Invisible obesity tax

Rush hour. A huge crowd had built up at the foot of the escalator going up to the metro concourse. Almost all commuters honoured the “stand to your left” rule, allowing those who wished to walk the right-side lane. But in fact, the walkers could not walk anyway, because there was one commuter who was as wide as the escalator, and despite trying her best to keep to the left, she could not free up enough space beside her to allow others to pass.

On the train itself, there was one guy trying to contain himself within one seat, but he overflowed his own space so much that no one else chose to squeeze into what remained of the seat to his left.

This was in a car with seven seats abreast. The first generation of carriages had nine seats abreast, but metro rail operator SMRT reduced it to seven for subsequent orders because the average size of Singaporeans had grown too big for the original, smaller seats.

Well, on that train that morning, the row of seven seats served only six, since the big guy effectively occupied two.

From nine to six – a 33 percent reduction in effective capacity of our infrastructure. Don’t be surprised if average ticket price per head needed to go up 50 percent just to compensate. (Why 50 and not 33? It’s a reciprocal number.)

Obesity has costs, personal and social.

The personal costs should be familiar to us all: both health-wise and psycho-social. On the health front, obesity is related to increased incidence of heart disease and diabetes among others. On the psycho-social front, there are self-esteem and consequent relationship issues.

That said, let’s keep the discussion about trends at a macro level. It is very easy for such a conversation to slip into the mode of mocking and demeaning larger people. Let’s avoid that; as individual persons, each of us is beautiful in our own way regardless of physical shape or size.


Body Mass Index

The Straits Times reported on 8 November 2010 that 10.8 percent of Singapore’s population is obese, up from 6.9 percent in 2004. The news story did not clarify how obesity was defined, nor could I find it from the Health Promotion Board’s website which the newspaper cited as the source of the data.

There are various ways to determine obesity in adults, including skinfold measurements, but for mass data collection, perhaps the simplest approach would be to use the Body Mass Index (BMI).

The BMI so simple, you can work it out for yourself. All you need to know is your exact weight in kilograms and height in metres. Your BMI is your weight (kg) divided by the square of your height (m).


1. Weight = 75 kg, height = 1.68 m. BMI = 26.57

2. Weight = 94 kg, height = 1.74 m. BMI = 31.05

3. Weight = 59 kg, height = 1.65 m. BMI = 21.67

The US Centers for Disease Control interprets BMI in the following way:

BMI <18.5: Underweight

BMI 18.5 to 25.0: Normal for adult

BMI 25.0 to 30.0: Overweight

BMI >30.0: Obese.


Worrying trends

While Singapore’s 10.8 percent obesity rating is below that in the United States and other Western countries like Britain and Australia, the trend worries the Health Promotion Board (HPB).

‘This is a very worrying trend for us,’ said HPB chief executive officer Lam Pin Woon yesterday.

Singapore’s obesity trend – a 0.65 per cent increase a year – is similar to that seen in the US and Britain 30 years ago.

Obesity in these countries has become a major problem.

‘We have to do something now. Otherwise, 30 years down the road, we’ll be where the US and Britain are now,’ Mr Lam said.

— Straits Times, 9 Nov 2010, More Singaporeans are too fat.

Current data indicate that about 35 percent of people in the US are obese and another 35 percent overweight. In the UK, about 20 – 25 percent are obese and another 40 percent overweight.

Singapore’s data was released in conjunction with the launch of HPB’s annual National Healthy Lifestyle Campaign, whose focus is to urge more exercise and a proper diet.

Let me be blunt: it won’t really work. Spreading the message may shave off a percentage or two, but it’s not going to stop the trend. No campaign that requires people to sacrifice immediate pleasure for some distant reward works.

That doesn’t mean we don’t do it; there is a need to provide public information about nutrition and to shore up the aspirational value of a healthy, active life. The HPB should run the Healthy Lifestyle Campaign by all means, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it will make much of a difference.

If we are serious about stopping the trend in its tracks, much tougher measures are needed. Some of these, I will admit, bother the civil libertarian in me, but let me discuss them anyway.

Basically, the measures fall into two groups:

1. Lifestyle “key performance indicators” backed by carrots and sticks.

2. Recoup external costs from suppliers of bad nutrition.

A simple example of a Type 1 KPI would be introducing National Service and Individual Physical Proficiency Tests (IPPT) for females up to age 45. Overweight males and females at age 18 would have to undergo extra time in National Service. How much extra? Whatever is necessary to get their BMI down to 25.0. Only when they reach BMI 25.0 would their two or two-and-a half years of the usual National Service start.

This is followed by two decades of IPPT with rewards and penalties (including mandatory weight-loss residency programs and remedial training) attached. The vast civil service for example, can include IPPT results in annual assessments.

If a person can stay under BMI 25.0 up to age 45, he is very unlikely to go far beyond that for the rest of his life.

I am sure that many readers will react with horror to the above. Of course it bothers me too: such measures are arguably draconian and intrusive. But admit it: they will work far better than any number of campaigns.

It is also true, however, that such measures are politically very difficult to implement. Easier to justify would be laws that are aimed at recouping the external costs of bad nutrition. In other words, tax and regulate bad food.

Actually, we do something analogous all the time with alcohol and tobacco and with gambling too. We know that consumption of these substances and indulgence in gambling have personal and social costs. It is considered uncontroversial that society imposes a tax to recover the health and social support costs it must bear. It is also uncontroversial that the state regulates the supply of these pleasures, through sales licensing or prohibitions such as that against driving a vehicle with blood alcohol levels above a certain limit. So why not with fattening food?

For many years now in the US, some people have argued that fast food needs to be taxed. In San Francisco, a new law will come into effect next November that prohibits restaurants from offering toys that are bundled with children’s meals, unless the meal meets certain nutritional standards. See this report on BBC. Such a move is only a tiny step forward. To be really effective, far wider rules may be needed, for example:

(a) An across-the-board excise tax on sucrose sugar, to rise steadily to levels comparable to the tax on tobacco.

(b) A similar tax on saturated fats and oils (note however, that the nutritional disvalue of saturated fat is still being debated).

(c)  All restaurants, foodcourt stallholders, even coffeeshop hawkers, need a special licence if they intend to offer deep-fried food. The quota can be limited, with annual auctions to set the price. That should crush the growing trend toward consumption of french fries, fried chicken and so on.

(d) Government and foodcourt or fastfood/coffeeshop chain owners to get together to establish maximum guidelines for serving sizes based on total calories per meal. Individual stall holders to be contractually bound to keep within these guidelines when averaged over a representative sample of their product offer.

Do I expect to see anything like these in the near future? No. I am realistic, but it also means I am pessimistic about Singaporeans’ girth. Looking at some of our schoolgirls and schoolboys, we can see our future.

Of course the argument will be made that nobody wants to pay extra taxes or suffer extra restrictions. But pay we will anyway, if not in the form of taxes on specific items as sketched out above, then as general taxes to support overloaded and ever-expanding medical services. Prices for transport will increase to reflect lowered effective capacity per unit of infrastructure. Overhead mark-ups on supermarket items will creep up when supermarkets have to widen their aisles to suit their wider customers, thus lowering their effective return on space.

Obesity has the potential to be a very costly epidemic. A societal discussion is needed. Now.

51 Responses to “Invisible obesity tax”

  1. 1 Singaporean 11 November 2010 at 17:28

    Regarding the suggestion to include IPPT results in civil service assessments, I’m reminded of a former Chief of Defence Force and a Head of Civil Service, who were severely overweight.
    I guess the civil service, especially the Administrative Service, might as well include BMI scores during their CEP assessments.

  2. 2 ape 11 November 2010 at 17:48

    If the objective is to reduce obesity then ape this putting ippt into staff appraisal may not be a good thing. One can do badly in ippt for reasons other than obesity. Such as lack of time to train due to stressful workload.
    However, ape is for placing special attention to diet, including higher taxes for ‘fat inducing’ food… and providing incentives for healthy food.

  3. 3 gambit 11 November 2010 at 19:08

    ironically that pic is making me hungry.

    in the same thread, that should be a tax on body odour before entering a train. or hideous fashion sense for that matter. the world is ugly enough as it is.

  4. 4 thomas 11 November 2010 at 20:00

    I don’t see how solution (c) solves the problem. Solution (c) reduces the supply but does nothing about demand. The licensed restaurants/coffeeshops/stallholders would have a monopoly over fried food thereby allowing them to raise prices and figuratively feast on their consumers pockets. then you might say increasing prices will deter people, which is possibly true. but let me eat some of my home cooked deep fried mars bars while i contemplate the idea.

    i think a solution is for the state to subsidize gastric bypass surgeries. the subsidy would of course be paid for by the taxes mentioned above.

    but i think resolving this requires lifestyle changes that will only be induced by having more public gyms, increasing physical education, increasing money spent on encouraging amateur sports and decreasing working hours so that there is more leisure time available.

    solutions should also should take into account the causes of obseity. oprah tells me (im not familliar with the science) that obseity is caused by, amongst many factors, an addiction and an individual’s genetic makeup. if someone has little control over his choices i think taxing that person punitively for his choices is not the solution. i also dont think skinny people should be taxed punitively. they should be allowed to enjoy as much deep fried food as they want.

  5. 5 Gard 11 November 2010 at 20:16

    Is the obesity rating entirely due to Singaporeans or does it include foreign talents?

    There is nothing to suggest that Singapore today is like U.S. or U.K. in the 1980s.

    GDP per capita, PPP (constant 2005 international$)
    US 25930.52
    UK 18460.62
    SG 14453.47

    US 32473.69
    UK 23742.81
    SG 23428.98

    US 42106.79
    UK 32146.76
    SG 45977.78
    (Source: World Development Indicators, World Bank)

  6. 6 Mr.Weightloss 11 November 2010 at 21:30

    Great dish YUMMY!! Thanks

  7. 7 Fox 11 November 2010 at 22:31

    “The Straits Times reported on 8 November 2010 that 10.8 percent of Singapore’s population is obese, up from 6.9 percent in 2004. The news story did not clarify how obesity was defined, nor could I find it from the Health Promotion Board’s website which the newspaper cited as the source of the data.”

    I wonder how much of this increase in the obesity rate (from 2004 to 2010) is simply due to the fact that BMI cut-offs were redefined in 2005.


  8. 8 Robin 12 November 2010 at 00:18

    It is worth your time to read Good Calories Bad Calories if this is a topic you are really interested in.

  9. 9 xtrocious 12 November 2010 at 06:32

    I totally agree with Robin

    Also look up paleo lifestyle for the real healthy diet and not those cardboard cereal and wholemeal grain stuff…

    Carbs are really bad for us

    • 10 Fox 13 November 2010 at 00:26

      Nope, not true. Weight gain/loss is simply a matter of calorie arithmetic.

      As for carbs being bad for you, note that East Asians don’t seem to be any less healthier than Europeans or Americans even though they eat proportionally more carbs. There is a huge link between amount of animal protein consumed and coronary disease. For example, Argentina has the highest rate of coronary disease in Latin America and they have the highest per capita consumption of beef. Argentinian vegetarians have a much lower rate of coronary disease.

  10. 11 thornofplenty 12 November 2010 at 08:44

    Let me get the following out of the way.

    I am a fat person.
    I am probably not the healthiest person you’ve ever met.

    But here’s the problem with the reasoning in the article which basically goes like this:

    High BMI = fat = unhealthy = costly to the state
    therefore figure out ways to tax those of high BMI

    Let’s apply that kind of logic for a moment to other issues

    Effeminate men = gay = higher likelihood to have AIDS = costly to the state
    therefore figure out ways to tax effeminate men

    Or how about this one
    Non-muslim and non-jewish men = unlikely to be circumsized = increased likelihood of transmitting HPV which causes cervical cancer = costly to the state
    therefore figure out ways to tax non-muslim and non jewish parents who don’t circumsize their sons.

    Fat does not equal healthy.

    And public accomodations like the MRT and buses and planes should do precisely that accomodate.

    Would Yawningbread suggest a tax on people in wheelchairs? They take up a lot of space. Probably not.

    There is a hierarchy to prejudice and size happens to be the easiest to slip into without anybody calling it out.

    I’m doing that right now.

    • 12 Fox 13 November 2010 at 00:29

      “Effeminate men = gay = higher likelihood to have AIDS = costly to the state
      therefore figure out ways to tax effeminate men”

      AIDS medication is not subsidized in Singapore. Public healthcare subsidies form a very very small part of the government budget (<5 percent).

      • 13 thornofplenty 13 November 2010 at 03:55

        Yes but think about what it does for productivity etc, which is basically the argument that YB is making.
        By his logic, we should also be taxing anything that could increase the likelihood that someone might turnout gay.

        Tax the floral print shirts and the Celine Dion CDs.

  11. 14 ozkol 12 November 2010 at 11:13

    You’re being over sensitive. YB didn’t say tax people with high BMI. He said tax foods that tend to lead to a high BMI. If his taxes had been in place, perhaps you wouldn’t be a high BMI person today?

    And don’t deny that obesity has no costs. Just saying that the MRT and buses and planes should accommodate does not negate that fact.

    • 15 thornofplenty 12 November 2010 at 12:41

      @ozkol I don’t think we know each other, so I’d be very careful about making assumptions about why I am fat.
      The problem with taxing foods that tend to result in obesity is this: in an urban setting, you are most likely taxing poor people because sugars, carbs and fat are some of the cheapest ways for people to get calories, never mind nutrition.

      For instance, my meals today have consisted of grilled chicken breast, rice and pineapple and for dinner I will eat grilled fish, green veges, rice and an apple or two. Not the healthiest ( I could be eating brown rice) but certainly not unhealthy.

      We need to recognize a few things, BMIs are an imperfect science, obesity is a class issue as much as it is a health issue and there are vast disparities that these taxes will not begin to address.
      Does obesity have costs? Of course it does.
      so does legislating on the basis of junk science.

      • 16 Gard 12 November 2010 at 15:00

        It is impossible for the government to know all the reasons and causes behind obesity; but it is possible to ascertain some of the causes and take appropriate actions. Taxation is not meant, and unlikely, to resolve the issue of obesity by itself.

        thornofplenty made a good point about sugars and fats being inexpensive – to profit-driven manufacturers who add them liberally to their food. People – poor or rich, underweight or overweight – are better off consuming less of these fructose, transfats and what-nots. Taxation can influence manufacturers as much as consumers.

        But the real issue, I suspect, touches the ego. To extend thornofplenty’s analogy, suppose a cure for homosexuality is found, would any democratic society has the right to influence homosexuals, in any way, to take the cure?

        The discussion aims to look at obesity as a ‘rational problem’ – something to be reasoned in terms of cost and benefits. The problem is not obesity. It’s people.

      • 17 thornofplenty 12 November 2010 at 15:17

        @Gard I think the view of “obesity is unhealthy” is ineffective in part because it is negative.

        It is probably much more effective to discuss this in terms of “we want people to live healthily”

        In that model, we would be incentivising what we think are healthy behaviors. For example, the poor get vouchers for purchasing whole grains at NTUC Fairprice.

        Yawning Bread contends that there are costs to obesity, and so seeks to reclaim some of that cost through taxation.

        Perhaps the view should be investing in people making healthier choices?

      • 18 Fox 13 November 2010 at 00:20

        Actually, in terms of weight control, it is not so much as what you eat as it is HOW MUCH you eat. It boils down to the number of calories you take in versus the amount you expend.

        There is a CNN article on how a nutritional science professor lost 27 pounds in 2 months by simply restricting his calorie intake even though he ate only junk food.

        Google for “Twinkie diet helps nutrition professor lose 27 pounds” to see what I am saying.

      • 19 thornofplenty 13 November 2010 at 03:58

        Further evidence as to why the BMI as the basis for this kind of legislation is junk science.

        Of course portion control is important.

        Of course food cooked at home is healthier than just about any prepared food you can buy (factor in salt content and you could actually weep, restaurant food is good because it is salty, sweet and doesn’t shy away from using fat)

        IN YB’s model, you can’t control portions at home.

  12. 20 Ben 12 November 2010 at 11:17

    I believe HPB revised the translations for BMI in 2005. More stringent now due to Asian-Caucasian differences, etc. Maybe that’s why there was a spike?

  13. 21 Heh 12 November 2010 at 13:13

    When I am overweight I notice that my energy level really drops off. I sleep more and tend to shy away from anything that involves both physical and mental work. I do believe however having a network does help one to a achieve lifestyle goals. My sister asked me to join the brotherhood cycling team. She knows the alpha male. At first I felt very intimidated and lacked confidence. But with perserverance I was able to lose 35 kg in a one year period along with kicking the smoking habit.

  14. 22 liew kai khiun 12 November 2010 at 14:10

    Tks YB for such an insightful piece, and I am glad that i am not alone in this discussion on the need for some forms of restriction, however unpleasant it may seem. My letter in TODAY “Penalise the fat of the land” has been slammed quite viciously by many who feel hurt even if i have tried to keep to discussion on a macro social level.

    • 23 tant 14 November 2010 at 20:36

      Thanks for keeping things at a “macro social level”. It’s disappointing that you have gained nothing at NUS. You have obviously never heard of terms such as “lookism”, “discrimination”, or “social construct”. Much less have you heard of the term “respect”.

    • 24 Fox 14 November 2010 at 22:13

      Your solution seems to be fairly draconian in nature. Have you ever considered that obesity may be due to health conditions? For example, people with under-active thyroid glands tend to have lower metabolic rates which predisposes them to putting on weight. Also, the obesity rate is much higher in the Malay community which are already socio-economically challenged compared to other Singaporeans. You want to reduce educational subsidies to Malay Singaporeans and fine them? Do you really think that will help them?

  15. 25 tkl 12 November 2010 at 14:15

    There’re lots of studies showing correlation between obesity and poverty in industrialised societies (google it), a phenomenon that is also showing up in Japan. Due to unstable or low income these families tend to go for high-cal low-nutrition foods that are cheap (hawker carbs, instant noodles, fast food..). Parents tend to be less educated or even available to watch over kids’ diet. The availability of affordable healthy food options is not equitable across all classes.

    I have personally come across a case of an obese, diabetic teenager from a low-income family, who has dropped out of school. He needs regular medical care and has difficulty looking for work – probably due to his health and weight.

    Before jumping to conclusions, Singapore should conduct a similar study to determine if this ‘health’ issue is not also a socio-economic problem.

    • 26 Fox 13 November 2010 at 00:15

      Is there any correlation between the level of access to preventative medical care and obesity rate?

      It will be interesting to see what the obesity rate is like in Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong where medical care is more heavily subsidized and, presumably, accessible.

    • 27 KT 14 November 2010 at 14:02

      ‘Due to unstable or low income these families tend to go for high-cal low-nutrition foods that are cheap (hawker carbs, instant noodles, fast food..).’

      You can eat well and eat very cheaply. 30 cents buy you a huge pile of bean sprouts. Three pieces of beancurd cost S$1. Half a piece of boneless chicken breast is S$1.15. $5 for a whole chicken. 15 cents for an egg. Pork from $7 per kg. Prawns and fish from S$10 per kg…. Trouble is, these things are raw. You’d have to get off your arse cook. May I invite you to my blog which has lots of recipes? But you’d have to shop and wash up too. I can’t help you with that, I’m afraid. 🙂

      • 28 Fox 14 November 2010 at 22:21

        “You’d have to get off your arse cook.”

        This is one of the most condescending remarks I’ve read.

        Imagine that you are a single mother of one struggling with two jobs to pay the bills and has only O-levels. As if your main concern would be to go to KT’s website and learn all the wonderful recipes. Mind you, Singaporeans have some of the longest working hours in the developed world and we have enormous wealth/income distribution gaps.

        Which part of tkl’s post did you not understand? Have you read this: “Parents tend to be less educated or even available to watch over kids’ diet. The availability of affordable healthy food options is not equitable across all classes.”

      • 29 thornofplenty 15 November 2010 at 04:40

        @KT Thank you for proving my point.

        the 30cent bunch pile of beansprouts offer little to no nutritional value and really is a bunch of empty calories, and not very many of them. So what do people do? bulk that out with a carbs, usually refined ones, like white rice or noodles. Yet more (mostly) empty calories.

        Cooking at home is a good thing to encourage people to do, food (as I noted earlier) is generally healthier that way. the question is this: HOW DO WE ENCOURAGE THIS?

        There is nothing lazy in people doing what they need to do to get by.

        What is EXTREMELY lazy is resorting to rude, bullying language to make a point that you appear to know very little about.

  16. 30 Just another bad statistic 12 November 2010 at 20:56

    Where obesity, health and fitness is concerned, it’s all up to individual lah. One pays for it (maybe suffer later and die earlier lah) if one does not take care of oneself although as social beings, this also affect others, but not that serious, unless it is someone connected to you in some way or another.

    Worsening obesity is only just another area of many things worsening, eg income gap, inflation, HDB prices etc, etc.

    But most important is and as long as economic growth, prosperity, social peace and political stability remain strong and not worsen and which is the case so far.

    So not to worry, or else there may be 101 things to worry about.

  17. 31 Anonymous 12 November 2010 at 22:08

    Anyone thought about obesity being linked to general sense of ‘meaninglessness’, the way the society is heading?

    Every kid today feels the enormous pressure to do well academically to afford a chance in life.

    Of course, there is a chance i am the only one speculating this possibility.

  18. 32 Ageing Obesity 13 November 2010 at 01:32

    First and foremost, Singapore is a food paradise.
    Secondly, Singaporeans are arguably one of the most stressed-up people in the world.

    The abundance and diversity of food coupled with food as an outlet to relieve stress is quite intertwined with the life of a local. Going tough on unhealthy foods might really rob Singaporeans of one of the last genuine joys the island still offers.

    And how about the allure of sedentary lifestyles and their multitude of attractions that distract one from having a more active life? Online giants: Google, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook; Online gaming: MMORPGs, casual-gaming; Online media: digital newspapers, forums, blogs; mobile gadgets: apps, productivity tools, etc…..

    Perhaps one tiny hope is that there’re reportedly more people in Singapore into running as can be seen in increasing numbers turning up for marathons.

    I suggest the following.

    -Subsidize fresh fruit juices. Better yet, promote a cost-sharing
    programme for HDB and private estate residents to grow their own
    fruits and vegetables. A.k.a Urban Farming.

    -Alternatively, scrape out the foam out of these fresh juices after
    they’re made, pour them into aluminium cans and put them side by
    side with carbonated drinks in vending machines. Price the fresh
    juice drinks and carbonated drinks equally. The idea is to get
    Singaporeans used to fresh fruits naturally and willingly.

    -Subsidize unrefined foods such as wholemeal bread. Not only are they
    healthier, they tend to make one feel full faster too, resulting in
    less intake of food and yet with more fibre and vitamins.

    -Start up healthy soup kitchens wherever feasible.

    -Make (national) marathons free.

    -Walkabouts need not be limited to politicians. Citizens can do them
    too in an organized and broad manner.

    -Separate cycling lanes. Install metal barriers for protection if
    need be.

    -Reduce annual economic growth target by 1%

    -Tax reliefs for walking a certain number of steps a month (using a
    preprogrammed, accurate and secure pedometer during a trial period)
    ((Need not necessarily target obese people exclusively))

    -Collaborate with local telcos on the feasibility of promoting a
    family/couples/singles package featuring mobile phone/cable
    TV/broadband subscription/”everything” with free or heavily
    subsidized Nintendo Wii or Microsoft Kinect (or any) motion-control

    Let’s try to have fun while fighting the bulge. Because life’s already sobering enough. And if one’s really happy with his or her bulge, then hey, i’m happy for him or her too.

    • 33 thornofplenty 13 November 2010 at 04:03

      I would like to politely contend that

      Most “wholemeal” bread isn’t all that good for you, read the ingredients and decide for yourself.

      Marathons, like gymnastics, are not very healthy things to be doing either.

      In fact, most sport that requires that kind of intensity make for physically fitter old people with vast arrays of (costly) joint and skeletal problems.

      But I find the thinking of incentivising and investing in healthful bahviours much more productive.

  19. 34 KT 14 November 2010 at 14:41


    A fat tax or restrictions on the sale of black listed food items still mean the costs of obesity are shared by the skinny. These measures would make the skinny person pay more for his food. And if the fat slobs remain fat despite the new measures, their higher healthcare and public transport costs would still be shared by the skinny.

    The costs of obesity should be paid for by the obese, directly. Obesity related illnesses should not be subsidized by the government. And public transport should charge the obese more.

    The MRT should make the current turnstiles smaller so that fat people can’t get through. Have a separate one for them, and charge them for the extra space they occupy, plus the cost of changing the turnstiles, plus the cost of the space for their ‘exclusive’ turnstile. That’ll be fun, won’t it? I can just imagine the world headlines! 🙂

    • 35 Fox 14 November 2010 at 21:50

      I wonder why you are so insistent on moralizing this issue and making people pay their imagined due share. I can imagine that if we had an AIDS epidemic in Singapore, your first reaction would be make AIDS patients pay for their medical cost and fine people for having AIDS instead of taking measures (like giving out free condoms, having proper sex ed, etc) to stop the epidemic.

      Have you thought for a minute of ways to SOLVE the problem rather than go around moralizing the issue? Rather than looking for people to blame, why not try to find out why obesity occurs, why it increases in wealthier society, why it is more prevalent in some societies, etc, etc.

      This is so Singaporean.

      • 36 thornofplenty 15 November 2010 at 04:44

        @Fox I think KT thinks he’s joking or being satirical or sarcastic.

        It is sad however that KT doesn’t appear to have the facility to do this well enough without replicating the very conditions of oppression that KT is parodying.

        ie. maybe we should leave KT alone.

      • 37 KT 15 November 2010 at 13:43

        You really have your knives out for me, don’t you?

        I am pointing out what I think is a flaw in Alex’s argument for a fat tax and other regulations. How is my comment not valid or ‘looking for someone to blame?’ I am not moralizing but if you think I am, I am not doing so anymore than Alex or the other readers who have commented.

        As for what causes obesity, the blame has gone from fats to sugar, high fructose corn syrup, carbohydrates, genes, lack of exercise, metabolic rate, some virus (that’s a good one!), whether you have breakfast, whether you eat after 6 pm, fast food joints, soft drinks, burgers, packaged foods, deep fried foods, lack of education, lack of information, lack of money, poor parenting, lack of time, emotional issues, etc.

        We have blamed anything and everything under the sun that can be blamed, yet the obesity trend continues.

        I think every person is responsible for his own life and if he wants eat a mountain of fried chicken, he should have the right to do so. Just as the not-fat have the right to eat only one piece of said chicken, occasionally, without having his freedom curtailed or pay more for it, directly or indirectly. Oh boy, I’m such a heartless bastard!

      • 38 KT 15 November 2010 at 13:47

        ‘It is sad however that KT doesn’t appear to have the facility to do this well enough without replicating the very conditions of oppression that KT is parodying.’

        You and Fox need to improve your ‘facility’ to lighten up.

      • 39 thornofplenty 16 November 2010 at 02:08

        @KT, like I said, you apparently thought you were being light hearted and apparently, the humor didn’t translate.

        And yes, I do believe that fat is one of those things like queerness that are among the last bastions of allowable oppression in modern society.

        Try it, go to a primary school and tease an Indian child for being “so black and cute”.

        Now try pinching the cheeks of a fat kid and saying “Fatty bom bom”

        When you are dealing with issues associated with an oppressed group, you need to be careful about how you express your point of view, no matter how valid that point of view is. AND you need to be aware of the privilege that you enter that conversation with.

        Skinny, slim and otherwise non-fat people are privileged in our culture. Research points to this, among other things, fat people are less likely to be hired in a job interviews, almost never positively portrayed in the media except as novelty and almost always thought of as lazy, lacking direction and drive.

        Now in this context, DO NOT be caught dead telling people to “lighten up”, it is condescending, offensive, lacks empathy and is a very lazy way out of carelessly worded non-arguments.

      • 40 Fox 17 November 2010 at 12:32

        I couldn’t tell that KT was being facetious. He/she can say pretty loony things at times. Also, as for charging people more for public transport, well, that’s been done. See

  20. 41 Gard 15 November 2010 at 14:30

    KT is only making a simple Economics 101 point about taxation and deadweight loss.

    Let’s look at the tax on alcohol. Should infrequent drinkers be subject to tax exclusion? How would the authorities differentiate heavy drinkers and infrequent drinkers?

    Off-topic: epigenetics point to the possibility of people inheriting traits from their ancestors. Every person is responsible for his own life, i.e., how he plays his cards in his hands. How he got those cards is another matter to consider.

    Effective intervention should be concerned with the former.

    Here’s a thought: tax the daylights out of 24-hr fastfood joints in residential districts.

  21. 42 Jackson Tan 15 November 2010 at 17:57

    Interestingly enough, I’ve come across this BBC report on the possibility of UK taxing junk food to combat obesity:

    It was mentioned that Denmark has already done this; I suppose that makes it a case study worthy for anyone who wants to pursue this idea.

  22. 43 KT 15 November 2010 at 18:30


    ‘the 30cent bunch pile of beansprouts offer little to no nutritional value and really is a bunch of empty calories, and not very many of them.’

    Nutrition info on bean sprouts:

    I quote from the above website:

    ‘Mung bean sprouts are quite rich in vitamins and minerals. They are a rich source of various vitamins. Some of them are thiamine, vitamin B6, niacin, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and riboflavin, pantothenic acid. Mung bean sprouts contain a few minerals that are required for the smooth running of the human body’s biological functions. Some of the minerals found in mung bean sprouts are magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, manganese and copper. Thus, you can call mung bean sprouts a complete health package.’

    This poor man’s food is anything but empty calories.

  23. 45 TK 15 November 2010 at 18:33


    ‘Imagine that you are a single mother of one struggling with two jobs to pay the bills and has only O-levels… Singaporeans have some of the longest working hours in the developed world….

    Which part of tkl’s post did you not understand? Have you read this: “Parents tend to be less educated or even available to watch over kids’ diet. The availability of affordable healthy food options is not equitable across all classes.”’

    Are you implying that parents of yesteryears fed their kids well because they had time to idle around and were highly educated?

    In the ’60s and ’70s, a mother in Singapore was typically illiterate, had to wait on her husband and mother-in-law hand and foot, looked after 10 kids, and worked part time in low skilled jobs like washing clothes by hand. Was her brood fed well and fed cheaply? You bet! They didn’t moan and groan; just got on with it.

  24. 46 tkl 17 November 2010 at 10:26

    Food economics was very different in the 60s and 70s. Among many differences, Singapore was not yet an industrialised society, there was still substantial local food production, and that was before fast food and processed food became so ubiquitous that they are cheaper than freshly prepared food as is the case today.

    The cost of home-cooked bean sprouts is not just the price of the raw material, but also the time, resources and privilege of having a kitchen, being able to pay utility bills – not to mention having a computer to check recipes online.

    Obesity today is a complex issue – self-discipline, awareness and poverty-related problems are but some of the factors. Oversimplifying is not going to address the problem.

    • 47 Anonymous 22 November 2010 at 18:15

      ‘Food economics was very different in the 60s and 70s. Among many differences, Singapore was not yet an industrialised society, there was still substantial local food production, and that was before fast food and processed food became so ubiquitous that they are cheaper than freshly prepared food as is the case today.’

      (1) What you’re saying is that people in the past had no choice but to be thin; present day people have no choice but to be fat. If you believe you are that powerless, then you are.

      (2)Cooking doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time. Most stir fries are done in 5 minutes, maybe 10 if there’s intricate cutting and slicing. Omelettes are also done in minutes. Stews, soups and steamed dishes take minutes to prep; you then walk away whilst they’re cooking.

      In Singapore, eating around meal time usually means waiting for your food. Say 15-20 minutes on average? In that time, I can easily put two dishes and rice (brown if you insist but that would take longer to cook) on the table.

      ‘Fast food and processed food . . . are cheaper than freshly prepared food.’

      Sorry, that’s simply not true when you compare like for like. E.g. you can make fried chicken cheaper than KFC’s if you use frozen chicken like they do. If you use fresh chicken, then it depends on where you shop and whether you buy parts or whole.

      ‘The cost of home-cooked bean sprouts is not just the price of the raw material, but also the time, resources and privilege of having a kitchen, being able to pay utility bills – not to mention having a computer to check recipes online.’

      (1) How many fat people in Singapore or developed countries don’t have a kitchen or can’t pay their utility bills?!

      (2) You need a computer to cook?! That’s a new one!

      Anyways, if the context is Singaporean Chinese, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. 89% of the people aren’t fat. That’s as good as it gets, surely?

  25. 48 Fox 17 November 2010 at 12:15

    “Was her brood fed well and fed cheaply? You bet! They didn’t moan and groan; just got on with it.”

    I don’t believe the well-fed claim. A significant percentage of Singaporean children of that generation obviously suffered from malnutrition. This is evident from the shorter height of people in the 50 to 60 age group.

    Obesity rate was low not because of any conscious effort to stay slim but rather a consequence of reduced calorific intake.

  26. 49 Fox 17 November 2010 at 12:29

    If you want to be facetious, try the following…

    1. Obesity is also due to the increasingly sedentary lifestyle of Singaporeans. Obviously, things like MRT and buses are making Singaporeans fat since they can otherwise be walking or biking if not for the prevalence of convenient transport options. Instead, bus and MRT rates should raised to encourage more Singaporeans to walk and/or bike.

    2. Obesity is also rising because Singaporeans know that lifestyle obesity-related diseases are treated in subsidized public hospitals and clinics. Obviously, we should stop subsidizing public health care to encourage Singaporeans to take obesity more seriously.

    3. Obesity is much more prevalent amongst Malay Singaporeans. Clearly, we should tax Malay Singaporeans more to make them leave Singapore as they are bringing up the national average.

  27. 50 Rezqun 26 December 2010 at 17:50

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  28. 51 rezqun 15 January 2011 at 21:01

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