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  • Southeast Asia's Demographic Situation, Regional Variations, and National Challenges
  • Tey Nai Peng (bio)

This chapter provides an overview of Southeast Asia's demographic situation over the first fifteen years of this century, and highlights variations across countries. It concludes with discussions of major demographic challenges facing each country in the region. Data for this chapter are taken mainly from the United Nations' World Population Prospects—2015 Revision database. By focusing on this period, this chapter updates and adds to the findings of an article by Gavin Jones1 that provides a comprehensive analysis of the population situation for Southeast Asia from 1980 to 2010.

The Socio-economic Context

Demographic changes are closely interrelated with socio-economic development. Hence, a brief overview of the socio-economic conditions in the countries of Southeast Asia will be useful in understanding the variations in demographics across the region. The Human Development Report (HDR) published annually by the United Nations Development Programme provides development indicators for nearly all countries/regions of the world.2 Some development indicators from the HDR are given in Table 1.

Since 1990 the United Nations has been using the human development index (HDI) to rank countries in terms of human development. HDI is a composite index that combines economic, health, and education indicators. In 2014, Singapore (ranked eleventh in the world) and Brunei Darussalam (at rank thirty-one) were [End Page 55]

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Table 1.

Key Demographic Data, Southeast Asia, 2000-2014/15

[End Page 56] classified as very high HDI countries, Malaysia and Thailand as high HDI countries, Myanmar as a low HDI country, and all the other Southeast Asian nations as medium HDI countries. Between 2000 and 2014, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Myanmar, and Laos registered the most rapid rise in HDI, each with a gain of between 24 and 32 per cent.

Life expectancy at birth varied within a rather narrow range between 65.9 and 68.9 years in six Southeast Asian countries (Myanmar, Laos, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Indonesia), and between 74.4 and 78.8 years in four (Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei). Singapore has one of the world's highest life expectancies at birth, at 83 years. Within each country, women live longer than men, by between 2.7 (Laos) and 9.5 years (Vietnam).3

In 2014 the mean number of years of schooling ranged from 4.1 to 4.4 years in Myanmar and Timor-Leste to 10.0 to 10.6 in Malaysia and Singapore.4 Data from World Development Indicators show that, between 2000 and 2012, the tertiary enrolment ratio rose markedly for all Southeast Asian countries, except for the Philippines. Thailand registered the highest enrolment ratio of more than 50 per cent in 2011, while Myanmar had the lowest tertiary enrolment ratio, at 13.8 per cent.5

Income levels varied widely across Southeast Asian countries. Singapore and Brunei Darussalam are the two richest countries, followed by Malaysia and Thailand. The income level of Singapore is twenty-six times higher than that of Cambodia, the poorest country in the region, and about ten times higher than the Philippines (ranked sixth in the region). Over the period 2000–13, the low-income countries registered higher rates of GDP growth compared to the high-income countries in the region.6

The unemployment rate for the period 2008–13 was remarkably low in Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos (from 0.3 to 1.4 per cent), and was rather low in Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia (2–3 per cent). However, the Philippines and Indonesia had relatively high unemployment rates of around 6 per cent.7

The close link between urbanization and demographic processes and socioeconomic development is well documented.8 The wealthier countries in Southeast Asia have higher urbanization levels than the poorer ones. While the urbanization level in Southeast Asia has nearly doubled from 25 per cent in 1980 to 47.6 per cent in 2015, it is one of the less urbanized regions in the world. The urbanization level ranged from around 21 per cent in Cambodia to 100 per cent in Singapore. Apart from Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam are two...