Hew Wai Weng takes a look at what constitutes halal in contemporary Malaysia — a certification that today is less about faith and more about the commercialisation of Islam.    

In recent years, halal controversies on everything from meatballs to chocolates, and from hot dogs to cakes, have made headlines in Malaysia. A few months ago, it was reported that the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) had suggested that a pretzel chain, Auntie Anne’s, should rename its ‘pretzel dog’ to ‘pretzel sausage’ to get a halal certification.

According to the Jakim-issued Manual Procedure for Malaysia Halal Certification 2014, halal means more than no pork and no alcohol. One of Jakim’s many guidelines is that halal certification could be denied for food products that have in their names ‘confusing’ terms such as ‘ham’, ‘rum’, ‘beer’, ‘bacon’, ‘char siew’ and ‘bak kut teh’.

In 2014, I joined a seminar about halal certification in Kuala Lumpur. At the seminar, an ustaz (religious teacher) representing Jakim even recommended that popular Indonesian dishes such as bakmi (meat noodle) and bakso (meat ball) should be renamed in order to be certified halal, because according to him, ‘bak’ (a hokkien term) implies pork (even though it literally means meat), and therefore could be confusing to Muslim consumers. In fact, such foods have been always considered halal and consumed by many Indonesian Muslims.

Some Jakim officials have clarified that its guidelines are simply suggestions instead of strict regulations. Indeed, such guidelines are not legally binding. Nevertheless, given that Jakim is the only authorised body in Malaysia to issue halal certification, the difference between suggestions and rulings makes little difference to the many companies who seek to secure halal certification for their food products.

Many restaurant owners have no choice but to try their best to follow Jakim’s strict guidelines. For example, many halal dim sum restaurants in Malaysia have renamed a popular Cantonese dish from ‘chicken char siew’ to ‘barbequed chicken’.

Recently, McDonalds in Malaysia declared it will not allow customers to bring in their own cakes for birthday parties unless they are halal certified by Jakim. Such a policy has been adopted in order to comply with another of Jakim’s halal guidelines which requires all products consumed at its halal-certified restaurants to also secure its halal certification.

Although Jakim certification is an important reference for many Malaysian Muslims in deciding whether to visit a restaurant or not, there are exceptions. In early 2015, I visited a little Chinese restaurant in Rembau, a small township near Seremban. Although the restaurant was run by non-Muslims and was not Jakim-certified, there were a few Malays having their lunch there. A friend told me that the restaurant had been serving halal Chinese food for many years. Many local Malays trust the restaurant owner and have no problem eating there.

Over the last couple of years, as part of my fieldwork, I have visited many eating places in Bangi Central district near Kuala Lumpur that is a popular middle class Muslim hangout. Many of the cafés and restaurants in Bangi Central are run by young Muslims and do not have Jakim halal certification. One of these cafés serves Chicago beef hotdogs, bacon cheese burgers and mojito appletini (of course, halal), yet this does not hinder many Muslims from eating there.

The trust in small towns, neighbourhoods and in Muslim-owned restaurants mean many Muslim consumers have little hesitation in visiting such eating places. Yet, the scenario might be different for restaurants run by non-Muslims, especially multinational companies. It is unsurprising, therefore, that from IKEA meatballs to Cadbury’s chocolate, from Pretzel hot dogs to McDonalds cakes, many of the halal controversies in Malaysia involve multinational companies.

Many Muslims might hesitate to trust multinational companies, especially those run by non-Muslims. Hence, mediated by Jakim, halal certification plays a significant role as a mechanism for creating trust between non-Muslim businesspersons and Muslim consumers. However, over the years, Jakim has set a very high standard and strict requirements for the granting of its halal logo. By capitalising on Muslims’ doubt, Jakim imposes its opinions on Muslim consumers through its halal certification procedures. In other words, many Muslim consumers might not agree with all Jakim policies, but they have little room to challenge the official Islamic authority.

Similarly, despite discontent towards its costly, cumbersome and time-consuming processes, many non-Muslim businesspeople and multinational corporations have to apply for Jakim certification in order to gain trust from Muslim consumers. Meanwhile, many Muslim businesspeople, do not think it is a requirement for them to secure such certification because they think that as Muslims what they make is, by default, halal. In other words, lacking Jakim’s halal certification does not mean the food they serve is not halal (religiously speaking).

Hence, ironically, many young Muslim entrepreneurs are in some way excluded from the Jakim-defined halal industry due to their lack of motivation and financial capacity to apply for official halal status. Some parties such as the Muslim Consumers’ Association and cabinet minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob have urged that Muslim-owned small-to-medium enterprises with little capital to be allowed to bypass the strict requirements.

For these reasons it is important to distinguish between religiously halal and officially (Jakim-certified) halal, between a personal quest for piety and the institutionalised implementation of the so-called religious guidelines. A homemade cake prepared by Muslims (as well as by non-Muslims, in many cases) is halal even though it does not have a Jakim halal logo. Unfortunately, according to Jakim, it only recognises food products bearing its certification as officially halal.

Halal certification is an outcome of two inter-related processes – the urbanisation and modernisation of Muslim societies, as well as the bureaucratisation and commercialisation of Islam in contemporary Malaysia. Regrettably, halal certification today is less about religion and more about business. Essentially it is about how Jakim would like to exercise and consolidate its power in regulating halal businesses in Malaysia.

Under Jakim, halal is no longer an ethical choice, but a form of business marketing and religious governmentality. If such intertwined connections between state power, religious authority and business interests continue to dominate the halal industry, more halal controversies will follow.

It is important to respect Muslim consumers’ dietary choices according to their religious beliefs, yet it might be dangerous to allow only one authority to officially define what is halal in Malaysia. The key issue is not to undermine the Muslim quest for halal food, but to reclaim what constitutes halal from Jakim.

Hew Wai Weng is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.