November 2, 2016    6 minute read

Malaysia’s Hot-Dog Crisis

Increasing Fundamentalism    November 2, 2016    6 minute read

Malaysia’s Hot-Dog Crisis

As one may have heard, the Malaysian government decided to tackle an apparently ramping yet somewhat unexpected local issue: hot-dog stands. Firms selling hot-dogs have been encouraged by the government to rename such products. As a matter of fact, this encouragement seems rather compulsory since the risk incurred by non-compliant entities are “being refused halal certification”, according to the BBC. Losing such certification might not be seen as such a big deal in many locations, but it is in Malaysia. In a country whose population is, for the most part, Muslim, losing halal certification pretty much means filing for bankruptcy.

In a country whose population is, for the most part, Muslim, losing halal certification pretty much means filing for bankruptcy. 

One could wonder what concerns might have driven this governmental policy. The Malaysian Islamic Development Department explains having adopted such ruling following “complaints from Muslim tourists”. The director of halal certification at the institution mentioned above Sirajuddin Suhaimee justified that such name might bring “confusion” since “in Islam, dogs are considered unclean, and the name cannot be related to halal certification”.

The Rise Of Conservative Islam

Social media quickly ridiculed the policy, but this event fits into a bigger picture. As anecdotic as it can seem, this ban highlights the current trend in Malaysia with regards to religion: “Muslim-majority Malaysia practises a moderate form of Islam, but conservative attitudes are on the rise.” Malaysia has indeed long been considered reasonable by opposition to countries such as Saudi Arabia, in which a more fundamental approach is taken regarding Islam. Moderate Islam implies a relative acceptance of different beliefs and habits. One may, for instance, mention that in Malaysia alcohol consumption is legally allowed for non-Muslims.

If one does not see any problem with such trend per se, it appears that some locals do. For instance, the human rights activist Tahir Rawther published The Rise of Malaysian Religious Tyranny in the Huffington Post. This article’s content might lead one to wonder where such accusation of religious oppression stems from. Unlike what one might have assumed, foreigners – both tourists and expatriates alike – seem to be concerned but not necessarily at the core of these fears. A quick look at demographics should shed light on this fact.

The Non-Muslim Presence

In 2010 foreigners represented 8.2% of the Malaysian Population according to the Malaysian Department of Statistics while Islam was the religion of 61.3% of the population. Even when assuming that every single foreigner is not Muslim – which is most likely far from accurate – around 30% of Malaysia’s population is composed of non-Muslim Malaysians. The number of non-Muslim Malaysians is therefore at least threefold the number of non-Muslim foreigners – or any foreigners for that matter.

One will quickly digress to lighten the origin of this reality. The relative importance of this non-Muslim minority coincides with the country’s ethnic roots. Chinese ethnicity represents 24.6% of the population, followed by Indian ethnicity with 7.3% of the population. To display the link between religion and ethnicity one could refer to alcohol consumption as a proxy for religion. Alcohol Consumption and Risky Drinking Patterns in Malaysia: Findings from NHMS 2011 will help build that bridge. The results from this study show higher alcohol consumption rates among Indian and Chinese ethnicities – respectively 18.8% and 27.5% – than among the Malay ethnicity – 0.9%. Alcohol consumption supports an apparent correlation between religion and ethnicity in Malaysia.
0.9% Alcohol Consumption Among Malay Constituency
To get back to our sheep, Malaysia is a country where more than one person out of three is not Muslim and has been living with very few if any restrictions based on Islam. Concerns by locals regarding an increasingly fundamental approach on the matter taken by the government, therefore, makes perfect sense. Non-Muslims – Malaysians or not – would not necessarily welcome restrictions based on Islam despite its constitutionally established status of state religion. As a matter of fact, some Muslim Malaysians might feel the same way, as they have been used to more freedom in their religious practices.

Economic And Social Consequences

Consequences of this governmental policy might not only be cultural: a more fundamental approach to Islam most likely will have much more profound effects than upsetting locals and foreigners alike in their quest for alcohol. The direct impact might be a drop in tourism as alcohol-consuming tourists lose some of their interest for Malaysia. One could look at the origin of visitors to get an idea of the percentage of non-Muslims among tourists. Luckily Tourism Malaysia released the statistics of 2015 on the matter. Of its 25.7mn tourists “the top 10 tourist generating markets […] were Singapore (12,930,754), Indonesia (2,788,033), China (1,677,163), Thailand (1,343,569), Brunei (1,133,555), India (722,141), the Philippines (554,917), Australia (486,948), Japan (483,569) and South Korea (421,161).” From such numbers, one can easily draw the conclusion that the majority of tourists in Malaysia most likely are not Muslims.

Such unfortunate event would, therefore, constitute a big hit to the Malaysian economy since “the total contribution of Travel and Tourism to GDP was […] 14.9% […] in 2014” according to the World Tourism & Travel Council. In that particular case, unemployment would significantly rise, which might stark conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia. The latter could blame unemployment on Muslims and incidents of religious and racial violence might follow. Not that one wishes to compare the incomparable, but the May 1998 riots in Indonesia had similar motives. Events of similar size or importance seem rather unlikely, but it does not make a relative unrest based on ethnicity and religious beliefs less likely. If even a single event were to be advertised – right or wrongly – as such in worldwide news Malaysia’s tourism might suffer, even more, leading the country into a vicious circle.

In A Nutshell

The Malaysian government seems to have taken a more fundamental approach to Islam. Some concerns have risen from inhabitants, almost 40% of whom are not Muslim.

40% Malaysian Population That Is Not Muslim

 

An economic analysis of the situation supports this apprehension: tourism could decline as a result of such governmental policy, leading to higher unemployment. From purely economic consequences could stem social ones, as unrest based on religious and racial concerns develop.

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