(Source: eatingasia.typepad.com) MOST Malaysians of my generation, or even the generation before, grew up with sweetened condensed milk (susu pekat manis) as an essential additive to our daily beverages. It was an item I could not do without when drinking kopi at my local coffee shop, making my own cup of Milo at home, or having teh tarik at my favourite mamak stall. In fact, the brand of condensed milk could often make or break the taste of your favourite drink.
But alas, sweetened condensed milk faced a slow but inevitable extinction in Malaysia sometime early last year. What all of us are consuming today, and what is available widely in all hyper- and mini-markets, is an inferior substitute called sweetened condensed creamer (krimer pekat manis). You haven’t noticed? Well, now you know.
For condensed milk connoisseurs like myself, there’s certainly a whole lot of difference in taste between kopi with condensed milk and kopi with creamer. You can even tell the difference in the colloidal texture and colour of the product.
From the ingredients column printed on the tin wrapper, you’ll notice condensed milk is made mainly from milk solids. With condensed creamer, on the other hand, the bulk of milk solids is replaced with palm oil (or other vegetable oil) solids. Without taking into consideration health concerns (since sweetened condensed milk ain’t that healthy either), condensed creamer is without a doubt an inferior product in terms of taste and content.
Hence, for a long time before the phasing-out of condensed milk, condensed creamer was sold more cheaply than its more illustrious cousin. If memory serves me right, three years ago, F&N condensed milk sold for RM1.85, while F&N condensed creamer for 10 to 15 sen less. It was the same for all other brands — Milkmaid, Dutch Lady, Marigold, etc.
Alas, all you get now is sweetened condensed creamer lining the shelves, selling anywhere between RM2.10 and RM2.60, depending on the shop or product brand.
(© Paul Fleet/Dreamstime)Manipulating market microeconomics
This is one of the best examples of ill-thought and superficial attempts to manipulate market microeconomics by the government, and its unintended consequences.
Sweetened condensed milk was one of the tens of items that were price-controlled by the government of Malaysia. Nobody was allowed to sell condensed milk for more than RM1.90, a price fixed probably more than a decade ago.
The result of rising commodity prices over the years made it impossible for manufacturers to sell condensed milk at RM1.90 and still make a profit. However, there has been no such price restriction on condensed creamer. Hence the logical outcome was for manufacturers to stop selling condensed milk altogether, and to sell the inferior product now priced significantly higher than condensed milk.
And thankfully, because there is a ready substitute, albeit an inferior one, the population at large hasn’t suffered any obvious adverse outcomes. The same, however, cannot be said of other essential price-controlled products that have met severe supply shortages in recent years. Cooking oil, flour, and sugar do not have readily available, cheap alternatives.
Price control policies, while seemingly benign and well-intentional, are actually the pillar of state-planned economies that eventually failed, such as the Soviet Union and its Eastern European compatriots. These economies were riddled with constant supply shortages and production failures.
However, what makes the entire situation laughable is that sweetened condensed milk remains an item among hundreds in the list of products tracked by the country’s official inflation indicator.
It is therefore not surprising that the government’s official statistics declared inflation to be nearly nonexistent (at 2%) in 2007. The price of sweetened condensed milk used for statistics tabulation remained at RM1.90, despite being nonexistent in stores and its nearest inferior substitute selling at significantly higher prices. Given the number of price-controlled products in this country, who knows how much this has distorted the country’s official inflation statistics.
Therefore, it is extremely important for our government to understand that constant superficial attempts to “control” prices via regulation will likely fail, especially for products where competition is readily available. What will work better under such circumstances is to encourage and offer incentives for greater competition among suppliers of these products. As long as it’s reasonably profitable, most companies will reduce prices to the lowest possible level to maximise demand and ultimately profits.
In the meantime, I’ll have to satisfy my sweetened condensed milk fetish by securing supplies during my travels overseas, whether to Singapore, Thailand, or even Vietnam. Or, better still, get kind-hearted friends to hoard me some during their travels. Heh.
Tony Pua is Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya Utara under the Democratic Action Party (DAP). He is the DAP national publicity secretary as well as the investment liaison officer for the Penang chief minister, based in the Klang Valley.