Let them eat (halal) cake!

JANUARY 8  — The only times I go to McDonald’s are for completely unhealthy reasons like grabbing supper on particularly hungry late nights or for a quick meal in between assignments.

I have to admit I have a soft spot (somewhere in my tummy, obviously) for their sundaes, Prosperity Burger and the elusive McRibs, which is made of chicken here. (But chickens do not have ribs that huge so what are they but why are they tasty though?)

Therefore, I have to admit that it is baffling that somebody would want to celebrate their birthday in McDonald’s, much like how I am weirded out by students who do their group study or couples who go on dates there. It is a sign that I am either too old, or not old enough.

But I can sympathise with those who do. McDonald’s is certainly not that cheap by Malaysian standards (nor does it have a good price-to-deliciousness ratio), but it is perhaps one of the few places that is welcoming to all. I have to confess that I do not see many birthday celebrations in mamak shops.

So, when it was revealed that the fast food chain only allows halal-certified birthday cakes, understandably it raised quite a few eyebrows. And just like McDonald’s itself, the policy seems absurd, but understandable.

The latest McDonald’s kerfuffle about halal-certified cakes is really about business and not religion. – Picture by Mohd Yusof Mat Isa
The latest McDonald’s kerfuffle about halal-certified cakes is really about business and not religion. – Picture by Mohd Yusof Mat Isa

Is there any fast food chain as maligned by the Malay-Muslim majority as McDonald’s? Despite being managed by a true blue Malaysian company (Golden Arches Restaurants Sdn Bhd), and its franchise in the country held by Saudi Arabia’s Lionhorn Pte Ltd since last month, no other fast food chain has been a worse target of smear campaigns and slander as the brand.

In August 2014, I had the chance to speak with the top people in Golden Arches amid perhaps the most intense — but ultimately misguided — campaign to protest and boycott the chain here following Israel’s renewed attacks against Palestine.

According to them, there were at least 50 demonstrations against their outlets, while their crew members were verbally abused and its outlets nationwide vandalised, causing employees to lodge nearly 30 police reports.

I remember dropping by an outlet in Shah Alam — yes, for that quick meal late night after covering an event — and the outlet was so empty that they actually served me at the table like I was in a fancy restaurant, minus the silver cutlery.

It took less than a year for Malaysians to continue frequenting McDonald’s again, and the hurt that was caused to 12,000 staff — 95 per cent of them locals — was quickly forgotten and ignored, with none of the Muslim groups calling for the boycott ever apologising to their fellow citizens for endangering not only their livelihood, but their lives too.

Year in year out, some malicious Malay-Muslims — deluded that they are doing good — would spread slander over the chain’s halal status, among others claiming the use of lard in its products. Just last June, a woman wrote a letter of apology after McDonald’s confronted her for her lies against its Quarter Pounder burger.

It is therefore understandable why McDonald’s would want to impose a halal-only cake policy, which it said was needed to comply with federal Islamic authority Jakim, the sole authority for halal certification in the country.

With the scorn that they already receive from some in the Malay-Muslim community, its business would be severely impacted the moment it loses its halal certification.

This kerfuffle is about business, and it will always be about business. The policy has little to do with Islam and Muslims, and the more the media digs into the topic, the more inconsistencies have cropped up.

Despite McDonald’s claim that the policy was a result of a Jakim requirement, Jakim itself has admitted that it did not directly issue the policy, merely praising McDonald’s for the requirement after the announcement.

Does McDonald’s really need to ban cakes with no halal certification in order to keep its halal status? If that is so, how come its branches in Sarawak do not carry out the same policy? Not only that, but it was able to reverse the policy following complaints there. Should its Sarawak branches not worry about their halal status too?

And how come other fast food and family restaurant chains do not have to worry about such a thing? Do they not have to worry about their halal status?

The answer lies in Jakim’s explanation, that under Section 5(5)(v) of its Manual Procedure for Malaysia Halal Certification (Third Revision) 2014: “Non-halal food/beverages are not allowed to be brought into the premise compound.”

McDonald’s could have just relied on its “no outside food” rule. Or made the hard decision of banning “non-halal” cakes (whatever that might be). But instead, the chain fell back on an easy way out by just banning cakes with no Jakim halal certification, thus excluding any other halal cakes — which would make up the most cakes anyway, with their flour, eggs and sugar. It is no wonder that home bakers were fuming over the decision.

By making that decision, McDonald’s had indirectly, but inevitably and irresponsibly perpetuated an irrational and unreasonable requirement by Jakim, further enabling the authority with its other excessive demands as well.

The same goes for other fast food and restaurant chains too, whom we must hold as complicit due to their silent submission. The food industry, especially among major and professional chains, should have been stringent, as much as a closed internal loop as possible. How a “non-halal cake” could have “contaminated” their halal food would be a stretch of imagination.

And yet, the chains stayed aloof, even when they should be stakeholders in the halal industry. All for the sake of Jakim’s halal certification. All to ensure their business continues. All is okay, as long as they are making money.

But in the end, threatening to boycott McDonald’s over this policy is pointless. For it is a hostage to the system, albeit one with a Stockholm syndrome. Because it is not the root cause: Jakim is.

McDonald’s has the right to instate its policy, but do not blame the critics for calling it out on such a move. The question of halalness in this country may have gone overboard, and it needs a little sanity and questioning to get the public to reconsider this fact.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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