Lack of transparency in MUIS Inquiry threatening Brand Singapore

Culture to suppress scandal has prevailed in this matter for over a decade

By: Murray Hunter

Singapore’s Ministry of Environment and Water Resources appears to have ignored an offer by Asia Sentinel to provide voluminous documents for a ministry investigation into allegations of corruption and abuse of power by officials of the strategic unit of Islamic Council of Halal Certification.

Although Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli has announced an internal inquiry into the unit with a June 15 deadline for submissions, a number of offers by Asia Sentinel of materials that would aid in the inquiry appear not to have been welcomed.

The Singapore government formally announced the inquiry on June 17, saying it would be headed by the Deputy Chief Executive of the Islamic Religious Council, Dr Albakri Ahmad, with officers independent of the halal unit included in the investigative team. The release also indicated that Munir Hussein, assistant director of the Halal Certification Strategic Unit of the council, is no longer involved in certification matters.

Asia Sentinel on May 29 emailed Masagos requesting an email interview and offering to provide evidence to support the allegations. Masagos’s press officer Loh Su Hsing on June 7 replied that an inquiry is to be held and that Asia Sentinel was welcome to present evidence. Loh referred the matter directly to the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), or MUIS. However, although Asia Sentinel sought to contact MUIS on the same day on Loh’s directions, no response has been received, and the deadline has passed for submissions.  

The probe relates to a series of stories by Asia Sentinel beginning on April 22 that revealed allegations thatMunir Hussein, a top official of the department, which ensures that food consumed by Singapore’s Muslims complies with Islamic teachings, allegedly used his position to engineer the accreditation or de-listing of overseas certifying bodies he favors or dislikes. Documents and recordings made available to Asia Sentinel alleged that Munir also abused his powers by divulging confidential commercial correspondence to third parties in attempting to pressure companies to employ preferred consultants and employees.

The stories generated voluminous responses from other individuals who alleged unfair treatment at the hands of the halal certification unit. A veteran social activist, Mohamed Jufrie Mahmood, over past weeks on social media has highlighted aspects of corruption allegations against the Halal Certification Strategic Unit and Munir. Jufrie alleges that MUIS has not answered Asia Sentinel’s claims over the organization’s foreign Certifying Body accreditation, nor has it followed the related protocols in its dealings with foreign certifying bodies.

According to another social activist based in Singapore who asked not to be named, local Singapore media have been told not to report on the MUIS allegations. Only Singapore’s popular alternative news portal, The Online Citizen Asia has reported on the alleged corruption and abuse of power allegations against some rogue MUIS officers. The Online Citizen Asia reported that although serious allegations had been made against Munir by at least a dozen different organizations, he is still on active duty within the Halal Strategic Unit, and has not been put on leave or suspended. A source within MUIS itself told Asia Sentinel that documents have been purged and paperwork revised to cover any allegations of wrongdoing.

Singapore sources say Shahla Iqbal has been seconded from the Attorney General’s Chambers to assist in the investigations along with a senior council member of MUIS as the chairman. The other members and procedures of the inquiry are unknown, as the composition of the board hasn’t been announced. The legal position of any decision is also an unknown because there has been no announcement upon which statutes and regulations the inquiry is based upon.

Other sources say at least nine complaints have been lodged from foreign certifying bodies based in Australia, Europe and the US, plus what were described as an overwhelming number of local submissions. These submissions were only prepared and lodged after the certifying bodies found out about the MUIS inquiry by accident through international halal chat groups. MUIS chose not to inform any foreign organization directly or formally.

Asia Sentinel has seen a portion of this evidence from a number of foreign certifying bodies, and been advised about other submissions through emails and chat groups describing problems going back to 2012.

A summary of these allegations into conduct by officials within the Halal Strategic Unit of MUIS including Munir Hussain, Abdul Rahman Lum, and senior director Mohd Azam Abd Aziz includes:

  1. Blocking the accreditation of foreign certification bodies in a bid to benefit favored parties for personal gain.

  1. Leaking of private and confidential emails to favored parties not permitted access to such information, a breach of PDPA and Public Sector (Governance) Act 2018.

  1. Breach of impartiality.

  1. Failure to take action against serious violations of syariah compliance laws committed by favored individuals and FCBs.

  1. Failure to act against FCBs which declare certify halal flavorings with a high level of alcohol and ingredients made from khamar (alcohol).

  1. Fabricating evidence to implicate an FCB in offenses under AMLA, punishable with a fine and or a jail sentence.

  1. Implementing ad hoc and inconsistent rules to protect business interests of favored FCBs.

  1. Compelling FCBs to surrender client lists for onward transmission to favored competitors.

  1. Faking letter of appointment of consultants and compelling FCB applicant to sign.

  1. Forcing an FCB to appoint a Halal Strategic Unit associate as a consultant as a condition of relisting 

  1. Holding back and blocking listings of FCB application despite fulfilment of all requirements

  1. Exercising sole discretion to either approve or delist FCBs in contravention of  ISO standards

The most alarming revelation is that MUIS certified foods containing alcohol as halal. Rogue officers within the Halal Strategic Unit have allegedly cheated and compromised the whole integrity of Singapore’s Halal protocols, meaning that there is a massive question mark about halal integrity within Singapore.

What is more disconcerting is that MUIS proclaimed it had been cleared of wrongdoing via The Straits Times before the inquiry had even begun.

After the formation of Singapore as an independent nation in 1965, the then prime minister developed an understanding with the Malay/Muslim community that they would be given a free hand to govern themselves in regard to Islamic and cultural affairs with minimum interference. This was a bond of trust, where MUIS was the symbolic institutional guardian of the Malay and Muslim community. However, this bond of trust is being undermined by allegations of long-standing corruption.

The suppression of corrupt activities and lack of transparency of the corruption inquiry at MUIS has already damaged Singapore’s reputation within the halal supply chain and certification industries. Singapore had a clear opportunity to become a world leader in Halal science and certification. This would have added synergy to the ability of Singapore companies to be successful upon the international halal market, which is estimated to be worth US$16 billion annually.

If the investigation is not conducted publicly and fairly, it runs the risk of not only severely damaging the integrity of brand Singapore, but the integrity of the Singapore public service itself, and halal integrity within Singapore. Muslim Singaporeans are questioning the government heavily on social media.

Well-placed sources say top officials within MUIS are privately pleased this inquiry is being held, believing a small number of rogue officials have circumvented the organization for their own benefit over a long period of time. However, when it comes to public exposure and punishment for wrongdoings, the culture to suppress scandal has prevailed in this matter for over a decade.

*The illustration on this story was changed on June 19, 2020 out of a concern that it could be unnecessarily offensive to Muslims