Not a record to be proud of

Sometimes I can be mean, a little piece I wrote about the anti-obesity legislation proposed in recent times.

Malaysians like to be number one in everything. We have the tallest pencil, longest Jalur Gemilang on the Great Wall of China, biggest pewter tankard, largest bean art, longest coin line and longest abbreviation. A new regional record – we are the most obese nation in Southeast Asia. We’re also gaining in the top five for the Asia Pacific, ranking at number six.

Of course, anyone keeping tabs on the nation’s health would know this, what with the constant reminders, especially after the Third National Health and Morbidity Survey, conducted in 2006. Since then, constant reminders that we’re a not a particularly healthy nation appear in the media.

Perhaps in anticipation of our regional obesity record, the Health Ministry announced in early October that anti-obesity legislation would be implemented by around 2020.

Health Ministry director-general Datuk Dr Hasan Abdul Rahman explained that he believed such a law would help curb the obesity rate, although he conceded that we aren’t quite ready for such a piece of legislation just yet.

This development has drawn mixed reactions. While some health and allied health practitioners welcome the move, employers and plus-size citizens are unhappy.

There is good reason for this because the proposed legislation might actually be more of a healthy employee legislation as it has been suggested that the law might be modelled after Japan’s anti-obesity law, under which a business would face penalties for having employees with large waists. To be exact, male employees need to be less than 33.5 inches around the waist, and females 35.4 inches.

The reaction of the Malaysian Employers Federation was unsurprising. Its executive director Shamsuddin Bardan was reported to have described the proposed law as “ridiculous”. He said health was a matter of individual lifestyle and an employee’s unhealthy choices shouldn’t be his employer’s burden. In addition, Shamsuddin said, employees might be more tempted to eat unhealthily as they would know that their employers would be taking care of any negative repercussions.

These are somewhat convincing arguments. Yet, employers do in some ways promote a sedentary lifestyle. Taking a look at AIA’s “Healthy Living Index” released in October, employees seem to agree with this.

Personally, I think employers should do much more for their employees. Fewer working hours (or keeping to agreed working hours), medical assistance, health and fitness-related facilities and education, all of which could help improve employees health, in consideration of the eight-hour plus work days employees endure five days a week (or more).

However, an anti-obesity legislation might not be the right way to go. The major thing I am concerned about is the negativity attached to such a piece of legislation, both from the employer’s perspective and the overweight. Discrimination in not hiring people who are capable but overweight might arise.

Just looking at waist size might not be the right solution either. Hip to waist ratio is better, according to fitness and nutrition professional Jodie Nicolic. This is because dangerous unhealthy fat is deposited in the abdominal area (as opposed to the hips).

There needs to be more education on why health and fitness are important. Our perception of overweight isn’t quite right. According to AIA’s index, people surveyed in Malaysia did not have weight concerns, notwithstanding their health concerns about eating unhealthy food and lack of exercise.

Finally, such a piece of legislation would attach new legal stigma to being overweight. Not the right answer, to my mind. Education on healthy food choices, the right amount of exercise, better living choices – all these will add up to a healthier nation.

Unless we’re keen on remaining number one.

Originally published in the Sun newspaper.