A sugar tax makes sense – a soda tax doesn’t

By Hafidz Baharom

I was intrigued by the suggestion of Tony Pua to tax sodas, even if his line of reasoning that the “Bottom 40” income group “do not need to drink Coke”. If we want to go into technicalities, nobody really needs to drink Coke regardless of their income levels. It is pretty much a want, humanity needs only water.

Although to be fair, Tony was alluding to a good policy. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had wanted to end selling sodas to a certain gigantic size which got blowback as a “War on the Big Gulp”.

Also, let me be frank – sugar in moderation is fine, it is just that we have been excessive consumers of sugar for far too long.

At the same time, why tax sodas when you can tax sugar, right after removing the price controls on the commodity? On a side note, petrol is subsidised, but talk to anyone in the sugar industry and they will say it is not a subsidy, but a controlled price. I know – it’s still a subsidy.

A sugar tax makes more sense than a proposed soda tax, especially when a lot of canned retail beverages hide their sugar content behind labels such as “energy drinks”, juices, even milk and cordials.

Also, let’s be frank, sugar is sugar, all sugar is natural in all forms, and just because you hide behind terms of sucrose, fructose and glucose doesn’t make sugar healthier. Thus, a proposed tax should definitely be worded to include all of these.

But before we go any further – what exactly is the objective of this tax? While it is directly to increase government revenue, are we actually aiming to promote healthier lifestyles for Malaysians by encouraging them to cut down their sugar intake?

If it is to encourage a healthier population, then we do need clarify how excessive sugar impacts government expenditure – particularly in the case of healthcare. Go far enough, and you can link sugar to obesity and subsequently how it impacts the maintenance of government owned assets from cars to elevators.

However, if it is just to “stop the B40 from drinking Coke”, it sounds rather discriminatory.

At the same time, a sugar tax would also attach itself on foods and restaurants which also have high sugar content as well, which would move towards healthier eating. But more importantly, it will move the industry to innovate towards sugar substitutes – it could be natural like stevia and honey, or more chemical compounds such as aspartame.

Some have pointed out that a sugar tax will not change the lifestyles of people who will still want an original soda rather than those with no sugar or a sugar substitute – I disagree. If a sugar tax is high enough to the point that those dishing out soft drinks the most (read: fast food operators) decide to switch to the non-sugar counterparts, it will have an impact even if it is a minuscule one.

However, we should be cautious introducing a sugar tax, particularly because it will impact small and micro traders – the food and beverage stalls at food courts, and even the mamak restaurants will be the worst impacted by this move which will subsequently domino down to consumers directly.

But such is the price for a healthier Malaysia.

That being said, we should really move away from sugar and try the alternative sweetened sodas, as well as trying to use these alternatives in our foods. But at the same time, these alternatives must obviously be cheaper, or the public will revolt.

If this is how the government wishes to proceed to make up for the shortfall from the recently abolished Goods and Services Tax (GST), then more power to them. However, won’t such a tax also be regressive, their own argument against the GST before?

I would think the worst impacted by the introduction of a sugar tax will be the same group that were against the GST, which is the middle class. Thus, perhaps it is something to ask them before the government proceed.

For myself, I don’t mind if the government decides to move towards a healthier lifestyle through nudging the public with taxes – they’ve done it with alcohol and cigarettes for ages. But at the same time, I believe in offering alternatives which are less harmful. If a sugar tax were introduced, then there should be a push towards sugar free products and artificially sweetened products as well.

No, using fruit juices as a sweetener should not be exempt, as it is still sugar. And then, of course, there are “health nudges” that I’m sure we are not ready for.

A friend pointed out that rice was actually worse than sugar – based on an advertorial video on Malaysiakini. But I have yet to go too far off the bend to tell a predominantly Asian food culture country to cut down on rice, just like I won’t go to Italy and tell them to dump pasta.

Maybe in another decade or so.

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Full article – Change, but change meaningfully

Change, but change meaningfully

By Hafidz Baharom

It was an awkward week when you have a prime minister saying that a government linked investment company did not achieve it’s objective of furthering the Bumiputera agenda. Mostly because he was talking about Khazanah Nasional Bhd, which I’m not sure if it even had the duty of furthering a Bumiputera agenda.

That being said, yes – the Board really needs to explain how on earth a venture into women’s lingerie was considered a good deal at RM80 million. But more importantly, I also have this question playing in my head – which lingerie company actually lost money and shut down.

Was it Sloggi? Was it Wacoal? Was it Triumph?

I would have added Victoria Secret to that list, but from what I’ve seen in Malaysia they don’t sell their lingerie in their stores here. And for those further wondering how yours truly knows these brands, well, I’m observant at the malls. That, and I used to do the household collective laundry growing up.

However, when you vacate the entire Board of Directors and then place the prime minister and a member of his cabinet on the Board, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Yes, it is a government linked investment corporation, but so was 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

They had a board with political patronage as well, a combination of politicians and corporate sector individuals – it still did not bode well. Thus, we need to ask – why involve politicians at all in these investment corporations?

Surely after mentioning that there was enough talent in the Pakatan Harapan rank and file, as well as its close corporate allies, there are enough people to take those posts and be professional about it?

There must exist a separation of government and business to avoid patronage and nepotism, and remove the risk of conflicts of interests. It must be said that government linked corporations as well as their investment corporations – Permodalan Nasional Bhd (PNB), Khazanah Nasional, and even the Employee Provident Fund (EPF) – should be hands off from political influence. This is especially important for the PNB and EPF because these are the future savings of all Malaysians.

One of the excuses put forward is this is how the companies have been run since the time of their establishments. Well, I am pretty sure the Malaysian population voted for this government to change things that were awry to begin with, yes?

After all, for many years pass we heard Pakatan lawmakers facing the accusation that their leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as a former Finance Minister made the decisions that they opposed. And for those same years, Datuk Seri Wan Azizah would stand up and say “if it was bad, why not change it?”.

The same question now applies to Pakatan Harapan. Why not change decisions that do not tally with their internal beliefs of reducing the power of the prime minister and even going further and removing every single thing they opposed when they weren’t in power?

Why do we still have a debate on child marriages when some 40 plus year old has been in love with a girl since she was 7, and subsequently marry her at the age of 11?

How could you promise the EPF deductions for wives from their husbands account without even noticing the law wouldn’t allow it?

Why is it more important to have a constitutional guarantee to the internet, when we haven’t even held anyone responsible for the telco leak ages ago?

Is it more important to remove LGBTs from serving in the government, or is it more to retain talent and reward it without thinking about what goes on in someone’s bedroom?

How is it that we can cancel public transportation projects and yet, still go about reconsidering the want for a third national car company, forcing people to pay for petrol, maintenance, road tax, car insurance and even the tolls which are supposed to be abolished in stages?

There are a lot of things still pending for this government and while we do want to give them some leeway for being new at their current jobs, the ideas being generated are outdated, avoiding, and some are just silly. Do we really need to debate black versus white shoes when we need education reform on a higher level?

Whatever it is, I do hope this government bucks up soon because the supposed changes promised to their supporters is slowly becoming sillier by the day.

Stick with it!

Yet another person came up and said that they were disappointed with the way Pakatan Harapan is running the country. And yes, these are people who openly admit they voted for Pakatan Harapan.

Which I think is odd, seeing as how the new government has only been in power for…86 or 87 days, at the time of writing this?

It seems that there are those who miraculously thought that a change in government would lead to some form of certain revolutionary change taking place as soon as possible.

Then again, we are in the age where a thought is shared every second, every waking hour and people being more connected than ever before in history. News used to come daily, is now updated at the minute on social media, and on average every 15 minutes by the media.

That being said, to those who are voicing out their disappointments – chill.

Yes, there are things they promised to be implemented in 100 days, and they are in the midst of doing it or finding new impediments to their thoughts.

Yes, more hereditary issues are being brought up with the need for urgent solutions.

And yes, they are talking about really dumb things in the midst of getting work done as well, particularly as a diversion as to how slow government and public policy works.

More than that, they are facing real issues in hiring their workers and political appointees, with the Public Service Department highlighting where the process has been slowed down.

Yes, there are hiccups in implementing policy in terms of the EPF deductions for wives because they didn’t read the law before coming up with a proper framework.

Yes, they really should be talking about real education reform rather than be bitching about wanting black shoes so that students can “read more books” – though I personally think it’ll just free up more time to be spent gaming or on social media.

But more than that, there are good ideas, bad ideas, good reforms, and of course the same old, same old thing happening in certain areas.

This is what government is, if you haven’t noticed throughout your entire life span. It is a machine run on red tape, with legal jargon to read and a lot of “what ifs” to cover in coming up with policy and reforms, lest you break the entire system or create legally grey areas all around.

That being said, the decision towards open tenders is admirable, but it will instead create longer timespans in getting work done – I do hope the government and the people know this much especially when they’re calling for urgency in reformation.

This is the sacrifice you make when wanting transparent government.

Similarly, there has been very little word on legal reforms, particularly a focus on the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill that should be passed to encourage transparent government.

Also, with the Social Security Act (Sosma) now becoming 50-50 with some ministers saying it should be maintained while others want to keep the promise of abolishing it, there is a need for some clarity on the matter.

All in all, they are doing what you voted them to do, even if you are not happy with the urgency they are working on it – but that just shows how much and how fast you expect transitions to take place. This is admirable, but folly.

After all, this is the first government transition in a nation that has never seen such a change. Keep that in mind, and expect things to move slower than you think it should.

 

On the UPU application process

Yet another bright student has failed to get a placement in a university and is now appealing the decision via Twitter to Dr Maszlee Malik. However, there are a few things to consider in this case.

Yes, she scored brilliantly in her Sijil Tinggi Peperiksaan Menengah (STPM) results. Had she already been in university, she would have made the Dean’s List award for sure, with a 3.92 CGPA. But there are a few things suspect.

According to the article published in SAYS:

“The brilliant student had six university choices in mind: Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Universiti Islam Antarabangsa Malaysia (UIA), Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) and Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin (UniSZA)”

Now let’s start with the most glaring problem here – UiTM and UIA enrolments are restricted. One by race, the other by religion.

Yes, that’s wrong, that’s unfair, that’s downright indecent, “let’s take to writing up a petition on Change.org”, throw a fit on Facebook and get it changed accordingly – or at least talk about it for another week and then just forget it.

But – if you know those university enrolments have been restricted for the past 40 years or maybe longer, would rational thought tell you to still list those universities on the UPU form?

At this point, we have to suspect whether she truly wants admission into a university, or she wants to challenge the entire system of enrolments altogether.

So if the student is in fact wanting to advocate social change, congratulations on your courage. But if that wasn’t the case at all, you should have really paid attention during the UPU briefing.

Moving on to the second problem with the UPU process. It does look at merit, but it also looks at your choice priority. This needs some elaboration.

For example, let us say you scored a 3.6 CGPA and put UM as your first choice, and yet someone with a 3.8 CGPA put UM as their third choice, which one of you would get the UM placement?

Well, you would get it for putting UM as your first priority. Thus, the UPU does not only take merit into account, but also your ranked priority of choices in all universities.

And yes, students are briefed on this in secondary school, contrary to the many cases of confused masses out there. If I, at 35, have to go back and remember a briefing given at the age of 17, more than half my lifetime away now, then you should be able to recall these details which just happened months ago.

So, how does the government move forward on this issue?

First off, there is a need to re look all universities and admission officers including the UPU to weed out corruption – primarily in the form of students attending interviews for placements being asked “do you have any contacts to reach out to, to get a placement?”.

Yes, this is still happening. Yes, it is widespread. And more importantly it raises the question – why is there already such a question if you’re still interviewing people for placements? Are there already reserved slots even before the interviews?

Secondly, students, this one is on you – please don’t expect your results being great to break glass ceilings everywhere with regards to race and religion.

More importantly, be sure of your priority ranking in the UPU form. Aim high, but be realistic – this is rather important and I know it’s rather awkward because at that age, many really have no clue what they want to do in their life or whether it suits them.

Now, to the general public, here’s something to think about. If we are to base solely on merit, we discredit passion and more importantly, the equal opportunities afforded to everyone. Just because someone got great results, they’re not treated to a red carpet treatment into a university even after making a silly choice.

That would be discriminating wisdom and shrewdness for lackadaisical intelligence. Of course, both traits should be celebrated, but not when there is such a system as the UPU which puts merit and a student’s choice on the same measure.

I do wonder where Dr Maszlee Malik stands on this matter, though. Would he open up UiTM and UIA, or would he review the UPU procedures to ensure merit is priority one over everything else?

It’s not all that surprising

Seriously, there are a few things that need to be considered when we look at the performance of Pakatan Harapan as a government.

Primarily, there will be enormous teething problems that – while some are wildly optimistic – will not be settled within 100 days of them being in office.

And secondly, yes – they will have to rethink their promises as time moves forward for the sheer scale of what they promised was not thought up properly. Or to make it well known – their populist manifesto promises are going to bite them in the ass.

Thirdly, now that they are in power, expect all of them to have different thoughts on how well to move forward. True to their word, this isn’t the past Mahathir era where everything was done his way or build another highway.

Instead, what we have is pretty much sheer chaos until Wednesday when Cabinet meets and they come up with a collective decision. Well, at least they’re democratic in that sense.

Fourthly, don’t expect big changes so soon. However, there should be changes in the direction the country should be headed. And by that, I mean we should not have to subsidise yet another national car company with taxpayer ringgits.

But all in all, they do have their head in the game, even if I’m astounded they’re taking so long with the changing regulations regarding child marriages.

Domestic flight price ceiling? Glad someone is reading

On March 5, I wrote a column in The Sun Daily asking that the government consider lowering the price of air fare between Peninsular and Borneo.

The lack of controls in fares which made flights to Sabah and Sarawak sometimes higher than flights overseas, was brought to my attention by a friend on Facebook.  Continue reading “Domestic flight price ceiling? Glad someone is reading”

Column – Why settle study loans

Why settle study loans

BEFORE we talk about the National Higher Education Fund Corp (PTPTN), let’s understand that it is primarily a rolling fund. This means it can only dish out money that it gets back.

Thus, if borrowers don’t pay or service their loans, it will reduce the amount available for the next batch of students. In other words, those paying their PTPTN loans are not just servicing a loan, they are also putting a freshman through college.

In March 2017, 660,000 Malaysians had not paid a single sen of their PTPTN loans. And by last November, PTPTN announced that 410,500 Malaysians had not paid a single sen, amounting to RM6.84 billion.

For last year until Sept 30, the amount collected was RM12.13 billion, instead of the full amount of RM18.97 billion. This means there will be less for students this year. Thus, with more student pursuing tertiary education with less funds for loans we will see more households bearing more costs.

This was made worse by announcement of a further extension for repayments to 12 months during the tabling of Budget 2018. Also announced was an extra RM200 million for the Bottom 40 (B40) group of households.

We were also informed of a tax exemption of up to RM6,000 for those saving in 1Malaysia Education Saving Scheme.

There was an announcement for discounts and rebates for people to pay back their loans. All of these will further erode the ability of PTPTN to cope with increased costs of students to eke out a living, perhaps even triggering another starving student (Mahasiswa Lapar) movement.

Pakatan Harapan manifesto has a promise to allow Malaysians to start servicing their student loans when they earn RM4,000 a month. This raises a few questions.

First, for the period between a student’s graduation and the time he gets a job and earns RM4,000, will the PTPTN loan be subject to compounded interest per annum?

Will there be an increase in minimum payments to cope with the increased amount in their loans?

What’s the duration for a working class borrower to start earning a RM4,000? I ask because that is how long we will be exempting more Malaysians from paying a single sen and reducing funds for students.

So a Pakatan Harapan government will delay PTPTN repayments and regularly inject funds into it to allow future batches of students to gain access to the loans.

If it is yet another government backed loan, injecting more funds will increase national debt, and while the compounded interest on the loans to students working to earn RM4,000 will also increase individual or household debt.

The manifesto will also allow Malaysians to buy a car without getting flagged by bad credit scores, get assistance from the government to buy a house, and fly overseas without being blacklisted.

Consider a few things that come to mind.

First, how do we view debt? Do we see it as something serious to the point that we consider it something that must be paid as a monthly cost, or do we see it as an elastic cost that should only be paid when you have disposable income?

Should debt be elastic without a time period, without penalties? After all, you can’t take back a graduate’s degree or diploma to make them repay their loans, can you?

What’s your stance on debt?

Now, if you have answered that question, I will put forward another?

Do we believe PTPTN should assist students who don’t have parents with high incomes – the middle and lower-income groups, at no added costs to manage the debts, payouts and paybacks, or even interest rates which will eventually allow the funding of future students?

Or, do we believe in the government pumping in more money to fund future students while allowing debtors to not have to pay their dues for three or four years?

Or, do we believe in writing off billions and let the government foot the bill and making tertiary education free?

Have a hard think.

Hafidz Baharom is a public relations practitioner. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com