Health Ministry’s ‘Kurang Manis’ pilot campaign in Putrajaya struggles to sway taste buds

KUALA LUMPUR, April 17 — Malaysia’s love affair with sweetness poses a formidable challenge to the government’s efforts to reduce sugar consumption, judging from the prevailing sentiment among those living and working in the federal administrative capital after the rollout of a pilot project.

Reception has been lukewarm in Putrajaya where the “Kurang Manis” (Less Sweet) campaign was first launched to promote healthier drinking habits, reflecting a broader cultural resistance to change.

“There are no drinks in Malaysia that’s made without sugar. If it’s not sweet, it’s not nice,” drinks stall vendor Jamilah Hasyim told Malay Mail when asked her views of the campaign during a recent visit.

Jamilah, stationed at a drinks stall in Putrajaya’s Precinct 16, believes that change must begin at home, advocating for parental guidance in instilling healthier drinking habits.


“It should start from the home. Take for example my relatives, they encourage their kids to drink plain water and avoid sugary drinks even at home. Making it a habit and not feeding your kids sugar at a young age can curb that addiction,” she said.

The government’s Sugar Reduction Advocacy Plan, spearheaded by former health minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa, aims to raise awareness about the perils of excessive sugar consumption.

Under this initiative, several food courts in Putrajaya have committed to using only one teaspoon of sugar per drink, marking a modest step towards healthier beverage options.


Dr Zaliha said studies have shown a link between excessive sugar intake and various diseases, and urged Malaysians to be aware of the foods and drinks they consume, especially those that are pre-cooked or pre-packaged because many sweetened drinks for sale contain high sugar levels, including carbonated drinks, cordials or syrups, and sweetened drinks made from tea and coffee.

At Kak Ct Corner in Precinct 8, a seller who only wanted to be known as Nazarullah said he and his colleagues have responded to the campaign by reducing the amount of condensed milk in their beverages.

While they’ve encountered some receptive customers, Nazarullah acknowledges the prevailing demand for sweeter drinks.

“Our observations show the public still want that sweet taste,” he conceded.

“In a two and a half litre mix we used to use two full cans of condensed milk, now we’re using one and a half only. We’re already reducing the sugar levels but we can’t reduce that much because the customers don’t want it that way.

“As for our regulars we tell them that we’re serving less sugar and so far there’ve been no complaints. Thing is if they come and say we want it sweet then we have no choice but to serve it that way,” he told Malay Mail.

Another seller who gave her name as Hannah and manages Cafe Cik Timah said she has noticed an increase in requests for drinks with less sugar, particularly from urban customers.

However, she laments the lack of awareness among locals, suggesting that better promotion is needed to drive engagement.

Despite these efforts, many vendors, like those at Cafe Mira in Precinct 9, have yet to fully embrace the campaign.

While they are willing to accommodate requests for less sugar, they report minimal demand for such modifications.

“I mean all the drinks have sugar, can’t think of any that’s not. Then over here not many were asking for less sugar, they wanted the usual. We can always dilute the drinks for them but I don’t see many asking us to do that,” Hannah said.

Mohd Syamil, 30, proprietor of Dapur Nenek, attributes the tepid response to entrenched cultural preferences for sweetness, especially among migrants from the peninsular east coast.

He advocates for a more proactive approach, suggesting financial incentives to encourage healthier choices.

“Many of the locals aren’t from around here, they’re from Kelantan, Terengganu, you know the east side. Everything there revolves around sweetness. Sweet this and that. When I saw the reduced sugar campaign I was happy thinking a lot of people would participate and awareness levels would be raised but right after the announcement it seems to have fizzled out.

“The public’s daily sugar consumption is still the same. When we reduced the sugar content in our drinks the customers would return the beverage and go ‘Abang adjust lah’ and we’d have to add to the sweetness.

“That’s why I feel the campaign hasn’t caught traction. We’d find maybe one out of 10 people asking for less sugar. If there was something we could do we could charge the customers 50 cents for sugar?

“When people have to pay extra they may think twice about that extra cost and hopefully decide against having it. So we make the drinks with less sugar and if you want it sweeter you pay for the sugar. That’s just an idea to deter them,” he said.

However, the effectiveness of such campaigns hinges on public awareness. Many customers remain oblivious to the “Kurang Manis” initiative, underscoring the need for robust educational campaigns.

Mohd Irysham Fadhil was drinking a large Milo ice to wash down his plate of economy rice when approached for comment about the government’s “Kurang Manis” campaign.

“I’ve not heard of it. If there were such a campaign shouldn’t it be on television or on the internet? Advertisements or something like that? I remember in the past whenever there was a public service announcement we’d have tonnes of videos and ad campaigns played on repeat every day all day to nail the message in,” he said.

“I usually just drink whatever I order the way the shops serve it but I have no problem if they make it less sweet. As far as this campaign goes this is the first time I’m hearing about it.”

Former chef Abdul Hakim, 64, said that rising food prices have made consumers more conscious of their spending, presenting an opportunity to promote healthier alternatives.

However, without widespread awareness, the campaign’s impact remains limited.

“I feel they should up the ante if we want locals to reduce their sugar intake, plus we also need to ask the vendors how business will be affected. Some customers will not change,” he said.

Siti Nurianti Nura, another patron who has tried reduced-sugar options, applauds the initiative but suggests that better promotion is essential for its success.

“They could do better with the promotion of the campaign,” she said.

“I barely saw the poster on the side while at the other stalls there was a small placard in a corner. I feel that’s not very visible and perhaps they could do with some better promotional material,” she said.

Alwi Mustafa, 64, proprietor of Cafe Godang, echoes this sentiment, advocating for educational videos to underscore the health risks associated with excessive sugar consumption. He cited the urgency of the issue and the escalating rates of diabetes and its associated complications.

“The ideal scenario, and hopefully it will come to fruition one day, is to install a television here and broadcast a video detailing the dangers of excessive sugar consumption. Such an educational video would ensure that every visitor is exposed to this important information.

“Mere banners are insufficient. Imagine having a TV at this location,” he said and gestured towards the entrance where an advertisement calling patrons to “Consume Less Sugar” just so happened to be showing.

“People would be compelled to pay attention, particularly when it concerns their health.

“Here in Malaysia, we often jest with customers, cautioning them about the risks of excessive sugar intake, even humorously suggesting they might ‘lose a leg’. However, a video illustrating the grim realities of sugar overconsumption would drive the point home more effectively,” he said.

“One need only visit the IJN to witness the multitude of individuals afflicted by sugar-related illnesses. The stark reality of this issue becomes undeniable upon witnessing it firsthand,” he added, referring to the National Heart Institute by its better known Malay initials.

Diabetes has emerged as a leading cause of kidney failure in Malaysia, placing a significant burden on the healthcare system.

Last year, Dr Zaliha warned that the economic costs of treating diabetes are staggering, underscoring the imperative for preventative measures.

She said excessive sugar intake can lead to various health problems such as weight gain and obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and the risk of other non-communicable diseases.

Back then, she said the cost of treating diabetes alone reached RM4.38 billion a year in 2017 compared to RM2.04 billion in 2011, and has directly affected the productivity level of the country’s workforce.


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