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Support for Palestine foreshadows Malaysia’s economic concerns

Muslim-Malays show support for Palestine by boycotting US franchises as PM Anwar goes to San Francisco for APEC Leaders' meet
 A Malaysian Muslim man steps on the Israeli flag during a solidarity protest after Friday prayers outside the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on July 28, 2017. Since the events of Oct. 7 in Israel and the Gaza Strip, boycott lists are being shared by Muslim-Malays to rally support for Palestine on social media.

A Malaysian Muslim man steps on the Israeli flag during a solidarity protest after Friday prayers outside the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on July 28, 2017. Since the events of Oct. 7 in Israel and the Gaza Strip, boycott lists are being shared by Muslim-Malays to rally support for Palestine on social media. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 10, 2023 11:19 AM GMT
Updated: November 10, 2023 11:42 AM GMT

The Israel-Hamas war has sparked a passionate reaction in Malaysia with people protesting against the bombardment of Gaza and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim calling Israeli actions "the height of barbarism."

The Southeast Asian country has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel and has for years been a supporter of the Palestinian cause. Anwar’s rhetoric is being interpreted by analysts as a bid to win over Malay Muslim voters.

Islam, the official religion, is an important factor distinguishing Malays from non-Malays, and, by law, all Malays are Muslim. Malaysia's Muslim majority — about 60 percent of the population — have long stood firmly behind the Palestinians and this time too, it is no different but with mixed reactions.

A Muslim couple decided to no longer give their baby the infant formula of a particular brand because they believed its producer was channeling funds to Israel. However, they found traces of blood in the stool of their six-month-old baby. The doctor said the new formula was the problem and told them to change to another one.

The mother then turned to a Facebook page called Kelab Ibu Mengandung Malaysia (Malaysian Pregnant Mothers Club), asking its members what she should do. “But I am bound by taklik. If I was to give my baby the boycotted milk, then I will face talak,” her post clarified. Talak is divorce and Taklik is a condition pronounced by the husband during a marriage ceremony. A written taklik or amendment can also be made after the marriage.

Her post sparked a huge reaction online with most comments suggesting the couple ought to prioritise the baby’s health and be selective in their boycott. Many chastised the husband for coming up with such a taklik and some even told her to leave her husband for being so callous.

Meanwhile, many boycott lists are being shared by Muslim-Malays to rally support for Palestine on social media. Some have the names of around 50 companies that are allegedly Israel sympathisers. The main targets are US food franchises.

A mother posted on social media that she stopped buying a baby formula after seeing it listed in a “boycott list,” but her baby developed colic after consuming another formula.

The comments were similar to the one in the earlier post but there were some who told her to continue the boycott. “Buying one [boycotted] product is like giving them [Israel] one bullet, take pity on our [Muslim] children who are dying there,” said one group member.

Both these posts in Facebook groups are no longer accessible but indicative of the mood among Malaysians.

Penang mufti (Muslim legal expert) Dr Wan Salim Wan Mohd Noor argued that a boycott was needed to get the message across to Israel and singled out “companies and restaurants that donated food to the Israeli army,” while referring to an Oct. 13 Instagram post about McDonald’s giving free meals to the Israeli Defense Forces soldiers.

However, on Nov 7, he did a U-turn and advised Malaysians not to boycott McDonald's Malaysia, explaining that “the company has been issuing zakat (Islamic tithes) in several states” and he was satisfied with its denial of ever sending funds to Israel.

McDonald’s Malaysia issued a series of statements after the Instagram post. “As of 2023, we have contributed over RM12 million (US$2.6 million) in zakat payments to 14 states across Malaysia, supporting underprivileged communities,” it claimed.

Two days later, the company pledged to donate RM1 million to the Palestine Humanitarian Fund under the Prime Minister’s Department.

McDonald’s Malaysia has been a 100 percent Muslim-owned entity since 2017. It is registered as Gerbang Alaf Restaurants in Malaysia and comes under the Saudi-based Reza Gerbang. This was highlighted in almost all its statements and press conferences.

Palestinian ambassador to Malaysia Walid Abu Ali praised Malaysians for boycotting businesses and products allegedly linked to Israel. While this may be pleasing to those supporting the boycott of ‘suspect’ companies, there are Muslim-Malays who are concerned about the consequences. In fact, there have been calls over the past few weeks to reconsider the boycott to avoid retrenchments.

One such call came from a mid-level leader from the political party Umno. The Muslim-Malay party’s Azhari Shaari said in the Malaysian Gazzette that the boycott could backfire.

"Many Malays, Malaysians work [in these companies]. If these companies collapse, many will lose their jobs … The boycott can affect food delivery businesses like Grab, Foodpanda and such," he explained.

However, Southeast Asia’s leading super app, Grab, came under attack when the wife of its co-founder, Anthony Tan, recalled how she “fell completely in love with Israel” after two trips there this year.

Chloe Tong’s Instagram post triggered a public outcry that led to a boycott of the platform in early November. Numerous users, seeing this as a reflection of Grab’s stand on the Israel-Gaza conflict, uninstalled the app.

On Nov 3, Grab Malaysia issued a statement through social media saying the story was posted on a personal platform "weeks ago" and that it was "taken out of context to stir more hatred."

Shortly after, Grab Malaysia pledged RM1 million to the Gaza Humanitarian Aid under Mercy Malaysia, a non-profit organisation that gives medical relief in crisis and non-crisis situations.

“The Palestinian issue is a humanitarian one,” said the highly-influential and controversial blogger-activist Raja Petra Kamaruddin in his commentary on YouTube. 

“The victims were not just victims of Israel but also of the Arabs who used Palestine. We cannot just blame Israel, we should also blame the West and US, and the Arab states,” said the member of the Selangor royal family, who said this was all a global power play.

Talking of global power, despite calls for the prime minister to boycott next week’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Week in San Francisco as a show of solidarity with Palestine, he has finally given a definitive answer. He will be going.

Domestic drivers may foreshadow Anwar’s politics but going forward the nation’s economy remains reliant on foreign direct investment. The prime minister will need some finesse in days to come to ensure that foreign sentiment is not spooked, and understands that he must allow some space for his fellow citizens to vent their feelings.

*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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