Budget debate: New workgroup to focus on healthy living for ethnic minority groups, starting with Malays

The group will design culturally relevant programmes and help rally the community against poor health habits. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - A new team has been set up to focus on improving the health of ethnic minority groups here, starting with the Malay community.

The Ministry of Health said on Friday (March 5) that the group, which was formed last month, will design "culturally relevant programmes and help rally the community against poor health habits".

The workgroup will be supported by organisations such as the Health Promotion Board (HPB), the People's Association Malay Activity Executive Committees Council, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), Mendaki and the Muslim Healthcare Professionals Association.

It will be led by Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam and MPs Wan Rizal and Mariam Jaafar.

Speaking during the debate for her ministry's budget on Friday, Ms Rahayu said that there are "significant disparities in health behaviours and outcomes across ethnicities".

She highlighted that in 2020, 14.4 per cent of Malays and 14.2 per cent of Indians have diabetes, compared with 8.2 per cent of Chinese.

In addition, 37.5 per cent of Malays and 36.1 per cent of Chinese have higher blood pressure, compared to 29.5 per cent of Indians.

Ms Rahayu also noted that for cancers, Chinese people here consistently have the highest age-standardised cancer incidence rates, but the proportion of Malays among all cases of cancer has gradually increased over the decades.

She added that Malays have the highest obesity rates, while the prevalence of daily smokers is more than twice as high in Malays compared with Chinese and Indians.

"Research has shown that poor health behaviours can affect life expectancy. Therefore our community needs to take stronger action, and support one another against poor health habits," she said.

"Cultural preferences may influence health behaviours and we recognise the importance of engagement and collaboration with the different ethnic minority groups to design culturally relevant programmes."

She cited previous efforts by the Government, such as building partnerships with mosques under the Health Promotion Board's Jaga Kesihatan, Jaga Ummah programme, and efforts from the Hindu Endowment Board (HEB) and Sikh Welfare Council in engaging Indians here.

Ms Rahayu said that moving forward, the Government will expand community partnerships and harness ground-up efforts to multiply its impact, and customise its programmes to ensure that they are culturally relevant.

For instance, at a forum at the end of this month, leaders from the HEB, the Singapore Indian Development Association, the People's Association Indian Activity Executive Committees Council, Sikh Welfare Council and HPB will discuss the state of health among Indians and co-develop culturally relevant efforts to facilitate healthier lifestyles among Singaporean Indians.

"We will build on early successes to improve our work, to make healthy living a sustainable achievement," said Ms Rahayu.

Dr Djoni Huang, director for clinical services at Mount Alvernia Hospital, said health and lifestyle behaviours are linked closely to socio-economic and cultural factors.

"For low-income families, their priority is to put food on the table. Some of them have more than one job as well, to make ends meet," he pointed out, adding that making sure food was healthy might not be top on the list.

"Many may think that healthy food must be expensive, but this is not true."

Dr Huang, who is the honorary secretary of the Muslim Healthcare Professionals Association, is also one of the founding members of the workgroup.

Through his interactions with the Malay community, Dr Huang observed that fewer Malays are going for breast cancer screening and cardiovascular disease screening, and some of their concerns include anxiety over their diagnoses, and financial worries for low-income families.

"Perhaps the workgroup could include those who have undergone screening, and cancer survivors, who can provide reassurance to those who are reluctant to get screened."

HPB health ambassador Rahimah Maarof said she observed that Malay community in Singapore is at a higher risk for obesity.

HPB health ambassador Rahimah Maarof works out on her step machine every day while watching television. PHOTO: HPB

"Some of my family members, relatives and friends have weight management issues and they may also suffer from diabetes and hypertension," she said.

So the 62-year-old corporate support officer became a health ambassador, encouraging others to have a healthy diet and active lifestyle.

She also gets her family to take long walks with her and eat healthier, by cooking healthy meals at home.

"When we are healthy, we can worry less about medical costs and focus more of our energy in spending quality time with family and friends," she said.

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