Is the MUIS Inquiry into International Halal Certification just another whitewash?
There are growing concerns among critics of Singapore’s halal certification program that an investigation into irregularities in the program is being swept under the rug.
Critics were quoted citing specific allegations of corruption in the certification body, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapora in a series of Asia Sentinel articles earlier this year as well as in Foreign Certification bodies (FCB) and domestic certifications. That in turn led the minister in charge of Muslim affairs, Masagos Zulkifli to set up an internal board of inquiry (BOI) inside MUIS to review a previous internal investigation, quickly set up after Asia Sentinel’s first article. The internal “investigators,” however, cleared themselves of any wrongdoing in relation to appointments and dismissals of FCBs.
Although the inquiry board initially showed itself to be diligent in the investigation, there has been an apparent change in attitude. Vital witnesses from the FCBs themselves have not been called to give evidence. The accused are still actively working within the halal Strategic Unit, the department under investigation. Local critics of the certification process have been silenced. MUIS has commenced a positive publicity campaign in the local mass media to boost image. Whistle-blowers have been intimidated, and there are reports that the inquiry is being misused to persecute other officers within MUIS.
Over the past 12 weeks, the inquiry board has called external and internal witnesses. Asia Sentinel has been told that most of these interviews were intensive and corroborated in many accounts the complaints made by a dozen FCBs. However, according to a Facebook post by local social activist Mohamed Jufrie Mahmood, no FCBs have been called up to provide evidence via tele-interview. The lack of follow-up with the complainants about their statutory declarations and submissions opens the question about how thoroughly their allegations are being investigated.
The gist of more than a dozen complaints is that a top certification official, Munir Hussain is favoring certain FCBs and attempting to channel business towards them by blacklisting FCB competitors. There are also a number of statutory declarations and voice recordings of slaughtermen and FCB employees complaining of shortcuts being taken within the halal slaughter process, bullying of both slaughtermen and FCBs, and claims of collusion between Munir and Mohamed Adil Rahman. Complaints about organized halal corruption within Singapore exposed by Asia Sentinel in July, are outside the board’s terms of reference.
Sources in contact with MUIS have informed Asia Sentinel that the primary accused, Munir, is still actively working within the Halal Strategic Unit, and has not been moved to another department or put on leave. According to a Facebook post by Mohamed Jufrie, Munir was allowed to chair an interview to recruit a manager in the Halal Strategic Unit last month. Munir’s continuing presence within the Halal Strategic Certification Unit was confirmed by the Straits Times, which went on to say that he would not be involved in handling matters related to the recognition of FCBs while the investigation is in process.
Singapore civil service procedures call for the suspension of any officer under investigation for alleged breaches of codes or the law. This raises questions about the seriousness the BOI and MUIS really have about the nature of the allegations made against the accused and the foreign halal certification processes.
Before the inquiry board interviewed any witness, each witness was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement. This has prevented those interviewed from further disclosing any information regarding halal certification within MUIS to any third party or the media, effectively muzzling outflowing information. This benefits MUIS in suppressing any knowledge about the allegations and ongoing investigations.
However, on August 2, MUIS officers undertook an interview with Beritia Harian Singapore, the Malay-language broadsheet, on the processes in the appointment of Foreign Certifying Bodies, the very issue that the board is investigating, while the inquiry is still on-going. The interview inferred that there was nothing wrong with what its officials were doing. There have been a number of public relations positive press releases from MUIS regarding halal published by Berita Harian over the course of the investigation.
Most disturbing, back channels have allegedly been used by officials within MUIS to warn suspected whistleblowers of legal consequences should they continue to actively criticize MUIS and in particular, the halal certification issue. It is also understood that officials not directly responsible for halal are being dragged into the draft investigation report. If this is correct, the accusations made in the draft report fall outside the terms of reference, and appear to have some form of political motive behind them.
It appears that the minister, who is under heavy criticism for not strongly supporting the right of Muslim women to wear a tudung or headscarf in the process of work within the civil service, wants to wrap up the inquiry as soon as possible. This is even though the prime accusations the inquiry was set up to examine have not been scrutinized through direct interviews with the FCB complainants. The inquiry (although it doesn’t have direct power) has not investigated money trails. This comes at a very critical time where Singapore’s legal system is under criticism over the Liew case, where an Indonesian maid was unjustly jailed. The reputation of Singapore’s fairness and pursuit of natural justice is also on the line with the MUIS BOI report.
Any final report which indicates flaws in the inquiry process, is according to members of Singapore’s Muslim community likely to be challenged in court. There have been a number of pledges from within the community of support, where a crowdfunding effort is underway. It is beginning to look like the BOI is more concerned about safeguarding the reputation of MUIS than getting to the truth.