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The politics of sugar

lemon going into drink
“Boss, limau ais kosong, satu”
(© Brian Lary /
NEXT year, the government will possibly abolish the sugar subsidy. I’m personally all for that. For many years now, I’ve learnt to enjoy food and beverages without adding (or at least reducing the amount of) sugar. “Boss” at the mamak stall at first raised his eyebrows when I ordered “limau ais kosong”. Now he’s used to my request.

I notice too, that more people are forsaking sugar. It’s still a class thing, though. After all, Equal sweetener is only for the privileged. In the homes of some friends, one kilogramme of brown sugar (not white, because it’s more processed) can last for six months or more. But what about those who earn far less? For whom sweetened condensed creamer, another unhealthy price-controlled item, is mixed with water to feed their babies? For whom local biscuits made with subsidised sugar are a cheap treat to pacify crying children?

From a middle-class perspective and upwards, abolishing sugar subsidies should hardly be an electoral issue. Chances are, abolishing subsidies of any kind, while we will feel the pinch, will not put us out on the streets. People did learn to cope when the price of fuel went up to RM2.70 per litre.

Yet, come election time, it won’t be surprising if the opposition adds the removal of subsidies to their basket of campaign issues. And it won’t be surprising if the government backs down due to pressure.

The politics of cheap sweeteners

Subsidies, one of the many forms bribes can take
(© JadeGordon /
So if food is metaphor, subsidised sugar for me has come to symbolise the rut our political culture is stuck in. That sugar is not a middle- to upper-class necessity gives us a glimpse into the ideological divide between the urban areas that swept opposition parties to power, and the rural heartland which kept Barisan Nasional intact.

That sugar is addictive shows the political immaturity of an electorate that has been conditioned to depend on elected representatives for handouts. Some tales in Ampersand by Petaling Jaya councillor KW Mak illustrate this.

Sugar also symbolises the government’s failures to lead in citizen education and empowerment by perpetuating the subsidy mentality to ensure re-election, and in sugar-coating some hard facts about political risks to our collective health. One example is the continual stoking by some leaders of a false sense of racial superiority.

Vegetarian? Vegan? Is it organic?
(© Morgan Noguellou /
Kicking the habit

I like looking at other people’s shopping carts while standing in the hypermarket queue. You can guess a person’s lifestyle based on his or her groceries.

If a cart contains skimmed milk, lean meat or an expensive fish like salmon, and a vegetable combo like zucchini, broccoli, peppers or asparagus, the shopper can likely afford the time and money for gym and outdoor hobbies. Is quite possibly single and can afford branded skin products.

Ikan kembung, cheap protein like taufoo and eggs, kang kung or choy sum, palm oil-based cooking oil (not sunflower or canola, not even olive), a bottle of Ribena or cordial, normally corresponds with a frazzled homemaker of a middle-income family. That’s the lunch that will be cooked for the family’s school-going children.


If tins of sweetened condensed creamer, sweet biscuits, junk food like little jellies or chocolate or strawberry-coated biscuit sticks are added to the above, I will expect the children to have weight issues. Evidence shortly comes in a troupe of rotund children who run up to their parents with more junk food or Vitagen in hand.

Now, don’t think I’m a snob, but I think most families like these are from the lower-income group. The presence of cheap, sugary, calorie-laden snacks in the shopping cart is the basis for my assumption. It is usually the wealthier who have the knowledge and the disposable income to make healthier food choices.

Sweet calories (© Michael Lorenzo /

But over-consumption of sugar because it’s cheap has become a burden on the public healthcare system. An increasing number of Malaysians suffer from diabetes. In fact, diabetes is considered a greater potential threat than swine flu or HIV/AIDS, and Malaysia is regarded as being among the countries in the region that could lead Southeast Asia into a diabetes epidemic. Clearly, it’s not just a disease of the poor. But the wealthy have the power of choice.

But making the right choices is also predicated on first of all having options, and then having the ability to choose a healthier option over others. That’s no different from political choices.

If the electorate is only being offered super-sweet deals in the short term which are detrimental to the long-term health of democratic citizenship, we could end up with political diabetes. And as a society, which part of our body politic would we need to amputate in the future, once the damage is done, in order to ensure our survival?

But before citizens can make informed choices about the country’s political health, what are we doing to ensure that they have more than one option? And what are we doing to ensure that they are empowered to make the healthier choice?

For 2010, let’s resolve to live healthier. Physically and politically. Start with kicking the sugar habit. Sweet as it is, too much of it can kill. favicon

Deborah Loh still gets weird looks when she asks for “limau ais kosong”.

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6 Responses to “The politics of sugar”

  1. Really? I order limau ais kosong all the time, and I don’t get weird looks.

    I do not support the end of the sugar subsidy. It is an attempt to fix a problem at a macro level when the problems are micro. Firstly, this will severely affect Malaysian manufacturing businesses, especially foodstuffs. Many of these export their products to other countries. Their usage of sugar will not decrease because of higher prices, rather the product itself will just increase in price. This will severely affect the performance of Malaysian products outside of Malaysia.

    A more practical approach would be to start with the civil service. I don’t know if those who don’t work in the civil service notice, but pastries and tea served at canteens working in institutions affiliated to the government are usually sweet to an unhealthy degree. Many civil servants do spend time at the canteen and have at least one meal there; a large number also have tea. This is an unhealthy diet, and done in the long run, so it’s small wonder that many Malaysians are ill.

    How hard would it be to have an inspection of major offices of the civil service for the quality of food? [Government] departments receive “surat pekeliling” on all sorts of random things. It shouldn’t be too difficult to look into the quality of food served in canteens.

  2. Baby Seal says:

    I constantly remind myself to add “kurang manis” to any drinks ordered at the mamak stall. I feel the subsidy cut should be extended to those super unhealthy condensed creamers.

  3. Sean says:

    Perhaps not exactly on topic, but does Malaysia have allotments where people can grow their own fruit and vegetables?

    The wikipedia article refers to the Philippines, but I can’t find the same in Malaysia:

    What is the exact mechanism of the subsidy? Is a large sum of money paid by the government to an entity in the production/distribution chain? I think subsidies should be paid directly to consumers, so they themselves can choose what to subsidise.

  4. Ashraf says:

    I think the right question to ask is, why is the subsidy removed after Robert Kuok sold his sugar company to Felda?

  5. oh c'mon says:

    So only poor people are fat and rich people are thin? If cheap condensed milk mixed with water is all some poor parents can afford to feed their babies with, it becomes a matter of survival. Education is the key to diet change and this is available to everyone, rich or poor.

  6. oster says:

    In the England, obesity is far more prevalent amongst lower income groups, as well as the Northern regions (which are more depressed).

    This can be attributed to the inherited diet that was high in fat and carbs due to the labour-intensive industries that thrived in the North and obviously had the lower rungs of society forming the backbone and muscles.

    Can the sugary diets of our own low-income peoples be symptomatic of this?

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