Change in the air

Can we, the rakyat, match the gov­ern­ment’s sur­pris­ing pol­icy changes and do our part?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - Star2@thes­ Man­gai Balasegaram

LATELY, I’ve been feel­ing the pace of change. It’s as if the slow lo­cal train we were on – the one that barely seemed to progress and stut­tered at ev­ery stop – has turned into a high­speed in­ter­city bul­let train.

You’d ex­pect a rapid change of pace with tech­nol­ogy, but surely not gov­ern­ment pol­icy? But here I am, read­ing the news, and then re-read­ing the news again, in­cred­u­lous, to check I’ve got it right. The demise of the death penalty? De­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of drugs? A sugar tax? Th­ese are is­sues that so many peo­ple – in­clud­ing me – have been rant­ing about for years. Gosh, at this rate, I’ll have to find new causes to beat the drum for.

The death penalty was the sub­ject of my sec­ond Hu­man Writes col­umn (on­line at To pun­ish some­one with death feels in­nately wrong, and any­way, it doesn’t de­ter crimes. The costs of er­rors are too great – and er­rors are made all too of­ten. Check out the “In­no­cence List” (­no­cent) of for­mer Amer­i­can death row pris­on­ers who have been ex­on­er­ated, in some cases due to new DNA ev­i­dence. It’s chill­ing.

Malaysia is now mov­ing to end the death penalty. For a coun­try once known for its firm stance on this, and in a re­gion that gives short shrift to hu­man rights, this is a dra­matic turn. The sig­nif­i­cance is global; we now stand apart from most Asian na­tions, but we’ve joined the ma­jor­ity of the world’s coun­tries in spurn­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.

And then there’s the point­less­ness of throw­ing some­one in jail for car­ry­ing a small amount of drugs. What good does jail do? More log­i­cal, surely, to ac­tu­ally help the per­son? I’ve seen the harsh bru­tal­ity of the sys­tem on drug users first-hand and I know that it only serves to break them, not heal them. There have been way too many deaths.

In my last col­umn, I called for ad­dic­tion to be viewed as a health is­sue rather than a crime prob­lem (“We’ve lost the war al­ready”, Hu­man Writes, Oct 28; on­line at star2-war-drugs). Just days ago, our health min­is­ter called for de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion. For a coun­try that has taken such a hard line on drugs for decades, and has pris­ons full of in­mates with dru­gre­lated crimes, this is an amaz­ing about-turn.

An­other is­sue raised of­ten is sugar and its dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on health, in­clud­ing a bur­geon­ing obe­sity prob­lem and a di­a­betes epi­demic. We got tagged with the moniker “Heavy­weight of Asia” in 2014, af­ter a study in med­i­cal jour­nal Lancet found that half of all adults in Malaysia are over­weight or obese. Malaysia also has the high­est rate of di­a­betes in Asia and pos­si­bly even in the world, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Di­a­betes In­sti­tute ex­ec­u­tive chair­man, Datuk Dr Mustaffa Embong. Most of those af­fected do not even know they have di­a­betes.

Ex­perts have writ­ten about how a sugar tax could help. Now, come April, we’ll have one: a tax of 40 sen per litre on sweet­ened bev­er­ages. While I’ve been ap­plaud­ing this change, I’ve heard oth­ers ques­tion it. Let’s be clear. A tax on sug­ary drinks can only go so far. But it is a re­ally im­por­tant step in tak­ing on a global food in­dus­try that has gone way over­board with sugar. And why the fo­cus on drinks? Be­cause firstly, on a prac­ti­cal ba­sis, it’s easy to tax drinks. Can you imag­ine how hard it would be to tax sweet foods? Also, sug­ary drinks are a ma­jor source of added sugar, but they are “empty calo­ries” and do not sat­isfy hunger. A sin­gle can of cola can con­tain nine tea­spoons of sugar. The Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion rec­om­mends a limit of six tea­spoons of added sugar a day for women, nine tea­spoons for men.

Plus, the car­bon­ated soft drink in­dus­try is ex­tremely pow­er­ful and has a strong hold on con­sumers; chil­dren are vul­ner­a­ble to their mar­ket­ing. Sales of th­ese drinks have risen alarm­ingly in re­cent years in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, spell­ing dis­as­ter for health. Some­thing must be done.

So this is why 36 coun­tries – in­clud­ing sev­eral in Asia – have adopted a tax on sug­ary drinks. Stud­ies show that in Mex­ico, there has been a 10% drop in sweet drink pur­chases in the sec­ond year af­ter the tax was in­tro­duced.

The move lo­cally has been wel­comed by the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion and Unicef (United Na­tions In­ter­na­tional Chil­dren’s Emer­gency Fund). The Malaysian Den­tal As­so­ci­a­tion has also said it sup­ports a tax on sweet drinks, say­ing it would “save mil­lions of teeth”.

The next step would be to raise the price of sugar – but that would be a tough po­lit­i­cal move.

I’m grat­i­fied that we’re pro­gress­ing. Of course, what re­ally mat­ters is how we, as in­di­vid­u­als, take all this on. Now what would be re­ally rev­o­lu­tion­ary is if we, the peo­ple, also demon­strate the same pace of change. Man­gai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into any­thing on be­ing hu­man. She has worked with in­ter­na­tional pub­lic health bod­ies and has a Mas­ters in pub­lic health. Write to her at star2@thes­

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