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Caring vs playing nanny

January 27, 2007

Would a ban on trans fats make Singapore more of a nanny state?

Much that I disagree with the government interfering with people’s private lives, including what foods they put into their mouths, I feel that curbs on the use of harmful food ingredients is perfectly acceptable.

After all, we let the government decide – and never or seldom complain – that:

  • Our tap water should be chlorinated and fluoridated, even though there is considerable scientific evidence that these substances are highly toxic.
  • The air we breathe be regularly fumigated with pesticides so that we might not get bittn by mosquitoes, never mind if leading WHO experts on mosquito control say that fumigation is ineffective.

There are lots more things that we let the government decide without even realising it. Do you know, for example, that regular flour is allowed, by law, to contain various chemical additives without having them declared?

We also let the government approve various food additives like aspartame and MSG, and ban others (which we might not know about). We let the government ban drugs like heroin, Ecstasy and now, Subutex. In fact, we expect the government to do such things. This has nothing to do with nannyism.

To me, nannyism is when, for example, the government dictates that pubs cannot allow smoking even though many people who go to pubs are smokers. I am not a smoker but I really feel sad that smokers are being treated like pariahs in our society.

Here is another example of nannyism:

Some months back, the government banned kombucha, a fungus used to ferment tea and sold as a health product in health stores.

Kombucha is consumed by people who more or less know what they are taking. They had read about it in some health books. They believe what they read and they decide to take it. They even go out of their way to buy it from special health food stores. It’s not something sold in at NTUC Fairprice, which might be unwittingly consumed by people who don’t know what it is.

And it is not as if kombucha is widely acknowledged to be harmful the way trans fats are now known to be deadly. On the contrary, most health writers say wonderful things about kombucha being beneficial for all sorts of health conditions.

But, as is usually the case with matters regarding health, not everybody holds the same view.

So some people believe kombucha is harmful. The government chose to listen to this group of people and decided that no one in Singapore should be allowed to take kombucha.

This, to me, is nannyism – controlling what people can or cannot eat when they are educated and fully capable of finding out the implications of their food intake.

This is not the same as controlling the use of trans fats. Because trans fats are harmful substances being regularly – and most of the time unknowingly – consumed by the general population, including babies and young children, including the illiterate and uneducated who cannot read food labels.

A government that controls the use of trans fats is not playing nanny. It is caring for the welfare of its citizens – and its guests.

One comment

  1. Hi Richard,

    I think the question begins with how we view laws of the society. Should it be enacted to control or should they be enacted to free citizens from harm.

    When law is used to control, its used to tell people what they should or should not do, even though it may not be harmful to them… like our famous oral sex laws of 377 or like HDB not allow cats in the flats.

    When law is used to free citizen from harm or fear of harm, then it is something that puts citizens in the front of law and is actually helpful for the society.

    I don’t agree on the smoking part because the smokers also affect people around them who are non smokers, unlike, say drinking. One smoker smokes and others have to breathe in the 2nd hand smoke unwillingly. In this case, the way the law is applied, it is based on the 2nd case. It allows people to be in a pub free from harm of 2nd hand smoke. Actually even places like San Francisco and Japan have tough smoking laws, Singapore is just following them.

    Thus in your argument for the ban of trans fat, its based on a similar mentality of banning smoking in pubs. That is, to protect citizens from harm.

    That is not called nannyism, that is what law should be doing and not telling citizens how they can have sex or telling single mothers they are not good for society.

    Metta
    Kelvin Wong



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