War Against Diabetes, but not on my Malay food please!

by Shamsydar Ani Sep 03, 2017

Food 1

Four days before the National Day Rally, I received a phone call from the polyclinic, asking to rush my mother to the hospital as soon as possible. She was diagnosed with hyperglycaemia, a condition which blood sugar levels are beyond the normal levels.

Her diabetes diagnosis came just in time with PM Lee’s war on diabetes at the National Day Rally. My mother, like any typical Malay woman her age, loves rice and ayam lemak cili padi, but she is a conscientious eater, especially when it comes to portion control and sodium intake. Yet, at 63 years of age, she finally succumbed to diabetes while her friends have dealt with the disease for the past decade or more. 

I'm sure many of us know someone who knows someone who has diabetes. Recently, a famous celebrity in the Malay community- Alias Kadir, has his leg amputated because of foot ulcers caused by diabetes.

In the midst of me trying to alter her diet and sneak in more vegetables, TODAY Online published an article in reference to PM Lee’s war on diabetes with the headline 'War on diabetes: Changing eating habits of Malay, Indian communities an uphill task". 

It was not the headline which was what was upsetting but the whole article itself. The authors did not acknowledge a few other determining factors and incriminating facts with regards to the silent killer of our nation that is diabetes. 

I had to say something.

What is diabetes?

There are two types of diabetes.

Type 1 is genetic and unpreventable. It occurs because the pancreas naturally does not produce enough insulin.

Type 2, related to weight management, is caused by lifestyle factors such as alcohol intake and a lack of exercise.

The type of diabetes in concern for this "war" is the Type 2 Diabetes.

What causes diabetes?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that diabetes in the world has increased drastically because of "the way people eat, move and live".

As the Today article talked about the difficulty of changing the way the Indians and Malays eat, I'll address this first, and more particularly in the Malay community as this is where I come from. 

Not all Malay food are fried and have are made with coconut milk.

TODAY Online’s authors did not reference other Malay dishes which are available at Nasi Padang and Indian food stalls. They mentioned rendang, lontong and curries as though that is all we Malays consume on a daily basis. Traditional Malay food is kampung food which comprises of ulam, local vegetables, and fish.

Pucuk ubi, a dish with made with tapioca leaves and a watery gravy with coconut milk, remains a popular favourite at a typical Nasi Padang stall. Urap (mixed raw vegetable salad with taugeh, coconut floss and winged beans) and ulam (fresh and raw vegetables mixed dipped in sambal belacan) could be likened to a salad which is eaten with sambal belacan or belado. Ayam percik or ayam bakar are grilled over hot charcoal instead of deep fried with oil. I could go on and on but just like the Nasi Padang stalls you go to, there are too many Malay dishes that are not rendang and lontong cooked with santan (coconut milk)!

Furthermore, from this article on The Truth about Coconut, Dr Scott Harding, lecturer in diabetes and nutritional science at King’s College London. “From a strictly cooking perspective, as long as total calorie intake is healthy and people are eating a balanced diet with good variety, there is no reason to fear any cooking fat or oil.”

Don't you think Malay food has a wide variety?

Malays don't just eat Malay food.

Compared to the past, today there are wide variety of halal food available. Just look at halalfoodhunt.com and the numerous types of merchants available for you to discover- from Italian to Japanese. Korean and Japanese food are among the most popular cuisine among the Malay community! 

In today's globalised world, the Malay community are more adventurous with trying new food to eat.


Singaporeans from other communities eat Malay food too.

Malay food is really popular with all Singaporeans because of the rich flavours in the food. In today's age, our society is exposed to each other's food, even halal Chinese food is popular among the Malay or Muslim community in Singapore. 

Addressing the above issues would push the discussion in a more productive direction, and thus, help us think of more productive ways to solve the issue together in our society, instead of writing such socially divisive headlines.

So it's not just about what we eat, but how we move and live now that has accounted for the rise of diabetes. 

We can afford to eat more food, especially more meat now...

One very pertinent factor to the prevalence of diabetes is obviously affluence. The more money people make, the more they will spend on goods and services (Keynesian theory) - which means people would want to spend more on goods and services that they find beneficial or of which they like.

Naturally, affluence would allow Singaporeans to increase their standard of living, and being one the top cities in the world to live in, Singaporeans do maintain a high living standard. Meat was considered a luxury in the past, only to be had once a year or by the rich, especially during Hari Raya Haji where meat from slaughtered animals were distributed to the community. Now, more forms of protein like chicken, beef and mutton are added to our diet, we alter traditional local dishes. Case in point, the extravagant Nasi Lemak Lobster at Lawa Bintang which was all the rage a few weeks back. The humble $1.50 Nasi Lemak became a luxurious $22 meal just by adding an expensive seafood. 

A better look at the whole diabetes problem would be from a social-economic strata, rather than race and totally discounting the fact that income attributes to both poor eating choices as well as lack of access to medical care. As much as the food tradition of minority communities contributes to rising diabetes diagnosis in Singaporeans, Malay and Indian cuisine are sold to anyone and everyone.

...but we are moving less.

As journalists, I hope the writers can make more effort to try to understand the history behind local Malay foods to fathom its existence in modern times. The indigenous Malays used to be farmers or fisherman, just as how Singapore used to pride itself in being a fishing village before an urban city. It was normal for the Malays to load up on heavy breakfasts like lontong, Nasi Lemak and Nasi Sambal Goreng so they’ll have the energy to actually do work throughout the day.

Hence, food laden with carbs made sense then. A common myth is that diabetics should avoid carbohydrates. Everyone needs carbohydrates, but diabetics are recommended to consume them in moderate portions, according to Health Promotion Board. The writers should not just focus on how the food is healthy but if there were efforts by the hawkers and home cooks to reduce portions of their dishes. 

Furthermore, the more we eat, the more we should move. If the Malays' idea of moving is "carrying their pots to Changi Village to go there to eat, sleep, swim (all day)" as long as they swim more than they eat and sleep, but honestly there are also Malays who are too busy attending weddings in the weekend, shouldn't that be an opportunity to address eating habits too?

Address the lack of knowledge on healthy eating instead of saying that minority communities find it difficult to change habits. 


Lastly, neither the TODAY Online or the government addressed a deeper underlying problem with regards to rising diabetes patients in younger Singaporeans. For the major part of my 12 years in public education, I was subjected to a compulsory then made “optional” Trim and Fit program (TAF Club), also known socially as the FAT Club. Students of a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) of 20 were not allowed to have their mid-morning or early lunch meal at recess, and instead were required to do drills or run in a bid to make them lose the extra weight. Education on nutrition were not emphasised, or simply brushed off as a mandatory once a year syllabus in the TAF program.


As if facing torments from school peers for being in the TAF Club is not bad enough, students in the TAF program were being judged based on BMI, and forcing them to exercise and burn calories while depriving them of a meal are certainly not the way to promote a healthy lifestyle. Portion control or helping these overweight kids make a better choice at mealtimes would have helped combat this relatively recent problem of diabetes in younger patients. 


Learn how to cook to understand what goes on in the food.

Singaporeans in general do not leave their family home unless they get married and buy a house of their own to start a family. A heavy reliance on the matriarch or the domestic help for meals do not install a sense of independence or a need to cook for survival. Many newlywed couples I know are not equipped with the basic knowledge of cooking a simple nutritious meal. Coupled together with our busy lifestyle with a lack of work-life balance, young Singaporeans are buying food often instead of cooking.

Knowing what goes into the food you eat helps you to make an informed choice. Cooking at a MasterChef standard may be out of reach to many, but so long as you’re not cooking for survival, you are not helping yourself take care of your health.

- Do include GIFs or photos of Malay food to make this long article easier and more fun to read..

Write a conclusion
- now that you know the above about tackling diabetes, will you ask your mum to move more?
- what is your hope for writers tackling the issue in the future. 



halalfoodhunt.com is a website listing verified Muslim-owned or Halal Certified food businesses. We started out educating halal foodies on how to know if a food is halal or not when there are no halal certifications. As we received so many enquiries on whether a food business is halal or not, we created halalfoodhunt.com, while letting halal foodies know about the myriad of options open to them! It is a website created and self-funded by local Singaporean Muslims for the Singaporean Muslim community.

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