The halal system in Malaysia may not be broken, but it still needs repairs.
That is the feeling among some civil society groups as they outline ways for Malaysia to navigate its way out of a scandal involving a so-called “cartel” accused of bribing government officials and supplying uncertified and adulterated imported halal meat. The affair that has rocked public faith in the country’s institutions has roiled Malaysia since it was detailed in a newspaper report on December 21.
Nidzam Johan, lead activist of the Malaysia Muslim Consumers Association, believes this cartel’s activities can be traced back to 1981, when a frozen meat company was charged in a Petaling Jaya Court for labelling kangaroo tail as halal meat.
“I would say the cartel is a manifestation of failures in a lot of areas. It started with the failure of humans in the beginning before moving on to widespread system failure,” he told Salaam Gateway.
Nidzam said he and the association’s staff and members are privy to information that shows syndicates and cartels are “at a level where they can influence policymakers”.
"I was shocked with the various reports from various agencies with the kind of activities that these agencies do working together hand-in-hand. This is something that we are now gathering. We will call for a press conference to highlight the challenges that we going through,” he said.
To prevent a scandal of this magnitude from happening again, Nidzam says an all-encompassing Halal Act, which has been debated for the last two decades but never resolved, should finally be enacted to bring all aspects of halal legislation under one law.
There is no single halal law in Malaysia; rather, all the various halal laws are scattered across a wide range of Acts. This requires patience and cooperation between government departments to monitor and enforce laws, though the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia, the bureaucracy known as JAKIM, tracks the lion’s share of these.
As a result, in the case of the fake halal meat imports scandal, JAKIM, the Royal Malaysian Customs Department, MAQIS, the Department of Quarantine and Inspection Services Malaysia, the Department of Veterinarian Services each have their own responsibilities within the system.
It doesn’t end there. According to Dr Sirajuddin Suhaimee, director of JAKIM’s research division, 300 agencies were involved in the process of acquiring and verifying halal certification.
“If I were ‘Minister of Halal’, I couldn’t implement a law, because I would have to rely on other ministers to carry out areas of their own responsibility. There are many issues and many laws governing halal are not clear,” said Nidzam.
CRITICISM OF JAKIM
JAKIM, in particular, has been singled out for criticism during this affair, and there have been calls for the giant department to be restructured.
On December 29, the Malay Consultative Council, a body of grandees set up to defend Islam and Malay rights, called for the department to face action for its “negligence” and for its top brass to be reshuffled.
The council’s chairman, Hanif Omar, a former inspector-general of police, told a press conference that the scandal had been caused by “delivery system failure and a questionable halal certification issuance process”, among other factors.
Dr Helmi Ibrahim, secretary-general of the Halal Economic Council and Entrepreneurship of the Malaysian Ummah, a civil society group, believes that JAKIM’s halal division should be split off from the rest of the Islamic affairs department.
He pointed Salaam Gateway to remarks he made recently in the daily Sinar Harian, in which he called for a new system to be developed under a National Halal Policy to be the “source of all powers and references on issues related to Islam, including halal issues”.
“We know that JAKIM is a religious enforcement agency, so it should be separated,” he said.
“We have to understand that the halal issue not only covers food products but the entire halal ecosystem. If we have an education policy and a national language policy, why shouldn’t we have a halal policy when it is the basic thing in our faith? It would be the source of all powers and references on issues related to Islam, including halal issues.”
JAKIM REACH LIMITED
Nevertheless, JAKIM still has its defenders, who stress that it does not have the purview to weed out corruption in cases such as the current meat scandal.
“JAKIM is only one of the bodies involved in the system, and it is only part of the auditing process. To enforce and stop this meat from entering the country, JAKIM is not involved,” said Mohd Amri Abdullah, better known as Ustaz Amri Halal.
The halal researcher at the University of Malaya Halal Research Centre has been involved in the halal industry for 17 years and was part of the group that drew up the Trade Description Act that defines the use of the term halal. He doesn’t believe the system needs changing nor that a putative Halal Act should be a priority, even though it would be agreeable.
“We’ve been talking about a Halal Act for a long time, but it’s not easy to develop and implement something like that because it would contradict the federal constitution. Which ministry should enforce it, since JAKIM is not an enforcement agency? That is the main issue,” he told Salaam Gateway.
“Only if we set up the new agencies like a Department of Halal or a Halal Commission could it be possible to develop the Halal Act. That is why I see that the Trade Description Act now, under the Ministry of Trade, is enough to enforce any halal matters.”
Indeed, the first two people to be arrested in connection with the current scandal were charged under this Act, though four others arrested on Monday (Jan 4) were remanded under the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s own code, and the nature of the charges they face, if any, is yet to be seen.
Notwithstanding the practicalities of developing a Halal Act, Ustaz Amri admits that it would be “marvellous” if all the respective legislation could be put in one place, if that were ever possible.
Instead, he believes that the agencies involved have a duty to police their own staff, with religious officers to “safeguard their souls and remind that this is their responsibility to follow the law”.
“We should explain to them that this is jihad for Islam, and the iman of each enforcer should know that this is a responsibility to Allah SWT. The law is there, the regulations are there. Now we have to make them aware regarding their rizq and baraqah.
“I'm not saying that they all take rasuah and all that. I'm just suggesting this to ensure that the enforcement officer should be aware of their responsibility to Allah SWT,” he added.
BRING ON BLOCKCHAIN FOR TRACEABILITY
Both Nidzam Johan and Ustaz Amri Abdullah agree that blockchain would provide a viable solution for bringing more traceability to the halal supply chain, both in terms of assurance and ease of implementation.
“We are ready for blockchain to bring more traceability to the halal supply chain. It can be used to prevent any uncertainty about where a product has come from, and it makes it easy for anyone to see if is really halal,” said Ustaz Amri.
The technology behind bitcoin, which is able to leave an immutable record of each step of the passage of a product from farm to fork, is not new to the food industry. Swiss multinational Nestlé has been trialing a programme to improve supply chain transparency through blockchain.
The scheme, which began in 2017, began by tracing milk from farms and producers in New Zealand to Nestlé factories and warehouses in the Middle East and last year was expanded to follow arabica coffee beans certified by Rainforest Alliance from sources in Brazil, Rwanda and Colombia. Through blockchain-recorded data, consumers are able to trace their coffee back to the different origins.
“We are discussing ways that the whole chain to be controlled and properly monitored with the latest technology, so the chain cannot be broken. It would allow complete transparency right from the start until the product is here in Malaysia. Consumers can even check a QR code before they eat to see their meat's progress through its halal journey,” said Nidzam.
(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim [email protected])
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