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Is the rise of autism and brain drain amidst an ageing society a threat to Malaysia's growth?

The latest data and statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on autism have many people worried about the future of communities and the burden on the social security system should the number continue to rise as determined. CDC recently reported that in 2022 1 in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This comes in the trail of a study that was conducted between 2009 to 2017, which suggested that 1 in 6 (17%) children aged three to seventeen years were diagnosed with a developmental disability.

The Prime Minister's department on the 29th of July 2022 reported that the percentage of the population aged 65 and over increased from 7.0% to 7.3% for the same period. In some states like Penang, Sabah and Kuala Lumpur, we see a decrease in population. Based on the UN definition of an ageing society, Malaysia is fast becoming an ageing society.

Malaysia is dealing with three converging issues: an increase in autism rates, exponential brain drain and an ageing population.


On the 6th of April 2022, Codebluie reported that in 2021, 589 children aged below eighteen were diagnosed with ASD. Compare this to the report in 2010, where only 99 children were diagnosed with ASD; the increase has been dramatic, considering that Malaysia also has an ageing population and, in recent years, brain drain. Will our social security system be able to cope with this rise? The answer is probably no unless we take action now.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin recommended to the Cabinet to form a National Autism Council amid the increasing numbers of autistic children in Malaysia but will this make a dent to the impact that this trend will have on Malaysia's economy and growth?

While some people with autism can live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. Autism often has an impact on education and employment opportunities. In addition, the demands on families to provide care and support can be significant.

From a psychological care perspective, psychological intervention can improve the communication and social skills of those with ASD. These skills are crucial because it has a strong positive impact on the quality of life and functionality of those with ASD and reduces the stress of their caregivers. These interventions are most effective when done early, meaning that children need access to early detection, assessments and diagnosis. No such systems are currently in place.

Cost is another factor that has led to delayed diagnosis and delayed intervention. Evidence-based psychosocial interventions are long-term endeavours and can take up not only time but also money. Most B40 and M40 families will not be able to afford or have the resources to support these interventions in a way that can make a difference to the child.


Supporting and maintaining a proper social security system for those with ASD and the aged requires a lot of money. Our country's brain drain has grown exponentially over the last four decades.

Business Today reported on the 23rd of June 2022 that the Malaysian brain drain phenomenon has a "profound negative systemic impact on the nation, including such afflictions as starvation of talent replacement, poor governance, and policymaking, middle-income trap, low industry development (less breadth and depth), corruption etc."

According to the article, a complete overhaul of the overall Malaysian setup of governance and policymaking is the single most critical variable to reversing the brain drain. With the leadership gaps that we now face on the political front and how the system is set up, the chances of these crucial actions being taken are next to zero.

The Malaysian ringgit depreciated by 4.6% against the US dollar in the second quarter of 2022, and at today's exchange rate, the dollar is now at 4.79. It will not be a surprise if it breaks the 1:5 markers in a short period, perhaps after the election this month. With Malaysian government debt amounting to RM1.045 trillion or 64% of GDP when it has not taken into account contingent liabilities of entities such as 1MDB and its subsidiaries, the government not only lack the political will but may also no longer have the resources to curb the disconcerting trends.


Malaysia has a significant population of migrant labour force with a historical estimated ratio of at least 1:1 for the documented versus the undocumented. In an ageing society, we can expect the outflow remittance from Malaysia to negate whatever positive effects of remittance by Malaysian migrants.

In an ageing society, maintaining productivity and innovation will be challenging. Keeping industries competitive and afloat will also be challenging. Talents will be further reduced because of retirements. Malaysia has been losing its competitive age for decades, and this will accelerate. Development and industrialisation will also begin to slow down. Can EPF cope with the inevitable withdrawals?

The Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) warned that EPF was never meant for calamities and pandemics but a comfortable post-retirement for its contributors. Therefore, allowing withdrawals for the pandemic can decrease the post-retirement income stream.


Psychological analysts can agree that we have psychological crises that are looming. Individuals need to prepare themselves. On all fronts, from individual to government, denial is no longer an option.

Get assessed, get a proper diagnosis and start your mental health journey with your family now. Without mental health, the crises are expected to have a more significant impact on those with psychological issues who may find it more challenging to adapt and survive in a fast-changing environment without proper intervention in the form of counselling, psychotherapy and coaching.

At 360 Wellness Hub, we offer individuals treatments that can help them positively overcome the challenges that they will be facing in the near future as the three issues further converges.


About the Author


Dr. Lennie Soo

Founder and Clinical Director of 360 Wellness Hub.

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