Tee, President of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, at the official opening of the 9th Asia Pacific Conference on Clinical Nutrition in January 2015.
In addition to being a newly minted author, Dr Tee has a distinguished track record in championing better nutrition for Malaysians of all ages. Naturally, we took advantage of our conversation to find out more about him.
HT: Dr Tee, please share with us a little about yourself. How did you become involved in the field of nutrition? What were your main areas of work?
TES: I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from University of Malaya in 1972. I joined the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) later that year as a nutritionist. I then went on to do a master’s degree and a PhD. I did my doctorate on a part-time basis, while I was working in the IMR.
Most graduates with a biochemistry degree work as a biochemist in a hospital. I thought I would do something different and applied for a nutritionist post in the IMR. In the 1970s, nutrition was not such a “hot” field like it is in recent years. In fact, no local universities offered a degree in nutrition at that time. The IMR is like the research arm of the Ministry of Health Malaysia. The Nutrition Division’s main role is to identify major nutritional problems afflicting the community, who the most affected are, where the main locations of the problems are, and determine the causes. This information is used by the Ministry of Health and other government agencies to formulate intervention programmes in overcoming these problems.
During my years in the IMR, I worked on several research projects related to food and nutrition, in line with the role of the Nutrition Division of the IMR. My main areas were in community nutrition research. The Nutrition Division became well-known for a series of community nutrition studies throughout the country, enriching our knowledge on the nutritional status of communities.
I also started a systematic programme to establish a database on the nutrient composition of foods available in the market beginning in the 1980s. Throughout those years, I have published several versions of the Nutrient Composition of Malaysian Foods. Up to today, the version that I last published in 1997 is still in use by nutritionists, dietitians and health workers for dietary advice and conducting studies on nutritional adequacy of the communities.
I stayed on for 30 years in the IMR; my last position in the Institute was Head of the Cardiovascular, Diabetes and Nutrition Research Centre. In this span of 3 decades, I have witnessed the rapid increase of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the country, with the main problems being obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancers.
HT: Clearly, nutrition is a topic you are passionate about. What drives you and keeps you going?
TES: As I went on further in my career as a nutritionist, I became more and more interested in nutrition work. It affects real life, daily life. And we were doing something that could help the community overcome various nutrition problems. And when I became involved in the activities of the NSM, I became even more passionate about nutrition work and how it could help the population in preventing various diet-related diseases.
I have become so involved in nutrition work! Even after my retirement from IMR in 2002, I continued to be actively involved in such activities, mostly through NSM. I truly believe that inculcating healthy eating habits is the key towards reducing diseases and prolonging life. And that we need to disseminate this message to the public.
HT: Dr Tee, who inspires you in your field? Do you have any “nutrition heroes”?
TES: The inspiration really comes from the love for the subject, from the knowledge that some of the activities that we do can benefit the people and help them to reduce the risk of various diseases. The drive to do more comes from observing the huge number of people who are afflicted by these chronic NCDs. The obesity problem does not seem to be declining or even stabilizing. Children are also affected in large numbers. Diabetes affects a large proportion of the people. More needs to be done to alleviate these problems.
There are many internationally renowned nutritionists who have contributed greatly to the development of nutrition science and public health nutrition. One person I would single out is the late Prof Dr Nevin Scrimshaw who passed away at the ripe age of 95. He devoted his 7-decade career to the alleviation of hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. He has been a mentor to many nutritionists from all corners of the world, including me and other Malaysians. I regard him as a nutrition icon.
I often feel that what I have done through IMR and NSM is still so insignificant, compared to these giants in global nutrition. I often wish I could contribute more to nutrition in the country and the region.
The President of NSM
Dr Tee has held the position of President in NSM for the last 19 years. What is NSM all about? Let’s hear from the man who knows the Society in and out.
HT: You are currently the President of Nutrition Society of Malaysia, having held the position for an impressive period of time. Can you share with us the history of your involvement in NSM?
TES: In the early days, the IMR was the focus of nutrition research and activities in the country. Hence, a small core group of us, under the leadership of the late Dr Chong Yoon Hin, discussed the formation of a nutrition society in the country. A pro-tem committee was established in 1984 with Dr Chong as the pro-tem President and I was the Honorary Secretary. The Nutrition Society of Malaysia was formally registered with the Registrar of Societies in 1985. In the first formal election, Dr Chong was elected President and I took on the post of Hon. Secretary. In 1996, I formally took over as President of NSM, a post I still hold to date.
Yes, it has been a considerably long time, almost 20 years! If there is a person who is keen and able to take over and bring the NSM to greater heights, I will be happy to pass on the baton. Until that day, I feel I can still contribute to the activities of the NSM. There is still a great deal that the NSM can do for the profession and for the population.
HT: Why do you think we need a society such as NSM today? What roles does NSM hold in our society?
TES: Many of the diseases afflicting the population are diet related. This could be due to lack of certain nutrients or excesses of other nutrients. Nutrition is therefore a key cause of many diseases. Promoting healthy eating becomes an important strategy of the government, especially the Ministry of Health Malaysia.
I believe the NSM can contribute towards the government's efforts in preventing nutritional diseases. The NSM has participated in the preparation of the first National Plan of Action for Nutrition (NPAN) of Malaysia, as well as in the 2nd NPAN (2006-2015). We are now participating in the review of NPAN III, for 2016-2020.
On top of that, the NSM has been carrying out various activities to complement and strengthen government's activities to promote healthy eating and active living amongst the community. The NSM will continue to work with government agencies and indeed, all stakeholders in these activities. This includes collaborating with the private sector, especially the food industry in implementing intervention programmes.
Indeed, all international governmental organizations such as World Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation call on all stakeholders to work together in eradicating nutrient deficiencies and reduce risk to non-communicable diseases.
HT: Can you share with us some of the NSM activities that you are most proud of?
TES: The NSM has two main objectives:
- Promoting and advancing nutrition science
- Promote nutritional wellbeing of the population.
I am proud to say that the NSM has done its very best to carry out these activities to meet these objectives. And I am proud to say we have made significant achievements in both of these areas. NSM is now a recognized name within the nutrition fraternity in the region and the world. We participate in international scientific meetings and organize such conferences and seminars; we have a peer-reviewed journal that is recognized in the world.
As for the promotion of community nutrition, we have carried out numerous activities. These include the publication of numerous educational materials for the community at www.nutriweb.org.my. We are proud to have published 2 cookbook series to provide the people with actual healthier ways to prepare meals. A 3rd series, Junior Chef Cookbook, focuses on encouraging children to be involved in meal preparation so that they can eat healthier. The first volume, Let’s Play Healthy Cooking was launched on June 2, during the 30th Scientific Conference of the NSM.
That aside, we have also carried out numerous intervention programmes for specific groups as well as for the community in general. The focus has been on children and women, and recent programmes include Healthy Kids Programme, MyNutriChild and Positive Parenting Programme. Focus has also been given to mothers and women of reproductive age. The MI-Care and Bright Start-4-Life programmes are the current programmes that focus on the care of pregnant and lactating women as well as breastfeeding for newborns.
In addition to the above-mentioned groups, NSM regularly carries out community nutrition outreach programmes for the public. The largest of such programmes has been the nation-wide Nutrition Month Malaysia (NMM), initiated 13 years ago, in 2002. It aims to increase awareness of Malaysians towards the importance of healthy nutrition and active living through a variety of communication activities and approaches. You can visit www.nutritionmonthmalaysia.org.my for more information.
I find NMM particularly rewarding as it is a large programme that reaches out to all Malaysians through the partnership between three professional bodies, namely NSM, Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity and the Malaysian Dietitian’s Association and several corporate companies. It also ropes in a communication specialist company to help us implement the activities. It is through such strategic partnership that we are able to do what each one of us is not able to achieve individually.
Indeed, in most of the specific target groups I mentioned above, they have been implemented in partnership with other professional health societies.
We can proudly say that these educational materials and activities have contributed significantly towards empowering the Malaysian public with appropriate nutrition knowledge. I believe the NSM has enriched the nutrition scene in our country.
Malaysian Diet: The Plain Truth by Dr Tee E Siong is available in major bookstores as well as at www.umpress.com.my.