Human Writes: Can we, the rakyat, step up and match the government’s surprising policy changes?

  • Living
  • Sunday, 11 Nov 2018

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 high-speed 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 here). To punish someone with death feels innately wrong, and anyway, it doesn’t deter crime. The costs of errors are too great – and errors are made all too often. Check out the “Innocence List” (here) 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 here). 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 drug-related 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.

Human Writes columnist 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

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