[Article originally published in Aug 2017, but has since been updated.]
For the last week or so, news that Malaysians may have possibly been eating ‘halal beef’ that’s secretly horse, kangaroo and other non certified meat has rocked many of us meat eaters.
— New Straits Times (@NST_Online) December 22, 2020
According to reports, a ‘meat cartel’, which had been operating for the last four decades, would import these various meats from countries like Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Bolivia, repackage the meat and add forged halal documentation on it before selling it off to suppliers. They apparently mixed in real halal beef with the various low-quality meats they had to avoid detection, and would also pay off officials from govt agencies to let these products in.
So it’s understandable for some people to question how halal policies are set in Malaysia, which is set by Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM). Were we always this sensitive towards Halal rules? Have Halal rules been the way they are now since Merdeka? Let’s first start with understanding the concept of Halal.
Doesn’t the concept of ‘halal’ only relate to pork and alcohol?
Halal is usually known as something that’s allowed (ex. food, beverages and medicine) according to Islamic Law. According to this article, the book of at-Ta’rifat (kinda like a dictionary for Islamic words) defined halal as the ability to use something that is required to meet physical needs.
This means halal is about the things you’re allowed to eat, drink, do or use according to Islamic principles, so it can be anything that’s applicable to all aspects in life: social relationships, clothing and even financial services. Muslims also use the concept of toyyiban to talk about what is “good” according to halal rules; so they usually use halalan toyyiban to mean everything that is safe and not harmful when referring to what you are allowed to eat/drink under Syariah law.
With these ideas, Islam gave Muslims some pointers on making halal food: all ingredients must be halal, all the approved meat should be slaughtered according to Islamic rituals, and halal ingredients should not be put together with haram materials (such as pigs and dogs) all the way from their storage, to transportation, cooking and finally serving.
So here’s where JAKIM comes in. They basically jaga all things Islamic in our public life to make sure Islam in Malaysia is implemented well. Therefore, making sure that halal is done with an A+ report card in the country is part of their job too. But JAKIM is a body, therefore they had to be formed in some point in time.
In fact, JAKIM didn’t come around until 1997, and we didn’t have this many rules to control what was halal up until then. If JAKIM was a person, he or she will only be in uni now! So this then begs the question…
What were our halal laws like before JAKIM?
Some of our older readers might remember this: fast food chains like KFC used to serve alcohol back in 1984 with the tag “ditanggung halal”.
So how did Muslims trust what’s halal and what’s not, and how was life for them before ’97? To answer this, we asked a Malaysian Muslim to give us his two cents.
Before people depended on JAKIM’s halal logo, the safest thing for Muslims to do was just to not eat at non-Muslim restaurants. An army retiree BG Dato Mohd Arshad Raji recalled no religious bodies that were enforcing both Muslim and non-Muslim restaurants to serve halal food like how it is today.
“I think Muslims then had no fear of consuming non halal food or to be mistaken to have consumed non-halal food because of the self consciousness imbued in them since young.” – Brig Jen Dato Mohd Arshad Raji (Retired) to CILISOS
Another example of how things were different back then includes the Kesatuan Guru-Guru Melayu Malaysia Barat (KGMMB)’s 1968 AGM booklet which had a Guinness Stout advertisement in Bahasa Melayu right next to a note from then Deputy PM Tun Abdul Razak.
But today we can see how much advertisements of alcohol changed especially since the 2008 law on Advertising rules came into place. Today, the advertisements of alcoholic drinks no longer talk about how it “memuleh” our “tenaga” because they’re not allowed to advertise on how it can “enhance mental, physical or sexual capabilities”. That’s why la the ads today are much plainer:
Our lawmakers didn’t put a Halal standard in place back then, but instead they made sure food and restaurants were healthy and clean before they get a license. So basically if you wanted a halal certificate, you’re already half qualified for a “ditanggung halal” tag if your food and restaurants were clean.
But how did people know what to do in order to qualify for the cert back then, you ask? There was a law on putting ‘Halal’ in trade descriptions back in 1975. Hmm, it did sound pretty easy-going back then…
… so why did we actually need JAKIM?
In 1968, our Council of Rulers decided that a body needed to be created to jaga the development and progress of Muslims in Malaysia. This body later became the Islamic Affairs Division in the Prime Minister’s Office (BAHEIS) in 1974 and was in charge of issuing halal letters for products. However, when Dr Mahathir assumed office, he started focusing a lot on the halal industry. He decided to make halal official in terms of the law, and it has been that way since.
Basically, Dr M realised that there would be a lot of potential in the halal industry. With more Muslims in the world, that would mean more people would buy halal products. As our gomen followed and applied Islamic values, this in turn boosted our economy.
A cabinet meeting in October 1996 decided to bump BAHEIS up, where it then became an actual governmental department on its own – which is what we now know as JAKIM. It is currently the only governmental body in the world that has control over the halal certification of a local market, and this Halal devision is only one of their many powers (they also have divisions on development of families and communities).
What did JAKIM change?
Before this, we saw how our lawmakers were worried about how clean things were – but the first Halal standard only came out in 2000. Stricter guidelines on how we label/name halal things only started rolling in after 2000, and it took decades before we decided to improve what Halal means in Malaysia. Here’s some of the laws that came only after JAKIM was born:
(a) Syariah Criminal Offences Act 1997 – this law punishes people who simply simply use the Halal logo with RM5000 fine or 3 years in jail (or both).
(b) That 2011 law where we updated Halal’s meaning in Malaysia – This is where we made changes to the 1975 version of Halal, and only JAKIM was allowed to give out the Halal logo (36 years later wei)
(c) That constantly updated rulebook for people who want a Halal cert in Malaysia – Basically this law didn’t talk about names of halal things until 2009 (banning hotdogs came in 2014 tho)
*fun fact: what’s halal and what isn’t differs from one country to another! For example:
In the US, naming hotdogs as halal izzokay. While we had the whole Auntie Anne’s Pretzel Dog drama, other countries such as the US have different requirements for people who want the Halal certificate. The Islamic Society of the Washington Area put out its own guidelines for applicants, and theirs did not mention naming halal products.
In the end, JAKIM’s Halal laws do make people feel safer
So while JAKIM certainly has done some questionable things here and there, with even our ex DPM Tun Dr Ismail’s son Tawfik Ismail calling for JAKIM to be abolished :O, they’re seem to be doing more than ok in terms of managing Halal.
In fact, we’ve also written about how their anti-LGBT video was surprisingly… err… tolerant (for JAKIM’s standards, of course) without breaching what is set down as the guidelines for Islam in Malaysia. They’re still sticking to their views on non-heterosexuals, but they’re not openly condemning them either.
But as far as food is concerned, while the reports of the kangaroo meat cartel are concerning, it’s because of JAKIM’s halal logo that our Muslim brothers and sisters can enjoy previously non-halal cuisines without worries. Dato Arshad also agreed on how JAKIM’s logo helps Muslims to not doubt whether something is actually halal or not, which is really useful for them.
But but, we’re the only country in the world right now with a governmental body that penalises whoever who makes false claims about the Halal status of their products too – which not only makes Malaysia more credible for halal products , but also expands our economy kaokao 🙂