Business owners complain of intimidation over halal certification
By: Murray Hunter
Halal Certification officers in Singapore’s Islamic Religious Council routinely pressure restaurant owners into paying fees by using the threat of withdrawal of certificates of compliance, according to local business proprietors who have contacted Asia Sentinel in the wake of previously-printed allegations.
Halal certification is necessary for establishments to be able to signal to Muslim clients and customers that Islamic religious practices are observed.
One non-Muslim local proprietor, fearful of complaining directly to the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), the council’s Malay name, charged his company was pressured to employ a favored halal consultant on the threat of refusal to discuss halal certification with a non-Muslim. The source, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said regular scams are undertaken to enable halal consultants to continue raking up additional fees.
One instance involved one of the owner’s own employees who placed incriminating items around the workplace and removed halal certification documents, then called in a complaint to MUIS to investigate. Each time, this would be “resolved” by the consultant, who was later found by the proprietor to be an associate of both of the employee and MUIS officer. In addition, it was alleged MUIS officers stalked the informant’s business, put pressure on staff to provide confidential data and reports, and followed company vehicles on deliveries.
After initial allegations of impropriety concerning favoritism towards particular foreign certifying bodies (FCB), an initial internal inquiry conducted by Munir Hussein, the assistant director of the Halal Certification Strategic Unit, and Mohamed Azam Abdul Aziz, a senior director of MUIS finance and asset department, which houses the halal strategic unit, found that no wrongdoing had taken place.
Another local case concerned a restaurant chain called PappaMia. Four MUIS auditors went on a site audit and approved a system designed to transfer fresh chickens from Changi Airport to the Singapore Expo outlet.
The system worked well until a few months later when Munir called on PappaMia to answer breaches arising from a photograph taken by an undisclosed source, without attempting to verify its veracity. The photograph had been taken more than a year earlier. The outlet where the premises was located had been demolished more than a year before the photo was taken and the waitress in the photograph had resigned months earlier before PappaMia ever submitted an application for halal certification.
After two years following the revocation of its halal certificate, in a meeting at MUIS, the consultant was informed by a member of MUIS staff that PappaMia’s halal certificate had been revoked because Munir had found a back door in the restaurant which gave direct access to a pub. There was no such door, then and now.
A number of local Singapore proprietors told Asia Sentinel that they were fearful of filing any formal complaints because of potential retribution from rogue MUIS officers and their wide net of associates who assist them.
“Different companies abide by different degrees of halal regulation dependent on MUIS preference and favoritism,” one complainant said. “The rules are arbitrary and up to an individual officer’s interpretation. Different MUIS officers have a different yardstick. Moreover, the rules that apply to one company may not apply to another.”
Non-halal meat is often sold to halal meat suppliers and passed off as halal meat, according to other sources, completely undermining halal integrity in Singapore. This issue for Muslims represents the most catastrophic failing of MUIS to allow corrupt practices to compromise halal integrity of meat.
The common denominator is the role played by halal consultants, the sources say. Halal consulting is a lucrative industry for a half-dozen worth approximately S$5 million (US$3.58 million) annually. Fees can range from S$800 to S$4,000 per certification, and up to S$4,000 for fixing subsequent issues with MUIS. For a halal consultant to operate successfully, he or she must have a good relationship with the officers within the MUIS Halal Strategic Unit. Halal certification activities were worth S$8.4 million in 2018, which was 28 percent of MUIS’s total income.
Investigation stalls out?
Sources who subsequently contacted Asia Sentinel say a number of similar complaints from the certifying bodies have all been passed over by Mohamed Azam, who was tasked to investigate them. In a complaint lodged four years ago which was made available to Asia Sentinel recently, similar problems were covered up.
A second, much more formal board of inquiry commissioned by the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Masagos Zulkifli, has conducted preliminary investigations and placed Munir on non-active duty. Last week, Munir was moved to the halal policy unit. The other accused of misconduct, Mohamed Azam has not been moved from his current position.
The formal inquiry which commenced on July 2 is now conducting a much more thorough investigation. Members of the board of Inquiry headed by Dr Albakhri Bin Ahmad, deputy chief executive of MUIS, were surprised of being inundated with complaints concerning halal certification misconduct domestically, from a number of local businesses.
The MUIS board of Inquiry has received complaints from halal consultants, claiming MUIS officers have favored certain consultants and discriminated against others, almost totally destroying livelihoods. Mohamed Faizal bin Abdul Hathi, a senior executive in Halal Surveillance and Enforcement who has been promoted to the manager of the Haj division of MUIS, is described as the leader of a group of MUIS officers who work with favored halal consultants.
A number of FCBs have submitted documents alleging collaboration between Munir Hussein and Dr Sirajuddin Suhaimee, who was late last year quietly moved out the Halal hub of Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development, known by its Malay language acronym Jakim, to a desk-based research position, after similar complaints concerning alleged corrupt practices.
Some complainants reportedly have opted to make reports about alleged MUIS misconduct to bodies independent of MUIS, including The Public Service Commission, The Personal Data Protection Commission, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, and the police. The Singapore police are said to have opened their own independent investigation into complaints of rogue MUIS operations.
There are still a number of concerns about the inquiry, as conveyed by local social activist Mohamed Jufrie Mahmood. Jufrie is skeptical about transparency and independence in an inquiry that is not open and that members of the inquiry board are MUIS officers. Further, complainants have not been contacted for their allegations. Instead, Jufrie said, the inquiry is relying solely on interrogation of the accused. Nor does the board of inquiry have any forensic ability to vet and investigate some of the lengthy and complex submissions made.
A preliminary report is said to strongly recommend a total revamp of the halal certification process, eliminating opportunities for potential abuse. The board of inquiry intends to hand over files, evidence and documents to other agencies like the corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau to make any prosecutions.
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