One of Perak’s great sons, Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Dr Jeffrey Cheah who was raised in Pusing, delivered a Merdeka and Malaysia Day full-page message three weeks ago in which he called for a thorough re-examination of various key factors that define our daily lives.
In regard to the economy, he posed the question: “How do we promote an economy based on innovation, digital tools, competition and meritocracy, one where ‘know-how’ matters more than ‘know who’?”
Another great Perakian, Koon Yew Kin of Ipoh, published an A4-size book in January 2021 in which he lamented that Malaysia is “stuck in a rut of an underperforming economy and a deeply divided society that is falling behind other countries” — notably Singapore and South Korea with whom we were on par in 1970 in terms of GDP per capita.
Today, despite having fewer natural resources, Singapore’s GDP per capita is 3 times bigger than ours and South Korea’s is 2.5 times ahead. Citing the UN Human Development Index (HDI) figures for 189 countries, Koon noted that our global ranking has dropped from the 55th spot in 2005 to 61st in 2019. Singapore is ranked 9th and South Korea 22nd.
Koon believes that “a total reset and an entirely new policy is needed to put the country on the right roadmap towards a fully developed and advanced nation.”
One way to visualise our economic system is to think of it as a dirty diesel car. The car goes somewhere, but spouts pollutants all along the way. How do you achieve a total reset without abandoning the car? You can install a new engine and run the car on Ron 95 petrol. Can we reset the economy? The recently unveiled 12th Malaysia Plan aims to make Malaysia a developed and prosperous country with fair and equitable distribution of wealth.
The first part is a matter of time as our GDP has been rising although slowly, but it is the drive towards common prosperity for all that is most challenging. Last year, the number of poor households was 8.7% or 639,800 out of a total 7.28 million households as reported by the Statistics Department in 2019. A poor household is one that earns a monthly income below RM2,208. Assuming a family size of five, this exceeds 3 million people.
The 12MP sets out to raise the average household income to RM10,000 per month by 2025. Average is a deceptive figure. It hides the fact that while your neighbour earns RM18,000 you may be earning just RM2,000 and are poor. If we go by averages, many who are poor will remain poor. In fact, the Gini coefficient which measures income inequality has increased to 0.407 from 0.399, reflecting a widening gap.
How do we achieve common prosperity, how do we get 100% of urban households to earn not less than RM2,208 per month, and all households in rural areas which have a much lower cost of living to earn not less than RM2,000 per month? The key is preventive healthcare. Back in the 1960s-70s, China deployed barefoot doctors to serve all the impoverished areas. This was one of the tools in China’s victory against poverty.
To get out of poverty, children must do well in their studies to find a good job or start a viable small business. To study well, you must have a properly functioning brain. But nutritional deficiency resulting from poor diet is known to weaken brain activity, impacting memory, decision-making, language and reading, as well as cognitive skills. Unless there is good nutrition for every child, poverty will move from one generation to the next.
Malnutrition usually coincides with unhygienic, non-stimulating, and stressful living conditions that further pull down a child’s health and his ability to do well in school. You may have heard stories of garbage kids who grow up to become tycoons. These are very rare exceptions. That’s why they become stories.
Immediately you can see that the solution lies in providing better food. Free nutritious lunch in primary and secondary schools for all students will be a necessary step forward. There is no need to filter out the rich from the poor kids as is now happening. That is retrogressive. Other than proper diet, social support networking is vital for breaking the cycle of poverty. Poor kids need to sit next to rich kids at meals to build networks.
Social networking is like the wiring in your house. Good food is like electricity, but if there are no wires you won’t light up. Our school authorities seem to miss the point that benefits must be egalitarian and not discriminatory, for this is how you build common prosperity through Keluarga Malaysia and Keluarga Dunia social linkages. Besides, it is rich parents who pay for these free meals through income taxes.
However, what happens after school? Poor parents who were themselves garbage kids when young can’t afford nutritious dinner or breakfast for their children. Even for parents, if they don’t eat well their brains are like car engines running on dirty diesel and not Ron 95. They can’t lift themselves out of poverty and can’t give their children a good base. The vital missing link in 12MP is the absence of a Better Nutrition Directive.
What is a Better Nutrition Directive? It is a directive to phase out sickness-inducing food items from being sold or served, and to encourage the consumption of nutritional foods by lowering prices. A frequently highlighted anti-nutritional item is refined sugar which has most of its nutrients processed out. Medical researchers say its consumption increases diabetes risk, and nearly 1 in 5 Malaysian adults have diabetes. It begins in childhood.
Refined sugar and sugar substitutes (artificial sweeteners) are popular because Malaysians love all things sweet, and processed sugar also extends the shelf life of a food item. Hence it is added to cakes, pastries, biscuits, canned and packaged drinks, flavoured drinks, condensed milk, breakfast cereals, desserts, and just about everything you cook.
Refined sugar and sugar substitutes are one big no-no for children as these may damage their brains by reducing the production of a chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF that is essential for learning and remembering. Artificial sweeteners may also turn useful gut bacteria into harmful disease-causing microbes.
Yet, despite the wealth of information that the Health Ministry has about non-nutritional foods, of which refined sugar is just one example although the most glaring, is there a Better Nutrition Directive in the 12th Malaysia Plan? Without such a directive, how does the Government intend to eliminate poverty by 2025?
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo.