Health minister Ong Ye Kung on changing habits and the change for MOH with Healthier SG

Singapore Health Minister Ong Ye Kung in front of plants
The Sembawang Member of Parliament also spoke about the Healthier SG reform programme. (PHOTO: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Health Minister Ong Ye Kung has revealed his most unhealthy habit in a radio interview: drinking alcohol, even on weekdays.

But he has been limiting his intake to only on weekends and even then, in moderation.

In The Big Story interview with DJs on radio station One FM 91.3 on Thursday (6 October), Ong also spoke about his "healthiest habit": doing pilates or stretching exercises every morning.

As he has had permanent back and knee injuries, the exercises help to strengthen his core and keep him "functioning every day".

"It's helped a great deal, and I didn't have to go for my operation... I chose to learn pilates to strengthen the core and so far, it's been more than 10 years," Ong said.

The Sembawang Member of Parliament also spoke about the Healthier SG reform programme, which will start with those aged 60 and above in the second half of 2023, followed by those in the 40 to 59 age group in the next two years.

After a two-day debate, Parliament on Wednesday endorsed the White Paper on the national preventive healthcare programme.

Under the programme, residents can enjoy free health screenings and nationally recommended vaccinations, use MediSave to fully pay for the treatment of chronic illnesses as well as earn "health points" on the Healthy 365 mobile app. They are also encouraged to enrol with their primary doctor.

"It's a big change for MOH. As I always say, we are called the Ministry of Health but the truth is we've been operating like the Ministry of Sickness: we run hospitals, polyclinics; we are about drugs and approving medications," said Ong.

Healthier SG marks the first time that authorities have introduced a national system to support healthier lifestyles, he added.

"When it comes to preventive care and healthy lifestyles, it's about those little things you do every day, as opposed to one big episodic encounter and you have to restore a person. It's like a car that has broken down or has gone into a big accident – it is never the same. You need to maintain it, year by year."

Health advice 'too rigid'

Ong revealed that when he first came to MOH, he found in his interaction with those at hospitals and Health Promotion Board that the advice for people to stay healthy was "a bit too austere" and did not relate much to real life.

If health advice was too rigid, it would "turn people off", said Ong, adding that people can enjoy food in moderation.

"You tell us to be healthy, you cannot eat, no sugar, no salt, everything bland, who would want to lead that kind of life in Singapore, right?...What's wrong with eating chwee kueh for breakfast, right? Even if you have that in the morning, you can go a bit lighter on the food at lunch, and at night, you can still have your alcohol, like a glass of wine."

On workplace health, Ong expressed hope that more companies would do away with needing medical certificates (MCs) for simple ailments. Singapore has a "very hard-working culture" and companies should trust that most of their employees are honest, according to Ong.

Citing the example of those who become sick with COVID-19, Ong said, "There's no need to purposely get the MC to say I got COVID. Just stay at home and that became an HR policy that many companies have adopted and I hope they continue to extend that."

Mental health days off for Singapore?

When asked whether Singapore would consider giving mental health days off, Ong said that allowing flexibility in work arrangements is more important, such as letting workers run a personal chore for an hour or two.

There are many things in life that are important such as mental health, taking care of children and elderly, enjoying vacation and having checkups, Ong added. "So if employers are a bit more flexible, I think we can manage our lives better, as opposed to going down the road of more and more leave entitlements for different purposes."

While mental health is not featured in the Healthier SG initiative, Ong said there will be more opportunities to help those in need. But mental health should not be "over medicalised" and the focus should be on long-term preventive care, he added.

"For mental health, one of the simplest, preventive action is actually not your leave. It's just sleeping enough that your brain has a chance to rest and repair itself every night and sleeping in the right hours," Ong said.

Turning to the issue of schoolchildren's well-being, Ong said he is working with Education Minister Chan Chun Sing to introduce a more informal style of health education in schools.

"For children these days, actually the intervention at a very young age has a very profound impact. Before four (years old)...It goes down to how you sleep, how you eat, how you use devices."

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