Promoting better health among Malays

The latest health statistics ought to spur greater intervention efforts to break a worrying cycle prevalent in the Malay community. Obesity is generally on the rise in Singapore but is more pronounced among Malays - from 11 per cent in 1992 to 24 per cent in 2010, according to the last National Health Survey. Excessive body weight then leads to diabetes and heart trouble in many cases.

It is a matter of concern to all Singaporeans that while Malays account for 13.5 per cent of the population, they form 24.4 per cent of people on dialysis. The marked disproportion is evident when tracking other chronic ailments too. There were 296 incidents of strokes per 100,000 men among the Malays compared to 199 for Indians and 184 for Chinese last year.

With growing affluence, there is a general tendency to eat richer foods and settle into more sedentary lifestyles. It can be doubly hard to go against this tide when food is an important part of one's cultural identity and features highly at festive occasions. The community's food heritage deserves to be celebrated, of course. The challenge is to prepare healthier versions of favourites at home and to rebalance the spread of goodies. Celebrities can help in promoting such preferences at live events and in the popular media. As many Malays eat out, like other Singaporeans, outlets serving halal food should contribute to the effort of offering healthier options, too.

Making exercise and active lifestyles a part of the daily and weekly routines of families also calls for some imagination. By adding an element of fun or collaboration, more will find it less of a chore to control body weight and maintain fitness.

Importantly, there must also be efforts to circulate key health information. Malays are the least likely of the ethnic groups to go for health screenings. It is vital such checks are done regularly to help reduce the risks of chronic illnesses, like diabetes. In the worst case, end-stage renal disease will call for either a transplant or dialysis for the rest of the one's life. Delay is also harmful when chest pains suggest a heart problem. Compared to other groups, Malays take longer to seek medical help when symptoms arise.

Given such trends, there should be no let-up by the community and the Health Promotion Board in finding fresh ways to get the young and old to adopt healthy lifestyles and to appreciate major health indicators and risk factors. Past steps have included sending health ambassadors door to door; creating workouts that appeal to more women; and holding health talks at mosques. Getting more on a healthier track is a ceaseless, multi-pronged effort involving education, persuasion and early detection.