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The alcohol problem in Malaysia

Mary Asunta with Mr Idris, President Penang Consumer Association and Mr Hamid, President of TERAS

I. Country profile

Malaysia has a population of 22 million with about 55 per cent of the population being urban and 45 per cent rural. The Malaysian society is multi-ethnic comprising of Malays (55 per cent), Chinese (32 per cent), Indians (8 per cent) and several other indigenous populations. GNP per capita is US$3500 and GDP US$85b. The average distribution of labour force by sector is agriculture – 26 per cent, industry – 28 per cent and services 46 per cent. The adult literacy rate is total 80 per cent: male – 89 per cent and female – 72 per cent. Public expenditure on health is 1.3 per cent of the GDP.

There are two main breweries, which are located in or near the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. Guinness Anchor Berhad is a joint venture between Guinness and Asia Pacific Breweries of Singapore, itself a joint venture with Heineken and a local soft drinks company. Carlsberg controls the largest shares of Carlsberg Brewery Malaysia Berhad.

We have an active local spirits industry which produces approximately US$43.4 million (RM180million) worth of samsu, the generic name for cheap spirits, per year. These drinks average 38 per cent alcohol and are widely available illegally from outlets such as sundry shops and private residences. The smallest bottle of samsu costs as little as US$0.36 (RM1.50).

Alcohol consumption and prevalence

Malaysia, though a small country, is the tenth largest consumer of alcohol in the world. Each year Malaysians spend over US$500million on alcohol. Whilst the per capita consumption is 7 litres, those who do drink alcohol consume heavily. Among the drinking population, the Malaysian Indians who make up about 8 per cent of the population are by far the heaviest drinkers with an annual consumption of absolute alcohol exceeding 14 litres. Beer consumption in Malaysia at 11 litres per capita is comparable to that of European countries known for their high consumption. The easy availability of alcoholic drinks in coffee shops, supermarkets, sundry shops and plantations together with aggressive advertising and promotions are driving Malaysians to drink. The average age for alcohol dependence is 22 years.

II. Alcohol advertising and marketing

With the saturation of the American and European markets alcohol companies are looking towards Asia and other developing countries not just to expand their markets but also to set up production facilities. Carlsberg AS of Denmark, the biggest brewer in the world, has its largest market in Asia. It views Malaysia as a "very important and attractive market". It has invested about US$20million to expand production by 25 per cent to 125 million litres a year to cater for growing demands and exports. It has about 65 per cent of the market share.

This year Carlsberg spent about US$2million (RM7million) on just one advertising campaign to relaunch its Carlsberg brand to "draw in the younger generation of drinkers". For the launch, advertisements in the newspapers were placed to be redeemed for free tickets to a preview of the new commercial and a special screening of the movie "Rush Hour 2." For the post-launch Carlsberg organised contests every week for one month with prizes worth RM10, 000 to be won per week, attracting over 9,000 entries.

Restrictions on alcohol advertising

Direct alcohol advertising is not allowed over the broadcast media and on billboards, except in the state of Sabah in East Malaysia. Alcohol advertising is permitted in cinemas, on video cassettes and the print media. Sponsorship activities are allowed. Below are provided some tactics used by the alcohol industry to market to Malaysians.

  1. Targeting Malaysia's Poor Indian drinkers

    1. The 1980s Guinness campaign, "Guinness Stout is good for you" has been a successful campaign in capturing the poorer working class. This drink is promoted as a drink that "will put back what the day takes out" and is appealing to the poor because it contains more alcohol than beer for the same price.

    1. Deepavali – Religious occasions such as the Hindu festival of lights is not spared in the advertising campaign. Here the Malaysian Indians, traditionally poorer and the heavy drinkers in Malaysian society are targeted.

    1. Carlsberg's "Long Cool Dane" campaign primarily targeted drinkers in the rural areas.

  2. Making health claims – dangerous lies

    1. Some advertisements are nothing short of dangerous in their misleading claims. While it is illegal to make health claims in some countries, in Malaysia alcoholic drinks such Yomeishu which contain 14 percent alcohol, and DOM Benedictine which contain 40 percent alcohol claim health giving and medicinal properties. DOM Benedictine is promoted as a health restorative particularly targeted at mothers who have just given birth. It claims it is "simply full of goodness" and helps give you a greater resistance to colds and indigestion."

    1. Guinness Stout advertisement implies it is good for male fertility.

  3. Targeting native drinkers

    The native peoples of Sabah and Sarawak celebrate the local rice harvest festival called Gawai. Anchor advertises its alcoholic drinks to be drunk as part of this celebration.

  4. Sponsoring activities

    1. Guinness Anchor beer company has often targeted the poorer Malaysia Indian community with its sponsorship activities. The company would regularly bring in film stars and celebrities from India to appeal to the Malaysian Indian cinema buffs and organise on the road variety shows in a number of major cities and towns. The company has also tried to ingratiate itself with the Indian community by sponsoring variety shows in cooperation with social organisations such as the Malaysian Indian Graduates Association to raise funds for scholarships for poor Indian students.

    1. Carlsberg aimed at getting youngsters to be Information Technology literate by pledging to give 10 cents for every crown cork or can-ring from small bottles or cans. The real intention of this is of course to increase consumption in the name of charity.

Alcohol advertising in the future

Alcohol companies have already started sponsoring music and sports. Were there to be a ban on alcohol advertising in the future, the alcohol companies would undoubtedly take the same route as the tobacco companies - indirect advertising or brand stretching. This is an unhealthy move.

III. Designer alcoholic drinks

More teenagers in Malaysia are starting to drink alcoholic beverages at an earlier age. 45 per cent of Malaysian youths under 18 consume alcohol regularly. Of all the legal and illegal drugs, alcohol is by far the most widely used by teenagers, and according to a national survey many are regularly drinking to excess.

A few years ago new designer alcoholic drinks specially targeting teenagers entered the Malaysian market. These are alcoholic lemonades and sodas with 4-5 per cent alcohol, commonly referred to as alcopops. They went by brand names such as Hooch, Stinger, DNA and Lemonhead and the bottles were colourful with cartoon characters, which clearly indicated they were designed specially to appeal to young people. They were initially sold in nightspots and soon made their way to supermarkets and sold just like soft drinks. In the United Kingdom alcopops have been in the centre of controversies and studies show that they contribute to an increase in underage drinking.

IV.Problems associated with alcohol

1. Alcohol creates poverty

In Malaysia, the biggest victims of alcohol are the poor, particularly the rural Indian labourers who work in rubber and oil palm estates. Here alcohol is a major cause of poverty. They drink samsu, (a locally distilled potent spirit) and toddy (which was introduced by the British during colonial times) Of the estimated 200,000 drinkers, 75 per cent are samsu drinkers.

The rural Indians in Malaysia look upon samsu as a scourge besieging the community, which has been worsening over the decades. They spend about US$5.5million (RM20million) a year on samsu. These drinks are packaged in small bottles of between 140-175ml and sold for as little as US$0.40–$0.80 (RM1.50 – 3.00) At such incredibly low prices, it is obvious that these potent drinks are packaged specially to appeal to the poor. A regular drinker can down six bottles a day, which works out to RM9.00 (US$2.50) or about three-quarters of his daily pay. In a month he can spend about RM300 (US$80) on samsu which is about how much he earns.

According to a survey conducted by the Consumers Association of Penang, there are over 150 brands of samsu available in the market. The brands are wide ranging from western images such as Apollo, 007 and Father Christmas, and that of Indian historical heroes such as Sivaji, Veera Pandian, and Asoka to animals such as cat, snake, peacock and lion and even Hollywood's King Kong. These are very potent drinks and the strength ranges between 37-70 per cent proof.

The labels on these samsu bottles make all kinds of outrageous claims including that it is good for health, it can cure rheumatism, body aches, low blood pressure, and indigestion. Labels also claim it is good for the elderly, painful joints, those with poor appetite and for mothers who are lactating. It is not surprising that with such claims even the women have started to consume alcohol. These drinks are sold mainly in sundry shops, without liquor licence, and used various gimmicks and sales tactics to encourage samsu drinking.

2.Road accidents

The Road Safety Council estimates that 30 per cent of road accidents nation-wide are caused by drinking and driving. Drivers have 24 hours within which to report a crash, causing a likely under-reporting of drunk driving crashes.

3. Domestic problems

According to the Women's Aid Organisation, a local NGO, ethnic Chinese and Indian respondents listed "influence of alcohol" as the leading reason for wife battery, while across all ethnic groups "influence of alcohol" ranked second.

The samsu menace ruins families and contributes to the breakdown of the basic social fabric of society. Often it is the women who bear the brunt of this problem – wife battery, discord in the home, abused and deprived children, non-working or chronically ill husbands who become a burden to both the family and society. Besides loss in family income, the burden on the family is worsened when the drinker falls ill, can't work and needs medical treatment.


  1. Selling and serving alcoholic beverages

    Retailers are required to obtain a licence to sell and serve alcoholic beverages. However a licence is not required to sell beer in bottles and cans. Most coffee shops, however, will sell beer and routinely provide a bottle opener so that the beer can be consumed at the premises. This is illegal, as a Beer House Licence is required to serve beer on the premises.

  2. Illegal sales
    There are numerous houses and sundry shops selling liquor without a licence. 90 per cent of samsu is sold illegally in Malaysia. This is an offence under Section 32(1) and 33(1) of the 1976 Excise Act, which also states that the licence issued must specify the precise place where the sale is allowed. A licensing board which is established by the state rarely turns down applications. Industry sources estimate that there are about 35,000 licensed outlets nation-wide.

  3. Drinking and driving
    The legal limit for drinking is 80 mg of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood. If caught driving while over the legal limit the penalty is a RM2000 (US$800) fine or a maximum of six months jail sentence or both for the first offence along with loss of licence.

VI. Taxes

Taxes are a flat rate and do not rise with inflation. In addition to duties and excise tax, the government levies a sales tax of 20 per cent. Alcohol taxes are often regarded as "sin" tax and the alcohol industry often lobbies to keep taxes low. All in all the government collects in total (import duties, excise duties and sales tax) about RM1billion in taxes from alcohol per annum.

VII. CAP's initiatives to fight alcohol

CAP has been campaigning against alcohol since 1988 and our initiative has been nation-wide. We have taken a multi-prong approach to addressing the problem.

  1. We have been monitoring the alcohol industry and lobbying the government for tighter legislation such as a total ban on alcohol advertisements and promotions in all the media, limiting licences and sales outlets and increasing taxes. We succeeded in getting a ban on liquor packaged and sold in small plastic sachets

  2. We have also produced educational materials such as booklets, posters and pamphlets for mass distribution and conduct educational programmes and workshops among various groups such as rural workers.

  3. We have organised and mobilised women in the plantation sector to take on the samsu problem themselves called "Women Against Alcohol". They report those who sell liquor illegally to the Customs officers, organising rallies in the estates and holding workshops for women, youth and children and basically appealing to the men to give up drinking samsu.

  4. Utilising the media – we have issued regular press statements and feature reports in the press to create a debate for alcohol control. We have also protested against the various sponsorship and promotional activities of the alcohol industry.

VII. Conclusion and recommendations

The alcohol problem besetting Malaysia's rural population should be seen in the light of a poverty problem rather treated in isolation. The government, as a whole and not just the Ministry of Health, needs to have a clear policy on alcohol. Measures taken should be multi-sectoral and geared for long-term goals such as decreasing consumption. Alcoholic beverages should be treated as a highly regulated product.


  • Ban all forms of advertising, (direct and indirect), sponsorship and promotional activities of the alcohol companies including contests, redemption schemes, sponsorship sports and variety shows and special offers at happy hours. Ban the use of women to promote alcohol directly to customers in restaurants, bars and lounges.

  • Introduce a licensing system that limits the number and locations for sale, time of availability, and the size.

  • Ban the sale of liquor in small sizes such as 145ml.There should be a limit on the size of bottles and limit drinking hours.

  • Alcohol taxes should be further increased. There should be a separate dedicated tax on alcohol, which can be channelled to alcohol control activities.

  • Duty free status of alcohol sold at airports, in duty free shops, and on board the national carrier should be eliminated. Tax exemptions for alcohol advertising and marketing as a cost of doing business should be eliminated.

  • Step up the enforcement of the law to curb illegal sales of liquor, especially in sundry shops and homes. Enforce the Beer House Licence on coffee shops to curb serving of beer without a licence.

  • Alcohol control activities should be seen as the responsibility of local government, the health sector, and the local community. Address the underlying problems that drive people to drink such as poverty, inadequate living, and working conditions.

  • Develop alcohol rehabilitation programmes nation-wide, particularly in rural areas to include hospital-based care as well as residential and non-residential care and after-care.