Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Modern healthcare is big business today

MY friend's 1-year-old son was recently warded at one of the finest hospitals in the city for an unexplained recurring fever. She and her husband sent their first-born to the private medical centre in the middle of the night when the fever refused to subside even after the child had been sponged with cold water.

Less than an hour after arriving at the hospital, the child was warded. Although he had responded well to medication, he was kept under observation for a couple of days.

My friend was provided with a bed in the single room ward so that she could be with her son. Food could be ordered at the touch of a button and delivered to the room if she wished.

When her son was discharged, everything proceeded just as efficiently. All her husband had to do was to sign the acknowledgement papers and fill in a customer service satisfaction form in the discharge lounge.

The only cause for concern, she said, was the medical bill which amounted to slightly over RM2,000.

Confiding in me later, my friend said she was relieved that her son was attended to promptly and had the best medical care. She was also thankful for the medical insurance coverage provided by her husband's company.

Healthcare had changed so much since the '70s. Back then, almost everyone depended on the Klinik Kesihatan which charged 50 sen a visit.

Dental checks were free and students dread the twice yearly visits by the Klinik Pergigian vans. Teams of "bidan kerajaan" (government midwives) on bicycles visiting mothers who had just given birth in the kampung were also a common sight.

There were few private clinics in those days. To live near one was a comforting thought; to be able to visit one, a luxury.

But then, as I remember it, most of us were tough. Seasonal bouts of flu, sore throat, and conjunctivitis were promptly dealt with using concoctions of garden herbs such as "hempedu bumi" (chiretta), snake grass (chuar chow in Hokkien), "pegaga" (pennywort), and the likes.

Today, we are blessed with more private clinics than government dispensaries.

In some areas, they even outnumber fast-food outlets and had longer queues. I don't know if more babies are delivered at the general hospital than in private medical centres but I know that the standard of healthcare has been so good that some people actually dread having to go to smaller towns where the lone clinic closes sharp at sunset.

I have stopped marvelling at the medical breakthroughs I read or see on television these days. Although I am thankful that modern medicine has advanced by leaps and bounds, I wonder sometimes if it has actually leapt out of reach of those with shallower pockets.

Modern healthcare is big business today. Private hospitals have shed their white coat syndrome and are beginning to feel like hotels. Their earnings could well be a major contributor to the economy if healthcare tourism takes off in a big way.

Thankfully, there are still government hospitals and clinics to cater to the poor and those who do not have medical insurance.

Even the latter is not cheap these days, especially for those who have just retired and had not been protected by one.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Put abandoned buildings to clever use

RESIDENTS of low-cost flats in Bandar Bukit Sentosa 3 and Bandar Bukit Beruntung can hopefully sleep easy now that a RM15.6 million budget has been allocated by the prime minister to repair the broken roofs and improve the condition of their homes.

The story, which appeared several weeks ago, reminded me of the house-buying frenzy of the '90s that gave birth to these two townships. It was a time when city folk, frustrated by the daily gridlock to and from work, looked beyond the city's bright lights to settle down.

At the time, Bukit Beruntung, Bukit Sentosa, and several others nearby, came into being as developers saw them as viable satellite townships akin to Petaling Jaya in the early '70s.

The marketing hype that painted a rosy future for these townships as the "second PJ" churned up a buying frenzy that blinded purchasers to advertising fluff -- that the real PJ of the '70s was less than 20km away from Kuala Lumpur. The "second" PJ, on the other hand, was almost three times further, not to mention that the highway serving the latter would be later tolled, and toll charges, like fuel prices, would rise.

Many also forgot that the future of PJ was well charted during its formative years, supported by various economic activities in and around the Batu Tiga Industrial estate and Old Klang Road.

The townships of the north, however, did not have such advantages. Rawang of the '90s did not have the industrial might of Batu Tiga in the '70s which had formed a strong foundation for PJ.

Unlike PJ, the new townships were not located along the route to a port -- or an airport -- to tap the economic spillovers from regular traffic.

Today, one can only sympathise with the dwellers of Bukit Beruntung and Bukit Sentosa -- and the lesser heard Bandar Baru Sungai Buaya and Lembah Beringin. Although these places are now a far cry from the cowboy towns they used to be, some still bear grim reminders of the past.

But as the Malay adage goes, "Berat mata memandang, berat lagi bahu yang memikul" (the load being heavier for the bearer than it appears), one cannot possibly fathom the frustrations and sufferings of the owners who were caught in the situation. One can only marvel at the brave ones who dared to call the urban outbacks home.

Often when I take a detour off the highway to visit friends staying at Bukit Beruntung and Bukit Sentosa, I wondered if the abandoned sections of these townships could be revived and put to some economic use since water and electricity supply have been available for more than a decade.

I recall watching a documentary back in the late '80s on how some Taiwanese turned a block of unoccupied building into a hydroponic farm and fishery to grow vegetables and rear fish for food and the aquarium.

What started out as a means to overcome land shortage by creative re-use of an abandoned property gave birth to an entirely new economic activity and sustenance for the inhabitants.

Could the same not be done for Bukit Beruntung, Bukit Sentosa and their neighbours?

It would certainly require more than entrepreneurial gumption to make it work, but isn't it better than leaving the buildings unoccupied and at the mercy of vermin and vagrants?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Life is only artificially sweetened with more sugar

MY wife and I were speechless when asked by a neighbour how we felt about the sugar price hike. My reply, after I had recovered from the suprise, rendered her speechless as well. I said the 20 sen hike over the RM1.45 sen per kilo price did not matter as we hardly used sugar. The sweetest thing we had around the house would be raw honey, which we use occasionally for the children's sore throats.

In fact, I have switched my beverage to kosong (without milk and sugar) when having a drink because it has become a chore trying to make the waiters understand what I meant when I ordered my drinks kurang manis (less sweet).

I did not want to attract looks of disdain by ordering air kosong (plain water) or ais kosong (plain iced water), so I settled for halia kosong (plain ginger juice) or limau kosong (plain lime juice) instead.

A few weeks ago, I even decided to altogether avoid the café near the office after it raised the price of limau kosong to RM1.20, which I thought was unreasonable.

How much would two limes squeezed into hot water cost, anyway? Limes go as cheap as RM1 per longgok (a pile) of no less than 30 fruits at the pasar tani near my home. While the citrus drink was healthy, I figured the price was not. Now I take a shorter route to the canteen which charges only 80 sen.

The shorter walk may not be as good for the health as the longer walk to the café, but at least I save 40 sen for every glass of limau kosong.

My wife wondered if there would be another round of price increase. The neighbourhood kuih seller had already hinted that it was harder for her to make ends meet. I stopped her short of saying she had to raise prices by reminding her of the price hikes when petrol prices went up.

Everyone who raised prices had justification for their actions but when the price of petrol dropped, how many had the decency to reduce theirs? Now that the price of sugar had gone up, some are ready to jump at the chance again.

Considering the sugar price hike to be at 13 per cent, reducing a similar percentage of sugar from food and drink would do little harm, I think. How many people can taste the difference, anyway?

Food vendors would actually be doing their customers a favour to make their stuff less sweet, considering the price their customers would have to pay in medical bills in later years.

I read in a report that Malaysians were downing an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar daily instead of the recommended seven. That's twice of the world's average of 11. This is certainly not healthy although it could be sweet news to the pharmaceuticals business. A term had been coined for those with slightly higher blood sugar level. "Prediabetes" means that if you do not cut your sugar intake, you will get diabetes in five years.

A healthier alternative would be to go sugar-free to satisfy your sweet tooth but that would not necessarily be good either. Sugar alternatives are not cheap judging from the prices of sugar-free stuff in the market these days.

So, the sweetest thing you can do for yourself is to perhaps go sugarless. After all, what could be sweeter than the taste of good health?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

10 sen a day is small price to pay

THE start of each school year is always a trying time for the Parent-Teacher Associations of most schools. For some, it can be just a headache while for others, it can escalate into a migraine. If it is the PTA of an elite school, I am told, the headache is likely be caused by too many parents fighting to sit on its committee because of the prestige that comes with it.

But for the sekolah harian, the generic majority of day schools in the city where anyone seeking education is accepted irrespective of creed, colour or education-level, the pain the PTAs face are normally of migraine proportions -- and this usually has something to do with the collection of fees.

Not only does the PTA have to figure out how to survive on limited resources, it also has the tough job of getting parents to attend the soon-to-be-held annual general meeting, and selecting new board members to replace those who are retiring.

Two years ago, when the government announced the scrapping of school fees, some parents saw red when PTA fees remained on the list of charges they had to pay at the start of the school year. One school I know had to deal with a horde of angry parents demanding explanations on why they had to pay PTA fees since the "newspapers had said that education was free".

These parents had failed to realise that what was done away with was the school fee of RM4.50 per primary pupil and RM9 per secondary school student.

The PTA fee, which varies from school to school, is decided based on the average income level of the parents. For city schools, it is between RM25 and RM50 annually, to be collected at the start of each school year. The school I know collects RM30 annually from each family regardless of how many children are enrolled in the school.

The meagre sum is collected to fund a host of things for the benefit of students and teachers. This ranges from equipping the multimedia room with a speedier Internet connection to buying attire for the school teams for competitions. A part of the funds is used as incentives for good performance to motivate students and teachers, as well as to organise talks, seminars and additional classes.

A small sum is also used to sponsor meals for students from poor families so that they can keep their minds on their books instead of on their hunger, and gain an education that will hopefully pull their families out of their financial quagmire.

All this may seem unbelievable in a city school but it is the reality of the PTA's spending.

For schools that collect RM30 in PTA fees, the amount works out to less than 10 sen a day -- a paltry sum that will not even buy you a glass of iced water in the city today. Of course, the PTA fee is not the only payment that parents have to pay at the start of each school year. I have been facing the same issue for more than a decade now. In fact, my wife has become quite the expert financial planner when it comes to dealing with this.

But what I am trying to figure out is how some parents who gripe to me about PTA fees can afford the latest cellphones, enjoy satellite television and drive luxury cars. Maybe someone can tell me why a nominal contribution to our children's education should take a backseat to our lifestyle wants?