Lifestyle Regulation and Impacts on Businesses: A Public Seminar
The event started with an opening address by Tunku ‘Abidin, who talked about the concept of freedom and responsibility – freedom that costs other people’s freedom is irresponsibility. Negative freedom should be prevented.
It was followed by the announcement of “Liberalism in Malaysia” survey results by Wan Saiful. The survey was done to set KPI to IDEAS to change public perception towards liberalism. The main points were:
- A great majority (78 percent) admitted that they are either unsure or do not understand liberalism at all. In fact, many Malaysians were actually supportive of many liberal practices when the practices were not labelled under the word ‘liberalism’.
- Only a minority of 13 percent Non-Muslim and 29 percent Muslims think liberalism is a bad concept for Malaysia. The main reason for saying it is bad is that liberalism is assumed to be detrimental to religion, particularly Islam. Those who say do not understand liberalism tend to say it is a bad concept.
- Even so, the divided and contradicting attitude among Malaysians showed when giving their responses on social, political, and economic liberalism.
Started with Tricia introducing the background of the topic – historically, regulations have been imposed by the government to control people’s lives. However we also believe that citizens have freedom or individual liberties. The key questions: are regulations successful? What are the impacts on businesses? What is the role government should play? Regulation should be there but there must be an efficient way of implementing it.
According to Chong Chee Kheong from the Ministry of Health, the government sees regulations as in trying to protecting the health of the citizens. It prefers to use promotion instead of regulation, e.g. healthy diet, exercise, anti-smoking. Regulation is the last tool they use to regulate people’s lifestyles.
The problem is, Malaysians understand the importance of having healthy lifestyle but we don’t practice it. As time goes by, the government needs more solid strategy to improve health promotion when statistics show alarming phenomenon, e.g. obesity, heart problem etc. While it’s true you can choose your way of dying but when you get sick, the government needs to spent budget on treating the diseases. For example, the government spent billions of ringgit in treating diabetes patients.
According to Chew Phye Keat from the ASEAN Intellectual Property Association, Intellectual Property (IP) is used to protect ideas, and government interventions can sometimes trespass the boundary lines, for example, promoting health agenda at the expense of the right to use a brand to trade. Conflicts as such also happen in international arena whereby the WTO supports IP and the WHO supports health promotion. Proportionality and balance are keys in regulation. Any law can be challenged. Any law that takes away personal freedom can be questioned.
According to Paul Selvaraj from the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (FOMCA), consumer protection should come first. For the market to be effective, 3 basic assumptions need to be fulfilled: 1. Market is honest. Those who sell must honest, 2. Symmetric information: consumers know as much as the producers, 3. Sellers have the best interest for the consumers. Best interest for the society as a whole. The whole issue of consumer rights is being raised because these assumptions are not fulfilled. Sellers do not concern about consumers and only think about profits. While the consumers should have a choice, the question is, is the choice rational or best for market? For example, a 3 year old must ask for unhealthy food when asked where to eat. Children aged 7-18 are most brand conscious because they are influenced by the media. Regulation to some extent protecting the consumer. As long as it is for the good of consumer and does not bring harm, regulation is fine, but must be based on evidence in order to have an effective regulation.
According to Ikhbal Zakaria who represented the Malaysia E-Vaporizers and Tobacco Alternative Association (MEVTA), the vape industry doesn’t want regulation because they want to sell their products and regulation is not good for business. It is confusing because the industry is regulated by 7 different acts from 3 different ministries. The government categorizes vape as non-nicotinic and e-cigarette as nicotinic while the two are the same thing. There’s also conflict in getting licence between KPDNKK and Ministry of Health. While vaping is still new in the world market, and there’s not much evidence to show it is bad, Ikhbal personally thinks vaping needs to be regulated because the industry is new and especially in regard to underage smoking. But he himself is not sure whether vaping is banned or not.
A representative expressed the situation the tobacco industry is in: today 57% of cigarettes consumed in Malaysia are illegal. While they are a legal industry and comply with all the rules and pay high tax, they have to compete with ‘unfair’ competitor. The country needs to tackle the real issue which is to eliminate illegal tobacco and have more open discussion with the tobacco industry to understand their problems.
A participant asked how can Malaysians self-regulate and move forward without regulation, Paul answered that level of education is important and needs to be improved in order to, say reduce the number of smokers.
Another participant opined that product that is bad for health should be on regulated market and not free market, that IP should serve the good of the consumers and some IPs such as those for the tobacco industry are not good. Chew replied that he need to check the data to see if less regulation on tobacco and alcohol can solve the problem, but stressed that where there’s good will and reputation already established from consumer point of view, one should not imply the agenda, for example, wearing Dunhill Tie does not necessarily promoting tobacco.
When addressing the question of law, education, and individual discipline and why smoking is not banned, Chong replied that lifestyle practices have not been affected by formal education. For example, students with higher education attainments tend to smoke more because of advertising and peer pressure, and therefore the government should regulate students so they don’t embark on an unhealthy lifestyle. Ikhbal added that there’s a conflict of interest when the government allows citizens to choose to smoke, yet put regulations in place to prevent people from smoking. He also commented that regulation implementation should be effective and efficient, and there should be balance of regulation and choice. Over-regulation can infringe on the rights of consumers, how about rights of the smokers?
Tricia concluded the discussion by summarizing the points of the panelists and reiterating the issue behind this phenomenon:
- Meeting public health objectives needs to be proportional and balance.
- The market is good or bad is something debatable – the more educated and informed people are leading to well-functioning market.
- Sellers and the public should be informed of the regulation as well as the formulation process – there should be more clarity.
Regulations should be sensible, clearly understood, based on evidence and sufficient consultation. When offending someone becomes legal through regulations, when well-intentioned policies cause negative consequences, what would it do to society? It’s something we need to think about.