Speaking after a religious event, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof said that: “Using an alcohol brand name without the alcohol is very confusing because the process of manufacturing the beverage, including distillation, falls under the system of producing alcoholic products.”
"We know that [these drinks] are made by alcohol companies, so even if it is said to not contain alcohol, this can cause confusion and make Muslims think that they can consume it.”
Although Heineken was not mentioned by name, the minister made the comments in relation to the promotion of zero-alcohol beer by ‘an alcoholic beverage company’ that was ongoing in convenience stores.
The company’s Heineken 0.0 zero-alcohol beer was the latest non-alcoholic beer launched in the country, on June 20 this year.
In a statement, Heineken clarified that its marketing materials for the product carry visible disclaimers that exclude Muslims as a target demographic.
“All Heineken 0.0 products are only available at the non-halal zone of supermarkets and convenience stores, with clear signage indicating that the product is strictly for non-Muslims, aged 21 and above only,” it said.
“In addition, for stores without designated non-halal areas, we are placing clear signs to inform consumers that Heineken 0.0 is strictly for non-Muslims, aged 21 and above.”
"The purpose for introducing Heineken 0.0 in Malaysia is to provide a choice for non-Muslim consumers who enjoy the taste of beer, but not necessarily the effects of alcohol, particularly beer drinkers who seek to moderate their alcohol consumption as part of a balanced lifestyle."
Mujahid’s comments were met with approval by some netizens on the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) Facebook page, but also with derision by other parties.
On her Twitter feed, lawyer and activist Siti Kassim commented: “Dear Mujahid Rawa, please don't insult the Muslims as if we're easily confused people. Maybe [only] those who've been taught [not to] use their aqal (brain) probably will get [this drink].”
Non-alcoholic beer governance
Earlier, JAKIM had also posted a statement on its site saying that: “All soft drinks that are made with the same intention and methods of the alcohol-production process, whether it contains a little, a lot or no alcohol are all haram (non-halal).”
Given that JAKIM is the public governing body for all Islam-related affairs in Malaysia, this statement begs the question of whether the country will move into further examination regarding the governance of non-alcoholic beer in the Muslim-majority country.
Malaysia is governed by a dual justice system, which involves federal and state laws on one end, and the Islamic syariah law on the other.
Thailand is already in the process of doing such an examination of its non-alcoholic beer laws, although this has been fuelled by less religious reasons.
According to Dr Nipon Chinanowet, Director of the Office of Alcohol Control Committee: “If it’s advertised as an alcohol-free malt beverage, there’s no problem, but if it’s advertised as an alcohol-free beer, we have to examine the intention and whether the advertising is breaking any law.
“[Beer companies could have] one non-alcohol product advertised legally at the same time as [an alcoholic product, which would create] a link in the audience’s mind to [the] products which are restricted from advertising.”
Thailand has very strict alcohol advertising laws under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act, including Section 32 which states that ‘No person shall advertise or display, directly or indirectly, name or trademark of alcoholic beverage in a manner that showing properties thereof or inducing other person to drink’.
This would significantly affect Heineken marketing campaigns in the country, as alcohol logos and even imagery that is representative of alcohol brands, such as the company’s red star, are prohibited from being used in any sponsorships, promotions or advertisements.