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Malaysian boycotts move on from Israeli dates to Chinese socks

The fear is this could lead to racial conflict in a country where all it would take is a spark to feed the flames
An anti-Israel protester is seen wearing a T-shirt promoting a boycott of Israeli products during a demonstration in front of the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur in this June 1, 2010 file photo

An anti-Israel protester is seen wearing a T-shirt promoting a boycott of Israeli products during a demonstration in front of the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur in this June 1, 2010 file photo. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 20, 2024 11:58 AM GMT
Updated: March 20, 2024 12:04 PM GMT

When Malaysian Muslims called for an anti-Israel boycott last October, many thought it would fizzle out within a couple of months like previous consumer boycott campaigns.

This time, however, the boycott triggered by the Israeli-Hamas conflict is raging on. One reason could be the extensive use of social media platforms, another is the full-strength push from Muslims.

The biggest reason is probably the realization that their collective power can indeed move mountains.

Malay Muslims saw this when McDonald’s Malaysia issued a series of public statements that showed the boycott was affecting them.

The fast-food franchise is now filing a US$1.3 million lawsuit against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Malaysia for allegedly linking them to Israel's war against Hamas. It is seeking damages for loss of revenue, compensation for employees who had to be laid off, and expiry of materials.

BDS is a Palestinian-led movement encouraging the international community to boycott companies with ties to Israel.

"Although the ethnic Chinese hold the economic power, the Malay Muslims hold the consumer power"

Then a Japanese-owned convenience store chain bent to the boycott. The parent company of FamilyMart in Japan called off an agreement with an Israeli defense firm in February after calls for Malaysians to boycott all its 277 stores in the country.

The boycott hit Starbucks Malaysia too, but the extent was not known until the executive chairman of the parent company urged Malaysians to stop the boycott. The parent company posted a revenue decrease of 38 percent in the quarter ending Dec 31, 2023, saying the boycott had caused a significant amount of loss.

The impact of the boycott took many by surprise. It is probably the first time many have seen how Malay Muslim consumers were able to work in tandem and become this powerful force.

Many influencers and politicians are thumping their chests and saying that although the ethnic Chinese hold the economic power, the Malay Muslims hold the consumer power.

There is now fear among ethnic Chinese business owners and operators, as evident from the founder of a local convenience store chain pleading for consumers not to boycott his stores after an Islam-related business blunder was discovered.

On March 13, photographs of socks with the word “Allah” printed on them went viral. The socks were sold at a KK Super Mart store near Kuala Lumpur. There was much furor and criticism from Muslims claiming the ethnic Chinese-owned chain showed scant regard for the religious beliefs of others and there was a call for a boycott.

KK Mart Group founder Chai Kee Kan responded the same day by posting an apology on Facebook and said the socks had been taken off the shelf. He apologized again at a press conference where he explained that this was not a deliberate move but an unfortunate oversight.

The government then said there was no need to escalate the matter and the police, in response to queries, said they could not investigate unless a police report had been made.

The issue would have died down had it not been for the youth chief of Malaysia’s largest political party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) which has a membership of 3.35 million, about 10 percent of the population.

Muhammad Akmal is demanding more than an apology from Chai and more action from the government and police. “We can’t accept their rudeness even though they apologized,” he said.

"History shows that boycotts have the power to make seismic changes"

He threatened a full-scale boycott of the 811 KK Super Mart stores nationwide unless there was a “stronger” apology. He is demanding a banner carrying an apology in every one of the 811 KK Super Mart stores nationwide and has directed his members to lodge police reports all over the country.

Three different investigations are now underway — by the police after receiving 42 police reports as of March 18; by the Domestic Trade and Cost of Living Ministry; and by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department.

What had begun as a collective consumer action to show Muslim anger towards Israel and to stand united with the Muslim brotherhood, is being hijacked and appears to be evolving into a campaign to gain political mileage.

History shows that boycotts have the power to make seismic changes. The Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa started in 1959 as a consumer boycott, and this led to the dismantling of the apartheid government in 1994.

The fear now is that Umno’s relentless pursuit could lead to a racial conflict in a country with underlying racial tensions. These tensions exist because politicians have been using them to garner political support. All it takes is a spark to bring all that hatred and anger to the surface.

Things are leading towards that with the boycott shifting from an anti-Israel stance to an anti-Chinese one.

When dates from Israel were found by netizens to have been mislabelled and sold in Malaysia at the start of Ramadan, there was a lot more anger directed towards ethnic Chinese business operators than towards Israel. Social media was flooded with comments that the ethnic Chinese were disrespectful towards Muslims.

Malaysia does not have diplomatic ties with Israel and the import of goods from the country requires a special government permit.

While it is right not to condone disrespect towards another’s religion, the question is how far the aggrieved side should go.

Fearing the matter could get out of hand, the minister in charge of Islamic affairs has called on everyone to calm down. So have several civil society groups and the public, with many asking Umno to consider the damage this could do to business confidence and the struggling Malaysian economy.

Surprisingly, the opposition parties, who hold the lion’s share of Malay-Muslim support, have remained silent on the controversial socks issue. Should these Muslim conservative parties come out in support of the boycott, Malaysia will be looking at a highly tense racial situation or even chaos.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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