SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong painted a stark picture of the diabetes situation in Singapore during his National Day Rally on Sunday (Aug 20), as he encouraged citizens to exercise more, go for regular medical check-ups and eat healthier.
He spoke at length about diabetes as one of three key long-term issues for Singapore during his Rally speech at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College Central in Ang Mo Kio.
PM Lee cited sobering figures. Today, one in nine Singaporeans has diabetes, while three in 10 over the age of 60 have diabetes, he said. Broken down by race, it is 2.5 in 10 Chinese over 60 years old who have the disease, half of Malays over 60 years old, and six in 10 Indians over that age.
To drive home the point, Mr Lee did a poll with the audience members to test their knowledge on life expectancy, and revealed that while Singaporeans live up to the age of 82 on average, they experience on average eight years of ill health in old age.
Diabetes is a “health crisis” for Malays and Indians, Mr Lee said. In his Malay speech, PM Lee said alarmingly, 17 per cent of Malays in Singapore have diabetes – and one reason for this is obesity, which is more prevalent among Malays. He said that Malay-Muslim organisations have been working with the Health Ministry to spread the message about diabetes.
He explained that diabetes is especially challenging as it is “invisible” in the early stages. “You don’t feel sick, there are hardly any symptoms. You may not even know that you have it. But if it is not treated, over time it can become very serious,” he said. He pointed out that many common causes of death, like stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, can be traced back to diabetes.
In his Mandarin speech, PM Lee said that after listening to his National Day message, many wondered if the Prime Minister should be talking about diabetes at the National Day Rally. He had an answer for them.
“It is precisely because many people are not worried that I am worried. It is precisely because many people do not take diabetes seriously that it has become a serious problem.”
Diabetes can lead to blindness, heart failure and kidney failure, and may require patients amputate their limbs to save their lives, Mr Lee said in his Mandarin speech. An average of about 1,200 diabetics undergo amputation every year in Singapore.
EXERCISE MORE, GO FOR REGULAR MEDICAL CHECK-UPS, PM ADVISES
PM Lee suggested solutions for Singaporeans to live healthier and urged them to get regular medical check-ups so that they know if they have diabetes or are at risk of it.
He reminded Singaporeans that from next month, there will be a flat health screening fee of $5 for those above the age of 40, a fraction of the usual over S$100 it costs.
Mr Lee also recommended that citizens exercise more, noting that the easiest way to do so is “just to walk a little bit more every day” and to incorporate it into their daily routine.
For instance, they could walk instead of taking the feeder bus, or get off the train one stop early and walk the rest of the way home. They could also climb the stairs instead of taking the lift - something that PM Lee does at the office every day.
In line with his message, everyone at the National Day Rally received a step tracker from the Health Promotion Board to help them hit 10,000 steps a day recommended by doctors.
EATING, DRINKING HEALTHIER IMPORTANT IN FIGHT AGAINST DIABETES
PM Lee also suggested eating less and healthier, and cutting back on soft drinks. Singaporeans are putting on weight partly because they are eating more, he said.
Two decades ago, Singaporeans were eating 2,100 calories every day, about the right amount. By 2004, it went up to 2,400 calories a day, equivalent to two extra scoops of ice cream a day. By 2010, this number went up to 2,600, amounting to an extra scoop of ice cream with topping.
“I fear the trend is still up. To burn off these three extra scoops of ice cream, you need to run more than an hour every day...Most of us don’t, so obesity has gone up,” Mr Lee said.
PM Lee noted that nutrition among children has improved so much from the past that that now among five-year-olds, one in 10 is overweight. Often, baby fat does not go away but carries into adulthood, he said.
In urging Singaporeans to be disciplined and make the right choices, he shared an anecdote of a lunch between his father, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and MP Charles Chong.
Mr Chong was the only guest. When the main course was served, he saw one whole steak and another tiny, half piece of steak. As the guest, Mr Chong was served first, but he did not know if he should take the full piece or half piece. Out of respect to Mr Lee, Mr Chong took the tiny, half piece, but Mr Lee stopped him and told him to take the other.
“Like Mr Lee, we all can decide to eat less, and watch our weight,” PM Lee said.
Mr Lee urged Singaporeans to choose healthier dishes with less oil, less sugar and less salt out when eating out. When cooking at home, he suggested small changes like replacing white rice with brown or mixed grain rice as white rice is bad for diabetes because it has high glycemic index (GI), a measurement of the impact of foods on blood sugar.
“White rice may not taste sweet, but the effect is almost like eating sugar. When you eat white rice, your blood sugar will shoot up,” he said.
The Cabinet has been having brown rice during lunch before their weekly Cabinet meeting, since then-Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan suggested it. However, having recently found out that some Ministers do not like brown rice, and skip the brown rice to go home and have white rice for dinner, Mr Lee is thinking of trying white rice mixed with brown rice as a compromise.
In line with his message, NTUC FairPrice will have special discounts and offers on healthy food, including brown rice, from tomorrow till the end of August.
Mr Lee observed that Singapore is seeing more diabetes cases among young people now, including children. That is why in schools, canteens can only sell drinks containing six per cent of sugar or less.
However, that that does not really solve the problem because the children can go outside the school compound and buy fully sweetened drinks, Mr Lee said. Just one can of soft drink can contain eight cubes of sugar – much more than needed for the whole day.
“If you drink soft drinks every day, you are overloading your system with sugar, and significantly increasing your risk of diabetes. Our children are most at risk because soft drinks are part of their lifestyle,” Mr Lee said.