Teh tarik or pulled tea is a Malaysian staple. A concoction containing lashings of sweetened condensed milk as well as evaporated milk, it is definitely not what the doctor or dietician ordered. The first words of Malay I taught myself on moving here were “kurang manis” – less sweet, please.
But I never really noticed the scale of Malaysia’s problems until I was assigned to do a story on a fitness program to help the police force fight the flab. As I went out in the streets to shoot supporting footage, I began to notice overweight, and all too often, morbidly obese men and women of all races at every turn.
The statistics are damning. Studies suggest Malaysians are the most overweight people in ASEAN, with nearly half this once-lean population now overweight or obese. At nearly 18 percent, the obesity level has increased more than 300 percent in just two decades. And it is having devastating consequences on people’s health.
Some eight percent of adult Malaysians have diabetes, the joint-highest level in Asia. Obesity also contributes to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other serious conditions.
The government knows it has to act. So starting July 1, sweetened beverages containing above a specified level of sugar are hit with a tax of 10 cents per liter. It’s the importers and manufacturers, not consumers, who are taxed and can either absorb the duty or pass it on to consumers.
Azrul Khalib heads the Galen Center for Health and Social Policy in Kuala Lumpur. He calls the new tax “a timely and innovative approach.
“What we are trying to change is behavior and behavior is incredibly hard to change.
“So with this tax targeting beverages that are sweetened and manufactured, it is something of an incentive for manufacturers to consciously reduce the levels of sugar within their individual products rather than depend on consumers themselves reducing their sugar intake, which is unreliable and does not produce the kind of outcomes that we would want to see in addressing this crisis that we have in Malaysia.”
Already some major manufacturers like Nestle have said that they will work toward reformulating their beverages to bring them below the government’s specified sugar threshold and thereby avoid the tax.
Malaysia’s health minister Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad told me the new tax is part of a two-pronged approach.
“As well we go on a roadshow, a massive campaign to educate on why to avoid sugary drinks in light of overweight and obesity and that is the way forward for us. We are going to tackle both the supply side and as well as from the consumer demand side.”
For my earlier story, I visited the police headquarters to see a pilot project called "Trim n Fit." Some three dozen officers were working out in a gym under the supervision of fitness trainers and getting counseling from nutritionists.
Commissioner of the Royal Malaysian Police at the time, Zulkifli Adbullah, told me, “As an enforcement body, we are expected to be fit in executing our role and function. So we expect our policemen to be able to do sprinting a little bit when they want to make an arrest, and then we expect them to climb a fence.”
But the excess weight was also contributing to other problems on the force. “The number of days that our officers are taking sick leave is increasing, so it causes a problem for the productivity and also at the same time for the government,” Zulkifli said.
The vast majority of sweetened drinks Malaysians consume are produced on-site and therefore not subject to the tax. Aside from the traditional teh tarik, the popularity of so-called bubble teas, which have extremely high sugar content, has exploded here.
So a tax on manufactured sugary beverages is hardly a panacea in the battle against the bulge. But it’s a sound start, health police specialist Azrul says.
“Malaysia’s approach, which is at the manufacturing level, will see gains that will be much more noticeable in the long run rather than in the near term. So this is a really good approach to address this in a very sustainable and long-term manner.”
And to try to reverse a trend that is placing an enormous burden on Malaysians’ health and weighing down the country’s healthcare system.