Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar is back. Along with good food and obnoxious amounts of listicles regurgitating the same top 10 foods. Nearly a year ago, the bazaar was subject to controversy, after some stores were found to be not Halal certified.
This year it seems the Bazaar is subject to new controversy – the pandemic of Instagram Food in the bazaar and the rising cost associated with the foods.
However, I wanted to relook at the controversy after a year had passed. Has the bazaar, and more importantly, Singapore’s views towards Halal food changed?
Simply put: Not exactly. It seems there is still an intransigence to adopt Halal certification. But to appropriately answer the question we need to comprehend the concept of Halal and the significance of the bazaar.
What Is Halal?
In 1978, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore created a standardised Halal certification.
This system created a regulated Halal production process and logo, which allowed Muslims to trust a Halal-logo bearing restaurant for following Halal guidelines.
A common misunderstanding is that an eating establishment which does not serve pork, lard, or alcohol is by de facto Halal. That might not always be the case.
The Halal certification is meant to ensure that the entire production cycle follows Halal standards. Thus while a restaurant might not serve pork, lard, or alcohol, somewhere down the production line, the food might be contaminated – which would make it non-Halal.
This is not ‘paranoia’. In Malaysia, there have been reported cases of farmers using pig flesh to feed fish, which demonstrates why some Muslims rely on the Halal logo for assurance.
Why Is The Bazaar Significant?
The Ramadan Bazaar is an annual Pasar Malam organised to showcase Malay heritage. In fact, it has been touted by some to be the most popular in Singapore.
Last year, it was revealed that an obnoxious number of stalls were not Halal certified. Which seemingly corrupted the Bazaar as a place for food and celebration of Malay Muslim culture in Singapore.
What about this year? To answer the question, I headed down to Geylang on a rainy Sunday to see if things have changed.
Progress since last year still seems scant, and some owners continue to misuse the Halal logo. Talking to some owners there seems to be a reluctance to shift towards Halal certification. One highlighted that they “do not believe in Halal”.
But adopting Halal does not require ‘belief’ in the concept of Halal. Just like (literally) building a church or a temple does not require one to believe in the religion, adopting Halal is of no consequence to an individual’s belief.
If anything, the Halal industry is an untapped market, and we should not be squeamish to cater more Halal food. After all, the industry is expected to grow.
This reactionary belief that Halal is negative is, simply put – bad business.
The industry is also booming due to the growth of Halal tourism. The development of the Arab states has allowed more Muslims to venture abroad. By signalling to the rest of the world our willingness to cater Halal options, we could tap into this emerging tourism sector.
More importantly, the adoption of Halal symbolises understanding and accommodation to all Singaporeans. Could you imagine (as a non-muslim) the trouble to find a Halal store? Or having to eat separately from friends?
After all, part of the goals of the Bazaar is meant to showcase Singapore’s multiculturalism to our neighbours. All ASEAN member-states have set up booths at the Bazaar to support this cultural exchange.
And if this pushback worsens, our image as a stable multi-racial and multi-religious society would likely be tarnished. Even recently, some alt-right websites in Australia have featured the Subway Halal fiasco. Do we want to damage our multi-culturalism and racial tolerance?
There are positive signs, walking through the Bazaar many non-Malay merchants were willing to use the national language. Perhaps a positive light in the darkness.
The Instagram Foods
Pan Jie of Rice Media has highlighted how Instagram has corrupted the bazaar. After all, these “atrocious” monstrosities bring the money, and the Bazaar is a free market. If droves of people flock to take vain Instagram photos, then so be it. As Pan Jie writes, “Instagram and money have long since corrupted our cultural attitudes towards food”.
I am not entirely convinced. Firstly, this does not explain why specifically the Geylang Serai Bazaar is the source of the controversy.
Why have festivals in Little India or Chinatown been seemingly absent of these controversies (or for that matter the plague of Rainbow Unicorn Gobbeldygook food)?
Secondly, it makes a lot of assumptions about the majority of Singaporeans (like assuming that humans have always projected their intangible desires). Thirdly, it does little to suggest what can be done to change the situation.
What Can We Do?
It is naïve to believe that a mandatory Halal certification will ‘save’ the bazaar. Far from it, with rising operating costs, the need to qualify and subsequently apply for a Halal certification may deter profit-seeking merchants from the bazaar.
Last year, rising cost resulted in some breaching employment and immigration laws in Singapore. And there is an associated cost in switching to Halal, which would result in higher prices.
Perhaps educating non-Muslim merchants on the needs of Halal could encourage a push to Halal certification and subsidies to these merchants could help more cost-strapped merchants to seek Halal certification.
After all, the event is a celebration of the Malay and Muslim identity in Singapore, much like how Chinatown is meant to celebrate the Chinese identity in Singapore. By donating, perhaps you can give to supporting something more meaningful than likes on your Instagram.
More To Be Done
There seems to be a worrying pushback against Halal, and it touches upon more significant issues – like race & religion. Some have expressed ‘Dollar-voting’, if you don’t like it, don’t buy lor. But, it is not about ‘disliking’, it is about securing our national fabric and creating more massive opportunities (opportunities more bigger and grander than consumable balloons).
We should be cautious about beating down the Bazaar’s merchants. After all, their baseline is profit, and they help to keep the Bazaar afloat.
That being said, there is still a need to come together and iron out problems with the bazaar rather than waiting for each year, where the bazaar attracts new controversy.