What does Muslim-owned mean?

Aug 21, 2016 06.31PM |

by Suhaile Md


I had seen the signs outside some eateries before, but never really gave much thought to it. Not until a friend asked me in passing if it was the same thing as halal. My first instinct was to say yes, but I stopped myself: If it was the same, then why not display halal instead of Muslim-owned?

Simply put, halal refers to the permissible. The converse is haram, or what’s not allowed. So halal and haram apply to more than just food restrictions. For Muslims, it’s haram to cheat and be wasteful while it’s halal to earn an honest living and spend prudently. That’s not much different to the code of conduct that most people – regardless of religion – subscribe to, is it?

But of course, differences stick out and dietary requirements are the most visible part of how Muslims live by what’s halal and haram. In general though, except for meat and alcohol, most naturally produced food and drink are halal. Vegetables, fruits, seafood, eggs, milk are all halal, regardless of who prepares it. Assuming of course, that hygiene is not in question.

Meat can only be halal, if the animal it comes from has been slaughtered in the name of Allah (God). Throughout their life until slaughter, the animals in question should not be treated with undue stress. They are to be kept in a clean environment and torturous living conditions are out of the question. Pork and its derivatives are forbidden for Muslims.

It gets a little complicated with processed food. Cakes and jelly for example may contain gelatine, a substance derived from animals. If the gelatine is not from a halal source, it renders the cake or jelly haram.

Again, the default status is usually halal unless there’s reason to believe it’s not. Getting my morning coffee from the Hindu uncle at the coffeeshop? No problem. Vegetables and fish from the Buddhist aunty at the market? Sure. The non-Muslim operated bakery near my place has grade “A” hygiene standards according to the National Environment Agency. The bakers also claim “no pork, no lard” derivatives in its products. Do I trust them? I don’t have a reason not to. I’ve been eating there for years. Well, minus the chicken ham sandwich. I’ve never bothered to ask if their meat was halal as I’m not particularly fond of ham.

Not all Muslims would be comfortable with eating at my local bakery though. A friend of mine for instance argues that a Muslim baker, presumably Allah-fearing, would take more care to ensure there is really no haram derivative in all ingredients and food chemicals used. Would a non-Muslim feel the same sense of obligation? So if the non-Muslim baker really wants to cater to Muslims, he should get the halal certification by Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).

But I think this argument could be extended to the Muslim baker too. A Muslim baker catering to Muslims, if truly Allah-fearing, will strive for the highest recognised standards of the land – a halal certificate from MUIS. No? Judging intentions and gauging conviction is always a slippery affair.

Added cost of certification

When asked if Halal certification is compulsory, a Muis spokesman said that it’s voluntary for all businesses. “The Muis Halal Certification provides an assurance that the food has been prepared according to a prescribed set of standards,” said the spokesman. She added that if Muslim owners choose not to apply for certification, “they may wish to exercise religious responsibility in ensuring the food and drinks served are halal”. Ultimately, “in the absence of such certification, the consumer will have to judge for himself whether he is confident the owner of the business has prepared it such that it is halal”, the spokesman said.

The cost of halal certification (valid for a year) for food establishments, including training staff on halal requirements, range from $950 to over $1,600 depending on the size and type (hawker, bakery or restaurant) of eatery. This certifies that the ingredients they source, the preparation methods and kitchen are all halal. The halal scheme and rules of certification change for caterers and central kitchens though, you can see the overview here. And the certificate is only applicable to one outlet. That is, if you wish to open another outlet, you need to get another certificate.

For businesses, cost is always a factor, said Ms Nur Diannah owner of bakery Delish Treats, located at East Village mall. The 27-year old Muslim said that with her small profit margins, every dollar counts. To “fork out more money” needs to be carefully considered, she added. She said she will definitely consider the Muis certificate if business goes well and more outlets are added. For now though, she uses the cheaper 100% Muslim Owned Establishment (MOE) tag issued by the Singapore Malay Chamber Of Commerce & Industry (SMCCI) to inspire confidence in her customers that while not halal certified, the owner is Muslim and hence more likely to adhere to halal standards.



Image by Suhaile Md.

The SMCCI initiative was introduced in 2013 and was updated late last year, said a spokesman. It costs $300 including a mandatory three hour workshop that covers basic concepts of halal food preparation and how to source for halal ingredients. To qualify for this scheme, owners have to be Muslim and no alcohol can be served. Valid for a year, subsequent renewals cost $90. There are currently over 60 establishments on the scheme.

Religious differentiation gone too far?

It seems a little off to me though: Imagine if the other religious groups started posting 100% Christian owned or 100% Hindu owned establishment stickers? Would that increase tensions, entrenching division?

Maybe I am over-thinking. This initiative after all is commercially driven, not a result of cultural tribalism. An SMCCI spokesperson said that this scheme would allow businesses “who would like to cater Halal-friendly food to their Muslim consumers” to give their customers some form of assurance.

Halal-friendly, but not a halal certificate per se? The Administration of Muslim Laws Act states that halal certification must be approved by Muis. Quite a fine balance for SMCCI, it seems to me. But it provides a cheaper alternative to the Muis certificate for cash-strapped businesses. 

Delish Treats was not the only muslim-owned outlet at East Village mall that used the SMCCI tag though. Other eateries like Watsub and Fineline Bistro, had its own “100% Muslim-Owned” poster. Mr Muhammad Hiran, owner of Fineline Bistro, is in the process of getting a halal certificate. In the meantime, he says customers have more confidence when they see “Muslim-owned”. He used to sell satay at a hawker centre in Bukit Panjang but did not need such signs back then. He reckons it’s because now on top of satay, he sells western dishes, which traditionally is not associated with Muslim cuisine here. When asked why not just write “halal” instead of Muslim-owned? “Halal is deemed fake [by customers] or misleading if not from Muis,” he said.

Image by Suhaile Md.Image by Suhaile Md.

Somehow the words “Muslim-owned” is more authentic than the word “halal”? Or could it be that we are too used to seeing the official halal stamp and hence skeptical when it doesn’t look official?

Yes, this is anecdotal. Yet this is not the only business that deemed it necessary – or at least helpful- for a business to state it’s Muslim-owned. The SMCCI scheme did not just come out of thin air.

It’s too early to tell if it’s a trend. But I wonder if this indicates a lack of self confidence in religious knowledge. If you know the requirements of halal, sans certificate, the difference between “halal” and “Muslim-owned” should not matter. In fact, if a Muslim owner says his shop is halal, I would have more confidence in him – saying Muslim-owned just sounds like hedging to me.

This insecurity may lead to an over-reliance on authority. Up north, there have been cases where people ask for halal… toilet bowls. In a Straits Times report in June this year, a director at Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department (Jakim), Mr Sirajuddin Suhaimee said: “People ask for a halal toilet bowl because it comes into contact with humans. Same for plastic bags and packaging that have contact with food.” Should it not be common sense that faecal stained toilet bowls are equally unclean (hence haram) whether it plops from a pious imam or otherwise? Why is there a need to ask the authorities for halal toilet bowls?

Thankfully, Singapore is far from that stage. But it does give me pause and makes me wonder if progressively over relying on Muis certification would end up with Muslims surrendering their common sense and religious discretion to authority in the long run. And extremism, by the way, flourishes by preying on such ignorance.

That is not to say the certification processes have no place – of course they do. Technical expertise is required, interpreting and applying the Islamic laws on permissibility require specialists. It’s not the job of the lay Muslim to know the supply chain and the minutiae of ingredients that go into processed foods like jelly. Basically, there has to be a balance between the use of personal discretion and reliance on authority.

So Muslim-owned and halal, are they the same? What do you think?


Featured image and images by Suhaile Md. 

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