At the same time, widespread demands to boycott non-Muslim products have not had any impact on sales, according to Malaysia’s domestic trade and consumer affairs minister.
The move originated following a suggestion by the Islamic Consumers Association of Malaysia to Jakim, the country’s powerful halal regulator, last month, calling for halal certificates to be issued in the native language of the product’s manufacturer, so that consumers can identify if they are Muslim or otherwise.
It continues to spark heated debate both in the press and through social media, with one Facebook group shooting up from less than 10,000 followers to seven figures in just two weeks.
Muslim Malays make up under two-thirds of Malaysia’s population, with Bahasa Melayu their mother tongue. Most of the rest of the population are ethnic Chinese and India, largely speaking Chinese dialects and Tamil at home. Malay is also used as is a lingua franca in the country, while English is also used widely.
The association’s chief spokesman, Nadzim Johan, has denied that the campaign is based on race or religion.
Speaking to Free Malaysia Today, he insisted that his group does not agree with the boycotting of non-Muslim companies; rather its suggestion had been for Muslims to prioritise buying Muslim-made products.
“There’s no reason to. We only boycott companies who cheat or oppress Muslims and Malaysians like Jewish businesses or those who run down our armed forces,” he told the news website.
The boycott campaign has since been backed by major Islamist political party PAS, which has emphasised the need to strengthen the economic power of Muslims. It has been amplified by strong backing on social media by Muslim groups and a low-key response by the government.
It is noticeable how Muslim ministers and prime minister Mahathir Mohamad have treated the suggestion with respect, rather than calling it out as racist and unacceptable, as non-Muslim groups have urged.
Instead, ministers have termed it “unreasonable” and “narrow-minded”, and have urged the public to show a preference for Malaysian-made products, rather than just those made my Malays.
"It can harm the country's harmony and well-being. Instead, the people should support Malaysian made products, which will benefit the nation," the Prime Minister’s Department said in a statement following a cabinet meeting chaired by deputy prime minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.
Domestic trade minister Saifuddin Nasution has said that business associations have not so far seen any impact from the boycott.
“So far they have not indicated that the boycott is affecting them,” Saifuddin said.
One Kuala Lumpur manufacturer of halal frozen food, with customers distributed between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, said she was concerned that a boycott could swing both ways.
“If Muslims boycott non-Muslim products, what is to say that non-Muslims will not do the same, but for Muslim products,” said the source, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“It is clear from the name of my company that we are Muslim-owned, though our products aren’t specifically for Muslims. It could harm our business just to fulfil some political agenda that nobody ever asked for.”
Another business owner, who runs a Klang Valley food processor which sells products to the industry, also feared tit-for-tat reprisals from the proposed boycott.
“It would be very easy for non-Muslim suppliers to boycott Muslim companies just to teach us a lesson,” she said.
“Non-Muslim companies have the weight of numbers and more economic power than Muslim companies, so a boycott would just be shooting ourselves in the foot. If something becomes ridiculous it can easily become even more ridiculous.”