By Azrul Mohd Khalib. Published in Malay Mail Online 30 September 2016
There’s a cartoon out on the Internet right now which makes fun of the absurd lengths we (i.e. Malay Muslims) are going to demonstrate our zeal in all things halal. There are four bottles of similar colour lined up. They are labelled: tidak halal, halal biasa, halal plus and halal elit. The cheapest is the non-halal bottle while the most expensive is halal elit.

It’s a simple joke, obviously, but it underlines nicely both the fixation/ paranoia that people have with ensuring that everything is halal. It also highlights what is being done by those who are taking full advantage of this obsession: an opportunity to make money.

Because this is what is actually going on. When Rubber Industry Smallholders Development Authority (Risda) chairman Datuk Zahidi Zainul Abidin and the Malaysia International Institute of Islamic Cooperation (Ikiam) (also chaired by Datuk Zahidi. Conflict of interest, anyone?) announced a new logo to be issued by the latter to distinguish Muslim-made halal products, I have no doubt that he thought this was a rather clever idea.

After all, the global Sharia-compliant market is estimated to have a value of USD 2.3 trillion (World Halal Forum 2013). This covers food and non-food products which include pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and banking. Malaysia is a leading global halal hub for halal products and has an export value of RM 35.4 billion in that market.

By having a logo to distinguish Muslim-made food products exclusively for companies which are 100 per cent owned by this community, Zahidi probably thought that Malay businesses cornering this niche market in Muslim majority Malaysia would be a licence for them to print money.

It would be yet another identifier for the discerning consumer who wants additional assurance that the product they consume are as halal as they can be (the assumption is that if the food producers are Muslim then what they produce must be halal).

Get a free logo and you get to charge consumers a premium for the privilege of being halal and “made by Muslims”. After all, we already have chickens being serenaded with verses of the Quran (holy meat?) and halal-certified mineral water  (blessed waters?) being sold at premium prices, why should products with this label be any different?

Giving the logo out for free (without explaining how they are going to fund the inspections and stringent protocol similar to that of Jakim which he has assured he would do) would certainly be a boon for small business unable to afford the costs related to halal certification.

Now, this in itself is not wrong. After all, making yourself more exclusive and appealing to potential consumers in a market is good business strategy. You could even argue that it increases consumer choice and a premium could be charged for the privilege.

But it’s tricky to accept that when the rationale used by supporters of this logo such as Ikiam secretary Mohd Shamsuddin Damin, is based on the assumption that the mere introduction of rituals such as wuduk (ablution) to cleanse themselves and recital of prayers would result in products which are “more clean and better and higher quality”. There really is absolutely no evidence that this is so.

Besides circumventing Jakim’s stringent protocols for the conferring of the halal certification, having the Ikiam “made by Muslims” logo slapped onto products might also provide a false sense of security and misplaced feeling of entitlement. After all, the belief is that fellow Muslims must support each other, right? It seems we have learnt little from the reality and decades of providing preferential treatment based on race. Now we are moving on to religion.

When we don’t bother competing based on the quality and value for money of our products and services, and instead use the race and religion of the business owners with the intention to discriminate, stigmatise and marginalise others, the biggest losers will be the consumers themselves.

What this move really seems to imply is the unwillingness of Malay Muslim business owners to compete. To compete in a market where non-Muslim businesses are also producing halal quality products. That they instead rather rely on preferential treatment based on their race and religion to gain market share as opposed to slogging it out like everyone else. This has very little with religion and smacks more of protectionism and communalism.

Another problem is the seemingly mindless use of the halal status for things such as train services. I suppose it is comforting to someone in Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad that made history last July by being the first train service provider in the world to obtain halal certificate for its electric train services.

Will it make a difference in the quality of services it provides? I doubt it. Will it increase the public’s understanding of halal issues as claimed by Jakim’s director-general Tan Sri Datuk Othman Mustapha? People are either more confused or totally apathetic to it altogether. Was that whole thing actually a syok sendiri exercise?

That same month also brought about news that Malaysia was building the world’s first halal vaccine facility in Bandar Enstek, Nilai at an estimated cost of RM330 million and that it would be operational by early 2018.

Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia’s director of centre for science and environment studies, Dr. Shaikh Mohd Saifuddeen and Ahmad Badri Abdullah from the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies both claimed that there was mistrust of so-called conventional vaccines for fear that they contained non-halal substances.

That this mistrust was apparently contributing to the rejection of immunisations by Muslims in Malaysia and that there is a need for vaccines utilising halal compounds.

Except that Dr. Shaikh stated that it would take about 15 years to develop a halal vaccine and that it would cost at least three times more than existing non-halal versions. He also couldn’t explain how halal vaccines would be different from conventional ones that are already available in the market. Ministry of Health representative, Dr Faridah Abu Bakar, even stated that she wasn’t even aware of how the operator of the facility was going about creating halal vaccines.

Does anything in the above paragraph make sense? Why would we spend 15 years developing lifesaving vaccines which would cost three times more than what is already available on the market today? Why is RM 330 million being spent to build a facility for a production that has yet to be figured out?

Indeed, all of this in the name of halal. Just another way to make money.

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