Column - Cake wars

WHEN a fast-food chain issued a statement on their policy only allowing "halal-certified cakes" on their premises it made headlines and struck nerves. Some were angry that such rules were enforced, others were annoyed at those who dared to express their displeasure.

But not all who voiced their opinions came from the same place of anger or agreement, and not all shared similar belief systems.

Before we get into it though, the first question that should be asked is why such a statement had to be made at such a time and secondly what all this means for a multicultural Malaysia.

There is a climate of commercialisation of religion in the country and it is a fast growing business in Malaysia. But what does it do to the average Malaysian?

Let's take the cake rule as an example.

Birthdays are special, even more so when it is a child's party. Family members want to participate in making the day special. And every birthday party has to have cake. Well, at least in my opinion.

Now, what if the parent or relative of the child wanted to make a special cake for the child's birthday? Home kitchens are not certified. So even if the family member making the cake is Muslim, a commercial cake would have to be bought for the party.

What happens to non-Muslim families who want a home-made cake at their party. Sure we can say, then have the party somewhere else. But that is not the point. The point is how does this contribute to segregating the country further or stunting the growth of small and home businesses too?

Having the party somewhere else will come with the same rules, unless the child has no Muslim friends or has only Muslim friends. In a multicultural country that is not what we want for our kids. Neither do we want to be alienating people nor living in a monocultural bubble.

Of course from a commercial point of view, the halal certification is necessary. It is very strict and companies go through extreme audit to attain certification. It is a continuous and vigorous system of checks. Larger companies even have an internal halal committee comprising paid staff to ensure compliance. The staff are regularly trained and there are periodic checks by the authorities. This is a serious matter for businesses in the country and without certification, companies lose the patron-ship of at least 60% of the population. Therefore it is understandable why such rules exist and why companies jealously protect their halal certification.

The fear is also because companies know all too well what happens when even the smallest rumour of non-compliance arises. It is not just a loss in revenue but also a loss in jobs and a tedious process of regaining not only consumers faith in their products but also attaining certification and the monetary costs attached to it.

But back to the cake and parties. What does this mean for multicultural Malaysia? How do we strike a balance? What happens to vegetarians or those who do not eat beef for religious reasons? Are we as strict to follow their rules or are we courteous enough to take their beliefs into consideration?

Where do we draw the line?

What happens then if a worker eats a non-halal meal and then comes to work in a halal place of business. Will that be a problem in the near future or is it already an underlying provision when hiring?

What if the worker has smoke breaks and then gets back to work. Does that affect the halal certification? What about the clean-ness of money exchanged between patrons and the business?

How do we strike a balance in a multicultural country, that is if we want to remain multicultural? Where has that level of trust gone or that level of community disappeared to?

In a time where there are greater threats to the country like corruption scandals, the falling value of the ringgit, extremism and terrorism, halal-certified cakes at a child's party might seem frivolous. But yet these are issues that have the power to divide a country further and we should seriously be talking about it, perhaps over a slice of cake.