Govt tries to dilute Malaysians’ love affair with sugar by taking aim at the wallet
ONE of the most important phrases that newcomers to Malaysia should learn is kurang manis, which means “less sweet” in Malay. That is a constant warning from Singaporeans working here, and with good reason. Malaysians have a sweet tooth.
Indeed, the amount of sugar in their food and drinks shocks the tastebuds of anyone, let alone an unsuspecting Singaporean used to constant nagging about his diet from the Health Promotion Board.
It is most apparent at the many mamak (Indian Muslim) stalls that dot the city. Forget to say kurang manis when you order teh tarik, and be prepared to be buzzing for the rest of the day. After all, each cup of teh tarik has dollops of condensed milk and about three teaspoons of sugar in it, dietitians in Kuala
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Malaysians have this love affair with sugar. Some have postulated that in the past, many jobs were physical and people
sought sugar for energy. It has been desired
since. What is certain, however, is that the
love for all things sweet is already ingrained in the culture, Health Ministry deputy director-general Hasan Abdul Rahman told The Straits Times. “We always hear people say: the sweeter, the better,” he said. This affection for sugar has been growing, and that worries health-care professionals like him.
According to a 2005 survey, Malaysians consume an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar daily – more than three times the recommended amount and about 10 teaspoons more than they did in the 1970s.
Experts believe this has contributed to the country’s rising obesity rate. About 30 per cent of all Malaysians are now overweight. The number of diabetics is also growing rapidly. There were 800,000 in 2007. This year, it is projected to grow to 1.3 million. As a result, the worried authorities will embark on another drive to try to reverse
the problem. Next month, they will launch a RM3 million (S$1.2 million) campaign to get Malaysians to cut back on sugar.
Although campaigns in the past have had limited success, the authorities believe they can sway consumers this time by focusing on a new issue: the high price of sugar. On Jan 1, the price of sugar rose from RM1.45 to RM1.65 a kg. Prices of controlled goods like sugar do not often change in Malaysia, but the adjustment was triggered by a sharp rise in the cost of sugar worldwide. The government took it as a chance to wean Malaysians off the sweet stuff.
Datuk Dr Hasan feels the high price is an easier message to sell to the masses. “Sugar is not poison. The effects of taking too much are not immediate, which is why many people don’t see the risks,” he said. “But by suggesting that each teaspoonful of sugar you don’t use saves you 10 sen, that might make an impact.” But there is another hurdle: persuading food manufacturers to put out products that have less sugar or are sugarfree.
Many of them know their customers’ preferences, so they are hesitant to make less sweet or sugar-free products, said Mr Shaani Abdullah, secretary-general of the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations. If they do, he said, they will cost more because there is lower demand and thus less production. Manufacturers may also need to replace sugar with pricier ingredients to retain the taste. To that end, the government is planning to introduce incentives so that companies will produce more low-sugar products. Details will be announced when the health campaign kicks off next month.
By shifting the spotlight to the benefits of reducing the amount of sugar people consume, the authorities
will also be hoping to take the heat off the cut in the sugar subsidy. Removing a subsidy is always seen as politically risky here, but Malaysia is on a mission to make over its sputtering economy. Trimming the massive subsidies it doles out annually on commodities like sugar, petrol and cooking oil is seen as one of its key reforms, and would substantially ease the country’s expenditure.
The government has pointed out that if the retail price of sugar was not adjusted on Jan 1, sugar subsidies would cost it RM250 million more this year. Even after the 20-sen hike, it expects to spend about RM1 billion.
When the price increase was announced, Prime Minister Najib Razak was quick to reason that it was “illogical” for the government to subsidise a commodity which is bad for the health. Critics like Mr Shaani say the subsidy
should be removed completely because it benefits food manufacturers, who buy sugar in bulk, more than consumers. The savings can then be channelled into public transport or education, which will benefit the poor more than the rich, he told The Straits Times.
But Domestic Trade Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob confirmed on Wednesday that the government would not abolish the sugar subsidy because it “wanted to take into account the people’s needs”. The government knows that the issue of subsidies is a touchy one, especially since Malaysians have become so used to them. When petrol subsidies were abruptly taken away two years ago, it caused a huge uproar and a backlash against the government. A repeat of that incident would not be at all sweet.