Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It could make a big difference to the cost of your daily meal.

Dear readers,

Some reading material, just to share :)

It could make a big difference to the cost of your daily meal.

AS I scanned through the menu of the noodle house in a popular mall last weekend, I noticed wryly that the price of drinks these days is about half that of the food. If your bowl of mee costs RM7, a glass of sugared water flavoured with whatever catches your fancy is about half of that.

As it is usual these days, my mind is on health and my eye on the ever-expanding waistline. I wanted water – plain ice water. Nowadays hardly anybody in these slightly upmarket outlets serves you plain water right from the tap anymore, with or without ice.

If you wanted water, you paid for mineral water or some other water out of a bottle from prices ranging anywhere from RM2 for a local brand to RM8 or more for those swanky ones with foreign names.

Therefore, instead of paying RM2 for a bottle of water, many Malay­sians with their misplaced sense of value choose instead to pay about half more and obtain a “real drink”, opting for sugared water or one of those brands which have a calorific value of less than one but a high caffeine content and a potentially harmful artificial (unnatural?) sweetener.

But they would have been much better off with some plain tap water, perhaps filtered. Despite all the bad publicity over Malaysian water, I still ask for plain tap water with ice in it wherever I can get it. But the number of places where I can get it is shrinking fast.

There is a nascent epidemic here of profiteering that threatens to raise our food and beverage prices considerably very quickly. It will require quick and decisive action by the Domestic Trade, Coopera-tives and Consumerism Ministry to use our newly implemented Price Control and Anti-Profiteering Act 2010 to nip this blooming menace in the bud.

On that weekend, as my eyes passed over the items in the menu, I saw this term – “purified water”. Now that’s a new one. The price was RM1.50.
I thought of arguing with and cajoling the foreign waiters (my thoughts turned to amnesty, but that’s a subject for another day) who manned the place for a plain glass of ice water, but they were talking loudly in a language I did not understand or recognise.

Firmly suppressing my welling desire to complain and lament, I acquiesced and asked for “purified water”, although there was no mention anywhere in the menu of how the water was purified.

What I got was a glass of water with ice cubes in it and a straw – no plastic bottle. It tasted like any other water that I have drunk anywhere. But that water did get me to think about things that I would not otherwise have thought about.

In Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, the upper end of the price of water for commercial use is RM2.28 per cubic metre. One cubic metre is 1,000,000 millilitres and a glass contains at most 300ml of water. That works out to 0.00066 sen a glass of water. The cost of ice and filtration should be no more than 1 sen per glass on a bulk basis.

That would mean that the glass of purified water that I had for RM1.50 would have cost just 1 sen maximum, giving the retailer a profit margin of a huge 14,900% – 150 times the cost of what it took to produce. If that is not profiteering, what is?

Now that we have established profiteering, let us figure how much more you will have to pay for your daily meal if you had to pay RM1.50 for purified water or upgrade to another less healthy drink for two times the price.

If you had your usual nasi campor at your favourite mamak outlet for lunch you probably paid about RM5 if you were not a big eater. He most likely threw in the water for free.
But imagine that he got smart and charged RM1.50 for “purified water”. That would take your bill up to RM6.50, an increase of 30%.

If paying RM1.50 for plain water affected your sensibilities and you decided to pay a little extra for a “real drink”, usually the sugared variety, you not only got more unhealthy, you paid a hefty 60% more for your meal, which cost RM8 instead of RM5 previously.

Believe me, this is an epidemic – it’s spreading like wildfire. Later, on that same weekend afternoon, I went to see a CEO at a posh hotel in town. I had coffee and asked for a glass of ice water, too.

But it was not the usual ice water they brought but bottled water. Because I did not pay for the bill I did not have a chance to look at the price of the bottled water, but I will bet my bottom ringgit that it was at least RM5. Previously hotels did not charge for water – they brought the branded water in only when you asked for it.

My favourite Italian restaurant where I typically had a bottle of wine with my meals started charging for water, too – they stopped serving tap water. It’s no longer my favourite restaurant and I have not been to it since.

Walk into most of the big fast food restaurants and it’s the same. You have to fork out at least RM2 for a plastic bottle of water. Absolutely no tap water, even if you volunteered to step around the counter and serve it to yourself.

In England, it is illegal for restaurants not to serve tap water. It’s the same in the US, at least in some states. We have to act before it is too late, before all eating outlets in Malaysia charge too much for cheap water. After all, profiteering proliferates quickly.

We now have comprehensive anti-profiteering laws after the implementation of the relevant legislation from April 1 this year. It empowers the Domestic Trade minister to prescribe the mechanism to determine a reasonable profit.

Since the cost of good drinking water is likely to be less than a sen a glass, the ministry should use its powers under the anti-profiteering act to require all restaurants and eateries to provide free drinking water – that is, filtered water from the tap.

Adding ice or increasing the temperature of the water to that of air suam levels should incur a charge of no more than 5 sen a glass, which should be enough to recover costs and make some profit, too.

The ministry should use this opportunity as a demonstration of its intention to control profiteering by throwing the full weight of the law against miscreants. First offenders face a fine of RM100,000 or three years’ jail or both – that should be sufficient deterrent, but only if there is enforcement.

Not only will the moves significantly reduce the cost of eating out for consumers, it will also promote healthier consumption patterns.

More people will opt for healthy, filtered, and naturally mineralised tap water instead of more expensive alternatives or unhealthy highly sweetened drinks or highly caffeinated, low calorie drinks with harmful additives.

It’s not often you get a chance to kill two birds with one stone so cheaply.
> Managing editor P. Gunasegaram is reminded of a line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.


  1. this is typical malaysian thing. in another countries, u can drink as many tap water u like and its free.
    and they can even drink right from the tap. because its safe to.
    actually water in malaysia is safe to drink without being boiled, after being treated from the plant. what makes it unsafe is the poorly maintained distribution pipes. karat abis! boo!

  2. Ederq: totally agree with u..di manakah hak kita sebagai pengguna? Fomca? Perkasa? Haha

  3. boleh bawak masuk botol air mineral sendiri tak?


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