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Candy floss for government rules

ON the night of 29 May 2010, I was at Alexis Ampang in Kuala Lumpur for dinner and a performance by my colleague Shanon Shah. Curiously, after 10pm, the other patrons in the air-conditioned restaurant started lighting up. My friends, one of whom was a cancer survivor, complained to the restaurant. Didn’t the law stipulate that air-conditioned restaurants had to have smoke-free areas which were separate from smoking areas?

We were told, however, that Alexis Ampang’s policy was to allow smoking after 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays. We were perplexed, but stayed on because we wanted to support Shanon’s performance.

Liow Tiong Lai


A few days after that incident, Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai announced that the government had decided to extend the ban on smoking to workplaces and offices with central air-conditioning. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be outraged. What, really, is the value of such government pronouncements if an earlier ban on smoking in public places had not even been effectively implemented?

Not just Alexis

After finding out that I was going to write about its rather curious smoking policy, Alexis Ampang apologised, saying, “The management at Alexis will take immediate steps to address this matter.” But what had stopped Alexis from “taking immediate steps” to follow the law in the interest of public health even before my friends and I turned up and complained?

To be certain, it’s not just Alexis that breaks the law about smoking with apparent impunity. On the night of 6 June, I experienced the same smoke-filled environment in No Black Tie, another reputable and well-known jazz club and restaurant. It wasn’t the first time and I doubt it will be the last time.

Our favourite Nyonya restaurant near our office also allows smoking in the air-conditioned area. And I remember shopping in Low Yat Plaza some years ago, after the earlier ban had been announced, and watching vendors and retailers puff away with no fear of being penalised for the public health hazard they posed.

Indeed, the Malaysian government has increased the number of smoke-free public areas over the years, says Mary Assunta, a senior policy adviser for the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.

But really, what is the value of these government pronouncements if it’s clear that there will be no or scant enforcement? After all, if there was enforcement, the likes of Alexis Ampang and No Black Tie would not be violating a government ban so blatantly; in Alexis’s case, so creatively, since there is no such thing as smoking being allowed after a certain time in a public space where smoking is banned.

“Health hazards from tobacco smoke are the same before 10pm and after 10pm,” Mary notes.

Serious or not?

(Pic by ilco /

(Pic by ilco /

So, is the government serious or not about ensuring public health? If it is, why is enforcement so lacking?

Enforcing the law is not impossible when it comes to banning smoking in public places. Try smoking in any British pub and see if you don’t get thrown out. Closer to the region, both Singapore and Thailand have a good track record for implementing smoke-free areas in public places. If other countries can do it, what’s stopping us?

It’s not impossible. All it takes is political will and clever strategies. Former Department of Environment director general Datuk Abu Bakar Jaafar once explained the strategy of enforcement to me. It would be impossible for government agencies to be everywhere all the time, he said.

But what the enforcers can do is nab violators with whatever resources they have, and to publicise these enforcement activities as frequently as possible. The fear of getting caught will alone be enough for people to follow the law.

Clearly, there isn’t enough fear of getting penalised when it comes to smoking in public spaces in Malaysia. And there isn’t enough fear because there isn’t enough enforcement.

It’s not just government enforcement that is lax. By international conventions, the Malaysian government has demonstrated how half-hearted it is about protecting public health from tobacco smoke, according to Mary.

Malaysia is actually in violation of Article 8 of the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which stipulates 100% smoke-free public and work places, adds Mary, who is also a board director for the Western Pacific Region of the Framework Convention Alliance. Malaysia ratified the FCTC in September 2005.

“However, the hospitality and the tobacco industries have managed to successfully lobby the Health Ministry to maintain smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants,” Mary says. “The tobacco industry persuaded restaurants to have ‘courtesy of choice’ by allowing smoking sections.”

And despite the overwhelming evidence and best practice that separating smoking from non-smoking sections does not work, she notes that the ministry would not be convinced about having 100% smoke-free public and work places.

Hence, in Malaysia, the law does not completely ban smoking in an air-conditioned restaurant. It is still allowed confined to a separated area. But if even this compromise position cannot be enforced by our government, what is the point of increasing the number of non-smoking public areas?

Not just smoking

(Pic by sasicd /

(Pic by sasicd /

Obviously, government malaise isn’t only apparent when it comes to smoking regulations. It’s a traffic violation to speak on one’s handphone without a hands-free kit. But how frequently have we all seen motorists turning a corner with one hand on the wheel with the other clutching a mobile phone?

It also wasn’t too long ago that the government made it an offence for passengers in the backseat who didn’t buckle up. Yet, just how effective has that ruling been?

The fear of getting caught for violating laws made for the public good is thinner than mountain air, that’s for certain.

And the reason for this? We have a government that occasionally announces good measures, but whose actions are often disconnected from its policy announcements. And all the announcements end up being nothing more than candy floss: sweet, but low in nutritional value – and oh, so transient.

Jacqueline Ann Surin was amused when the government warned the owners of pirated VCDs to beware because it was thinking of strengthening the law against copyright violations.

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9 Responses to “Candy floss for government rules”

  1. Leithaisor says:

    I am not sure whether the management of various centrally air-conditioned premises in which I have seen people smoking are ignorant or trying to play-dumb to appease tenants and customers.

    Certainly, when I spoke to the staff of upscale One World Hotel in Bandar Utama not long after it opened, they had the gall to claim that smoking was allowed in the lobby area [where I had seen a smoker puffing way]. I had to challenge them to check properly, and tag on the threat that I would lodge a formal complaint with the authorities before they took me seriously enough.

    To their credit, I have not seen smoking on their premises again after that, so possibly it was a question of new operations and inexperienced staff.

    But smokers have also been seen before in other upscale premises like 1Utama [both wings] and Sunway Pyramid, as well as less glitzy malls like The Summit and the one with a big “The Store” sign in Sg Buloh.

    To me, the upscale ones seem to have taken steps to address the problem. But the others generally do not – I have seen management staff [with ID tags around their necks] and security guards puffing away, and many shops which have ashtrays on counters and tables, and staff / customers happily doing their human chimney acts.

    I think it would take real political will coupled with stern enforcement action to deal with the latter group. Like the Alexis Ampang folks, until they themselves stand to lose [as in when they realised that you will be writing about their breach of the law], they could not care less that the smoking is a health threat to the non-smoking public.

  2. U-Jean says:

    Campuses are supposed to be smoking-free zones. However, many times I have seen students, general workers, and staff of my university puffing away in campus. Although I don’t have a problem with that since it is done in an open space, it shows the disparity between ideals, practices, and enforcement.

  3. Jessica says:

    We complained to Alexis Ampang last year and were told of the same “policy”. Interesting that they apologised after hearing this was going to be written about. What double standards. Similarly, we have seen people smoking in One World Hotel lobby as recently as three months ago. So Leithaisor, it has not stopped! The government can say what it wants, but I see no sign of it being followed [..]!

  4. mac-net says:

    Great piece.

    Enforcement is the only way to change Malaysians’ attitude. One can see Malaysians adhering to rules/laws when they travel across borders e.g. Singapore and the UK but upon returning, Malaysians revert to their merry ways of breaking rules, [whether] smoking, using [a] handphone when driving and not buckling up etc. A change of attitude will not happen unless it “hits them where it hurts most” — heavier fines!

    Another restaurant which has a total disregard for this smoking rule is Chinoz in Suria KLCC. All F&B outlets in Suria KLCC are smoke-free but Chinoz allows smoking inside its air-conditioned section and gets away with it. Shocking!

    [Actually, I’ve been to Chinoz in KLCC and as far as I remember, the restaurant has different smoking and non-smoking areas although there’s no stopping secondary smoke from wafting over to the non-smoking section.

    Jacqueline Ann Surin
    The Nut Graph]

    • mac-net says:

      My friends were are Alexis (Ampang) on Friday 25th May and the establishment allowed puffing of ciggies and cigars in its premise.

  5. Joseph Eales says:

    Malaysian should wake up to the fact that the no-smoking issue is just another example of how the government passes laws and then totally abandons any form of enforcement. The appalling number of road accidents and deaths associated with all major holidays caused by the total disregard of the rules of the road is always met with the stock response that next time, the rules will be rigidly enforced. However, they are mere words; there is never any action taken. If you drive on any major road in the UK in a reckless manner, just see how long you last before the police pull you over!

  6. KohJL says:

    Worse still are those who smoke in public toilets, where a hasty retreat is not even an option! And imagine if a person with asthma walked in…

  7. Johnathan says:

    They need to call upon the religious officers who seem to be doing such a great job of looking for ‘crimes’ of ‘khalwat’ (except when it comes to looking for crimes of drinking alcohol).

  8. Merah Silu says:

    It is our responsibility to inform the owner of the premise that they are breaking the rule. Or we should report it to relevant authority. This country or this government is not expected to put enforcement officers in all of these places. Be a good neighbour and citizen. As a citizen, we have a role to play and should not just complain.

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