On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Let’s not go overboard

Malaysia is a secular country and we should not let religious authorities run our country and how we should live our lives.

LET’S face it – the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) has become so powerful as the sole authority in deciding whether any product is regarded as halal that no manufacturers would dare to go against this religious body.

The fact is that the country’s Muslim population has increased and Muslim consumers prefer religiously safe and clean products, properly certified by Jakim.

It is a lucrative market and manufacturers want the halal label to ensure that their products are accepted by Muslim consumers.

The wait for the Jakim approval takes up to six months, if the manufacturers are lucky as it can be longer if there are questions raised. Surprise location checks are included as well.

There are also overseas visits to inspect how foreign suppliers transport ingredients to ensure the logistic process itself complies with the halal standard.

Even mineral water suppliers want the Jakim logo. If it’s water straight from the pipe, it’s straight forward but if the manufacturers claim that their product is mineral water, then Jakim will insist on knowing for sure there is no animal bone matter involved in the process of extraction.

Jakim, in previous interviews, has said they were short-handed and stood up against allegations that they were a money-making machine.

There have been too many stories hurled against them but to be fair, they remain hearsay and accusations.

The reality is that winning over pious Muslim consumers in the global market is estimated to be worth US$2.3tril (RM10tril) a year.

It has been reported that Malaysia’s halal exports are expected to grow over 19% to RM50bil this year from RM42bil in 2015, leveraging on intensive promotions from industry stakeholders.

Malaysian Investment Development Authority (Mida) chief executive officer Datuk Azman Mahmud said the halal industry was fast becoming an important source of revenue and growth as attracting foreign direct investment in the halal business (products and services) would help increase exports.

The global halal foods market alone was estimated at US$693bil (RM3.1tril) while Malaysia’s annual demand for halal foods was valued at RM1.7bil, he said, adding that in the food manufacturing industry, mostly halal food production, more than 1,437 projects worth RM29.3bil had been implemented, creating 99,000 jobs.

In Indonesia, many other items are reportedly touted as halal, like computer mouse, headscarves and even shirt buttons.

There is even halal cat food over there as Muslim owners want their furry friends to follow the same dietary restrictions as they do.

An Indonesian paint manufacturer, Bernahal Paint, is advertising that its wall paint is halal, claiming its material is lard free.

The Indonesian counterpart of Jakim is the Indonesian Ulema Council Food and Drugs Supervisory Agency while in Singapore, the Islamic Religious Council (Muis).

But Muslims are now asking if businesses are commercialising religion and halal matters by promoting what Muslims should use and consume.

Is the line being pushed too far? Even Jakim expressed surprise when a manufacturer of middle-eastern dates asked for a halal certification – I mean dates are dates, and they are a fruit after all.

In an interview with the Straits Times in Singapore, Perlis mufti Datuk Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin was quoted as saying that “Muslims are required to eat halal but the problem is when people practise religion beyond the nature of Islam itself.

“Traders are commercialising religion and halal by promoting what Muslims should use and consume,” he added.

In a press report, such commercial uses of the label have spurred a group of auditors, including Muslim Singaporeans, to form a new association to help governments certify manufacturers using halal guidelines and standard practices.

One of the initiators, Imran Musa, reportedly said they aimed to quash “halal extremism” and set the record straight on what is “genuinely halal and good.”

“Having unnecessarily stricter rules towards halal will lead to halal extremism,” he asked, saying “who would have thought of halal paint and halal tudung?”

“Halal extremism is slowly creeping in as some clerics impart their own judgment, hence making halal more stringent.”

The reality is that currently, halal certification has no universally accepted standard, with different countries imposing varying interpretations of the Islamic rules for what is permissible.

In Malaysia, with our multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural make up, many non-Muslims are saying that the push for halal requirements is going too far.

Many referred to reports of the proposal to have different trolleys in supermarkets for Muslim and non-Muslim shoppers, for example.

Then, there is the much publicised controversy over Jakim’s insistence that the word “Pretzel dog” be scrapped as it would give the impression to Muslims that “hot dog” contains dog meat.

Pretzel store franchise Auntie Anne caved in, despite a public outcry, and it humbly changed its “Pretzel Dog” to “Pretzel Sausage” in order to receive the prized halal certification.

And now, fast food giant McDonald’s has found itself in the news when its directive to stop non-halal birthday cakes from being brought into their outlets emerged.

McDonald’s, as a business entity, is entitled to carry out its own policies. It issued an apology to customers for the mis­under­standing but at the same time, it noted that such a policy was also practised in Singapore.

To be fair, some cakes do contain liquor including some servings of the ever-popular tiramisu cake. Many Malaysians may not realise it but most ice cream outlets in the country no longer offer the liquor-laced rum and raisin flavour.

But there is an issue here over Jakim’s authority, given that it is a halal-certification authority. So, does it not mean its authority is confined to only food served at F&B outlets but not the premises itself?

If this continues, it will open the floodgates for more areas, like public transportation vehicles, cinemas, entertainment outlets and schools, to be classified along halal and non-halal lines.

For example, when the now-defunct Rayani Air was launched, it was more concerned with selling itself as a fully syariah-compliant airline but less than four months after its launch, it was grounded for safety audit reasons. Many talked about its halal status and not about the most important aspect –its safety.

While we must be aware of the sensitivity of Muslims over dietary matters, we must be mindful that directives made should not segregate the people along religious lines, especially at a time when there is a need to enhance unity in the face of rising extremism.

As Malaysia turns 60 this year, it is time we reflect and think about the path we are taking as a nation. Whether we wish to admit it or not, Malaysia is a secular country and we should not let religious authorities run our country, including how we should live our lives.

The job of administering our country belongs to elected politicians and not clerics, of any religion and race.