July 27 — Malaysia is notorious for coming up with the most stupendous plans but fumbles when it comes to execution. Beautiful blueprints and reams of colourful charts of project proposals often fail to translate into reality precisely because not enough thought has gone into the nuts and bolts of making things work.

We’d do better if we can model our ideas against best practices of other countries (hence the popularity of lawatan sambil belajar among technocrats and policy-makers). But if asked to re-invent the wheel, those who’ve been around long enough know that a major mis-step in execution is not a matter of if, but when.

Take the Health Ministry’s ambitious Generational End Game (GEG) project to curb the smoking habit. It’s no doubt a noble undertaking as the health hazards of smoking are well-documented.

But for a plan as ambitious as this, Malaysia is practically flying blind, save for reference to New Zealand, the first country to introduce a law to create a smoke-free generation. The bill was tabled in its Parliament this week.

Coming up with a law is one thing, and executing it is another. And by the looks of it, Malaysia is ill-prepared not just in the latter, but quite possibly the former too. For example, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin this week announced that under the Bill, which was tabled in Parliament today, tobacco, tobacco products and its alternatives like vape cannot be sold to those born starting 2007. Under GEG’s initial proposal, the ban was to start among those born starting 2005.

That the minister has to announce the delay by two years, literally hours before the Bill will see the light of day in the legislature, does not inspire confidence. It also raises alarming questions about just how prepared the Ministry is in rolling out GEG, considering that Khairy first mooted the idea in January and the Bill is set to be tabled next week.

Even Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has called on the government not to bulldoze the legislation. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
Even Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has called on the government not to bulldoze the legislation. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

Is seven months enough for a bill as bold as this to pass muster? Has enough engagement been made with the relevant stakeholders like health experts, the local council, coffeeshop owners, the police, schools, the Customs, tobacco companies and even smokers themselves?

Based on the hue and cry from these stakeholders, it would appear that MoH did not do enough to harvest feedback from the stakeholders. In fact, one can be forgiven for thinking that the bill was cobbled together in a rushed fashion that typifies poorly thought-out Malaysian projects waiting to implode.

It’s not just stakeholders having doubts about MoH’s readiness in GEG. Even MPs have reservations. In a poll conducted by health portal Code Blue on 40 federal lawmakers, only 12 said they would vote for the Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill.

Even Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim called on the government not to bulldoze the legislation.

The reasons for the reservations of these MPs are arguments we are already quite familiar with: poor enforcement, flourishing black market, loss of revenue to government, being denied access to tobacco replacement therapy and impact on small businesses, just to cite a few.

For example, take the penalty for individuals and businesses found selling cigarettes to those born in and after 2007. Offenders are liable to a minimum fine of RM20,000 and up to RM300,000 for the first offence. That’s a colossal amount for small-time coffeeshop owners. Many will go bust if asked to fork out the sum. Were these operators consulted before?

There’s really no need to rush things through. If we can’t even effectively implement the ban on smoking in eateries, how can we possibly execute an even more ambitious plan to introduce a generational ban on smoking, that has not yet been done anywhere else in the world?

At the risk of coming across as a tobacco advocate, I wish to clearly state that I am all for curbing smoking for health reasons. What I am against is a rushed job that is not properly thought out, which can blow up in our face in time to come.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.