nevertheless, this is not population explosion. This is demographic momentum, an echo of the past high fertility. With the continuing low fertility, this demographic momentum will disappear.

Coupled with the liberalization of the economy, a rising number of foreigners will come to Indonesia, particularly after 2030. A slowing of the fertility decline may postpone the start of the heavy inflow of foreigners looking for work.

The challenge is then how to utilize the still rising numbers. China and India have been seen as rising global economies because of their large numbers, coupled with rising prosperity. Forty years ago, given poor economic development and planning, China’s large population was regarded as a liability. Now it is an asset. Can Indonesia do the same?

Indonesia’s policy makers should not worry overmuch about further reducing fertility. Rather, the country should delay the start of a shortage of young workers projected for about 2030. If possible, it could avoid it by keeping fertility around replacement, as it is now. At the same time, Indonesia should be able to make its rising population an asset in its bid to join the rising world economic powers. Concentrating on quality contraception and transformation of its growing population into an asset is the challenge. Population explosion is no longer an issue.

(The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore)