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Seminar on “Nutrition Transition in Malaysia: Addressing the Hunger-Obesity Paradox”

MALAYSIAN STUDIES PROGRAM

Urbanisation, Consumption and Culture Seminar Series

Monday, 4 November 2019 – The ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a seminar on Malaysia’s past and present nutritional situation. Prof Wan Manan, the invited speaker, is currently a Visiting Professor at the Alma Ata University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. His research interests concern human nutrition, obesity and public health. Dr Geoffrey Pakiam was the moderator for the seminar.

Prof Wan Manan (right), Visiting Professor in Alma Ata University, delves into the double burden of malnutrition in Malaysia. Dr Geoffrey Pakiam (left) moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)

Prof Wan Manan began his seminar with a historical overview on human food consumption patterns. In the context of Malaysia, Prof Wan Manan narrated how food production during the colonial era was geared towards domestic self-sufficiency rather than exports. Following Malaysia’s independence, access to nutritious food improved significantly, leading to a sharp fall in death rates caused by infectious diseases. However, deaths due to Non-Communicable diseases (NCD) have risen sharply within the same period. Prof Wan Manan commented that while Malaysia now has sufficient food supplies at the aggregate level, food affordability and accessibility remain significant challenges for certain groups, particularly low-income residents. Although recent median wage growth appears to have outpaced the cost of food in Malaysia, food prices have in fact risen faster than the Consumer Price Index between 2003 and 2017. In this regard, Prof Wan Manan commented that Malaysia’s food supply chain is oligopolistic due to governmental permits, contributing to relatively high food prices for items such as milk and beef.

Prof Wan Manan then discussed Malaysia’s “double burden” of malnutrition: namely the dubious honour of having Southeast Asia’s highest obesity and overweight rates co-existing with considerable levels of undernutrition. He argued that a rise in sugar and fat intake during recent decades, coupled with sedentary lifestyles, has contributed to rising rates of non-communicable diseases amongst Malaysian residents. The government should therefore tackle obesity and diabetes partly through policies that consistently educate and encourage Malaysians to improve their diet. Prof Wan Manan also noted that the Education Ministry has piloted a program (Hidangan Berkhasiat di Sekolah or HiTS) that provides students in selected schools in Johor with free meals. Dr Manan argued that HiTS should be expanded nationwide, since apart from performing better at school due to nutritious meals, people also need to learn about good diets from an early age.

A dynamic question and answer session followed the speech. (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)

The seminar concluded with a dynamic question and answer session. One participant inquired about the origins of the HiTS meal program. Another participant sought Dr Manan’s opinions about the sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) taxes implemented since July 2019 in Malaysia. Other questions pertained to colonial food production, food consumption patterns amongst low income residents, and the role of women in improving family nutrition. The seminar drew close to 20 attendees from academia, the civil service, and the public.