APRIL 25 — He calls me late at night. He’s incensed. Apparently, the folks on radio did it no justice.

At first flattered, he thought me best to write about it, to advance his fears shared by millions. Then it dawned, I’m the only one who'd pick up any call just before midnight to hear a rant.

He wants to defend the right to continue with our tradition of dining in the wee hours, whether after meetings or night clubs, whether in a food-court or the mighty mamak — with or without mist fans.

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And yes, I’d defend it too, the right to mamak. If mamak can open past midnight, if mamak can find the will and the underpaid coterie of Asian labourers to man them restaurants night after night, then so be it.

Willing buyer, willing seller, why is the government getting in the way of people living the lives they prefer?

People are seen eating at a mamak shop in Ipoh August 15, 2022. ― Picture by Farhan Najib
People are seen eating at a mamak shop in Ipoh August 15, 2022. ― Picture by Farhan Najib

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Free choice, with sides of political will

Fortunately, for my friend, the health minister sides with him. Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad reiterates that while gobbling up what science terms as “junk” — that roti canai telur bawang or greasier than mechanics mee goreng ayam washed down with sirap bandung kaw — at hours when healthy sleep cycles prefer people to be in bed rather than sat on uncomfortable plastic chairs is objectively bad, it is for adults to choose.

He accepts the harms, just does not agree it is the government's place to dictate positive living.

Still, health issues are real. Deputy Health Minister Lukanisman Awang Sauni alerted that five million Malaysians are diabetic or pre-diabetic. To add fuel to the fire, Works Minister Alexander Nanta Linggi informs by 2030, 15 per cent or one in seven of our population will be 60 years old in a quickly ageing nation — retired folk increase health cost burdens exponentially.

And just last week, this column asked for vigilance to sustain and increase exercise regimes in schools.

But advocating and campaigning for better lifestyles — including nixing smoking and vaping — should not breach bodily autonomy of free people in a liberal society.

A free society is defined by the right of choice. Others do not have to understand preferences in order for society to allow preferences, from where you pray to what you insert into your body willingly.

A free society recognises the defence of the individual is the defence of all.

Which is why the prevailing theme of local celebrity news, of how millions of smartphone users — enriching tycoons along with senior executives holidaying on yachts not available on Shopee — demand that local artists must live by their accepted moral standards, nauseates this columnist.

The improvements of society mean citizens are better stocked to pursue individual pursuits without the judgements of others — whether one or many.

Better stocked also means, health literacy is available and factored when choices are made.

The thirtysomething website designer understands that his dream to scale Kilimanjaro is compromised by daily mamak, a pack of cigarettes daily and a decidedly sedentary life. And even if Kilimanjaro is wishful thinking, diabetes, kidney failure and hyper-tension are just around the corner if poor choices persist.

I would like those choices to be made by him, and not the state.

Dr Dzul and his comrades, in and out of government, have political considerations too when it comes to late-night eateries.

Try selling late night mamak bans as an election campaign promise and prepare to bleed support. There is a reason the Consumer Association of Penang does not run candidates in elections.

Respect and regulation

However, the government cannot act indifferent to prevailing health degenerations.

Healthier voters advance nation and self far better. They earn better and do not begrudge tax if their disposable income is not eviscerated by hospital bills.

The boon of health and government’s explicit obligation to care for its people are self-evident.

While Dr Dzul, like me, disagrees on draconian measures like stricter hours for mamak, that does not exclude responsibility to act.

If people do not wean off sugary drinks, taking out carbonated drinks from public school canteens can be a regulatory policy to consider, for example. It is available at the stalls outside the school gate but the government can set the tone.

Just as how the education ministry can require more PE hours in the curriculum to normalise exercise in the lives of schoolchildren which extends beyond their school years.

The reports on late-night eating, obesity and ageing should be keenly observed by the government followed by action, the regulatory powers available.

To set conditions and rules to be observed, in order to contain negative behaviour but not to ban them.

The classic example is always cigarettes. While administrations around the world have set disproportionately higher taxes to hinder users, they stop short of making smoking illegal. Note New Zealand’s U-turn to end its disputable Generational End Game (GEG) law for tobacco.

Getting real

It’s a slippery slope to train the guns at only people eating mamak at 3am, especially when an avalanche of poor policies pertaining to health literacy continue. It is easy to assume they are the only offender, or uncaring capitalist in this regard.

Regulatory frameworks should consider all parts, not just the convenient or politically dispensable ones.

But the responsibility remains for the government to react adequately and actively, without overreacting.

Bad eating culture involves schooling, parenting, societal norms and responsible advertising among others. Shuttering mamak at 1am is not the answer. A lot of stress eating happens in lonely kitchens.

Bad sleep cycles involve better work-life balance, less shift work, commutes and housing among others. No mamak lights at 1am is not going to get them to bed earlier.

Bad marriages involve modern lifestyles, communication breakdowns, income disparities and gender recalibrations among others. Shutting pubs at 10pm and closing for good massage parlours does not turn people back to their strife-filled homes.

Government protects its people, surely. But it must make the distinction between being there for someone and removing self-autonomy to protect people from themselves.

Mamak are guilty sins. Staying home, without that snack, getting the Zs and waking up early to oatmeal and exercise is the better choice, one which this columnist should commit to — damn those late-night calls!

But those are choices for adult individuals to decipher in an ever-complicated world of online chatter. The dignity to decide is with the person, not the state.

Welcome to freedom, y’all.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.