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Safe playgrounds essential to curbing childhood obesity

LETTER | It is common knowledge that physical activity makes for a healthy mind and body. And for young children, it is crucial for developing their muscles and bone structure.

Yet in many Malaysian cities, the “play” has gone missing from playgrounds.

A quick drive through my hometown of Ipoh - the third-largest city in Malaysia - presents most playgrounds as post-apocalyptic landscapes framed by wildly overgrown grass that hide shards of broken glass, slithering snakes, and concrete debris that could seriously injure adults.

Who in their right minds would send their children there?

Despite a steady stream of news stories over the years highlighting the sad state of Ipoh’s playgrounds, the local city council has largely remained mum on the issue. This trend is mirrored across the country.

It is not uncommon to find grand roadworks projects a stone’s throw away from these playgrounds fixing and re-fixing the same patch of road, yet city officials cannot seem to find value in restoring the small squares of green that are imperative to the well-being of Malaysian children.

Abandoned playgrounds that have turned into public safety hazards are not an isolated problem, but indicative of a larger and transnational health crisis: childhood obesity.

A heartbreaking early July news story about a Malaysian child who passed away at the age of 12 from health complications arising from obesity has reignited the debate over how developing countries like Malaysia are raising their children.

A few years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) began sounding the alarm over the rapidly rising number of obese children worldwide. Likewise, a 2013 Asian study by Poh Be Koon revealed Malaysia ranked in the region’s top three for the percentage of obese children (aged between six months and 12 years).

Given the gravity of the situation, you would think efforts would be underway to tackle this crisis, but that is regrettably not the case.

Who is to blame?

We must recognise that the urgency is very real, and that robust state-civil partnerships are key to saving our future generations. Recent studies confirm obese children turn into obese adults, who in turn are likely to raise obese children of their own. It is a vicious cycle.

Moreover, high obesity levels and their accompanying health issues should give nightmares to public policymakers. Not only does an obese population disproportionately stress the public health system, these individuals as employees cannot reach the benchmarks of productivity and efficiency that developing states require to sustain economic growth.

If health is wealth, obesity is the scientifically proven path to bankruptcy.

Perhaps a good starting point from which to wag fingers is a better understanding of the greater forces that shape society and their impact on young children.

While home is a primary agent of socialisation for children, and responsible parenting is undeniably key to raising healthy and happy ones, school, public policy and the media play equally large roles in raising them to be productive and fulfilled adults.

Early childhood experts repeatedly stress the need for instilling the right habits in young children, as what they see and do at that age leaves a deep imprint for life.

Yet in pre-schools, we observe teachers who, despite claiming to practice the Montessori approach which emphasises good nutrition, summarily dispense with its dietary recommendations in favor of greasy, highly processed food that not only bulges the waistline of young children, but also dulls their mental faculties. How can they learn anything in a near-comatose state?

Also, these days we are constantly bombarded with media advertising that promotes unhealthy eating while the price of fresh produce continues to rise. Fast-food giants are free to advertise their products, but it behooves many of them to recognise their corporate social responsibility.

These businesses must awaken to the fact that without offering and promoting healthier menu options, they are pushing their customers down the path of serious medical issues that will inevitably compel an entire generation to shun their products.

Finally, of equal importance is the government’s role in curbing the obesity epidemic. In its social contract with citizens that is the constitution, the government is duty-bound to protect their lives and livelihoods, and both are at risk should a significant chunk of the population become susceptible to potentially fatal diseases.

That said, a strictly top-down approach to public health reeks of tyranny, which is why I made the point earlier that state-civil partnerships are vital to stamping out childhood obesity.

While some Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have traditionally kept childhood obesity down to manageable proportions, the real success stories of reversal come from the West, specifically Finland, which despite strong initial resistance managed to fundamentally shift social attitudes through a sustained partnership between the government and grassroots activism.

In the first decade of the 21st century, around a fifth of children in certain Finnish cities were overweight or obese. The government then adopted the highly successful “Health in All Policies” approach that standardised meal plans for pre-schools nationwide, mandated regular health examinations, subsidised healthy food options, taxed drinks and snacks that were high in sugar and fat, raised the scrutiny of advertising aimed at children and, most significantly, improved playgrounds in urban centers.

At this point, we can either dismiss Finland’s example as “first-world privilege” and consider it inapplicable to developing states where higher populations and lower surplus wealth are often used as excuses to let public health issues linger to the detriment of society.

Or we can decide that saving our children from potentially life-threatening health complications is an emergency that must be tackled post-haste. The choice is ours.

JERRICA FATIMA ANN is a Malaysian early childhood educator and editor of

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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