“Boss, limau ais kosong, satu”
(© Brian Lary / sxc.hu)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 / sxc.hu)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 / sxc.hu)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 / sxc.hu)
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.
Deborah Loh still gets weird looks when she asks for “limau ais kosong”.
Read previous Sideways columns
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