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  1. #1
    Thailand Expat
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    Impact Arena World of Muslim'' exhibition

    FOCUS / 'WORLD OF MUSLIM' EXHIBITION
    Govt not kosher about halal business

    Why has Thailand failed to capture the huge Muslim halal markets? One reason is that the government isn't interested

    By ALAN DAWSON

    The recent ''World of Muslim'' exhibition was a credibly organised, modestly attended but ultimately forgettable attempt to boost Thailand as a plausible centre of halal (religiously authentic Islamic) goods and services, primarily food. Held on the last weekend before Ramadan, the World of Muslim and exhibitors did their best to deck out its section of the Impact Arena as a food festival.

    Instead, it looked and felt more like some sort of snack shop, with more cellophane and sealed bags packed with salted morsels of who-knows-what.

    ''I thought Thailand was famous for food,'' joked Laila Vechkij at her Islamic clothing display booth, ''but it looks like it is more famous for corn chips and soy snacks.''

    And tea, lots and lots of tea, at every third booth along two of the display aisles.

    World of Muslim, the strangely named three-day exhibition by The Halal Science Center of Chulalongkorn University, showed more prominently the chronic failure of Thailand to enter the huge and fast-expanding halal market than the few success stories creeping into the economy.

    Thailand is famed for food, both as a major world agricultural exporter _ one of the top six, at worst _ and even more as the source of hundreds of the most mouth-watering breakfast, lunch and dinner recipes.

    So why the conspicuously inadequate exports to Muslim countries and minority markets around the world?

    Why the constant harping for more than two decades that Thailand must start tapping into halal markets, not only abroad but even at home?

    Earlier this month, it was the turn of Deputy Industry Minister Piyabutr Cholvijarn to brag that the ministry and Board of Investment are ''considering'' an industrial estate for halal food production in Pattani province.

    Why these and literally dozens of similar plans have never managed to raise the profile of halal food exports from Thailand is something of a mystery.

    But World of Muslim at least allowed an opportunity to try to identify the problems. Clearly, there is no commercial ignorance about the Muslim market, its needs or its potential. The biggest Thai companies, the most prominent Thai exporters and some of the country's biggest service providers had major exhibits at World of Muslim.

    First problem, however, is that the biggest food exporters displayed infinitesimal imagination.

    Charoen Phokphand, the biggest exporter of chicken in the world's largest chicken-exporting nation, showed off colourful packs of corn crisps. And soy milk. And some grey, frozen meatballs. This was under a sign bragging, ''Kitchen of the World''.

    ''It's economics of scale, so far as I can tell,'' said a foreign official manning the booth of the Thai-Pakistan Chamber of Commerce. Like virtually all business people at the fair, he asked not to be identified when criticising the halal food industry.

    ''Big Thai companies already are doing good business exporting non-halal [fresh] food such as chicken and fish to places like Europe and America. They don't think about expanding into this whole new Muslim food market. But at the same time, the Islamic market is so huge that small companies usually can't afford to get started.''

    Others, like Malaysian exhibitor Illiya Ferdaus, agreed. ''It is really a huge and global market and world,'' he said. ''Perhaps the Thai food exporters are not quite prepared. Even the Thai-Malaysia trade involves many smaller businesses.''

    Unbelievably, it has been Malaysia, a food-importing nation with a Muslim majority under a secular political system, which has grasped the golden ring to become the world centre for halal _ and not just for food. The term ''halal'' covers all parts of life, from the well-known food and banking to the less-considered businesses such as schools, healthcare and even tourism.

    Mr Ferdaus represented the Halal Industry Development Corp of Malaysia, a government-packed effort to place the country at the centre of the entire halal industry. ''We will soon be the hub of everything halal in the world,'' he said confidently.

    That raised the second problem Thailand faces in taking a step forward into the Muslim business world. At the year's biggest such exhibition, the government was largely missing in action. The only prominent government-sponsored booth in a sea of displays was the hugely discordant Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center. The organisation seemed to serve no important function at the exhibition except to emphasise the violent and continuing problems of the three provinces featured in its photos.

    The Fisheries Department had a small booth with brochures, but there was no official present for at least three hours on the main exhibition day of World of Muslim. And that was the sum of the government involvement.

    Meanwhile, Krabi tourist establishments and the Krabi Polytechnic School had lively displays, trying to attract Muslim, particularly foreign trade. Three tea growers from Chiang Rai province alone strove to make contacts and business. A beef firm from Ratchaburi province that makes only authentic halal hamburger patties had a major display.

    The government will be a vital player if the country is to make a successful bid to enter the massive market of halal food and commerce. ''It just seems the government is not interested in helping with this market at all,'' said one of the officials at the booth of cooking-oil giant Morakot Industries, one of the few exhibitors actually capable of financing a push into the Muslim markets without government backing or guarantee.

    But small and medium businesses at the World of Muslim had darker tales.

    ''There is really just one word for why Thailand has not been able to crack the halal food markets of the world, and that word is 'corruption','' said an enthusiastic but sceptical small-business spice maker. ''There is already so much paperwork and hard work, but when you do everything that's needed, you still have to face a bureaucrat or customs officer who has his hand out and says, 'Pay me'.''

    ''The problem is not the lack of support from our government,'' echoed a fellow Thai businessman. ''It is the obstruction from government officials.''

    Thailand is clearly at a crossroads. In a globalised world, everyone now knows the potential of the Muslim and halal markets, and Thailand will work to seize its share, or lose out. World of Muslim showed that there are scores of small and medium businesses eager to spread out, but it is questionable if they will succeed before others take over.

    Bangkok Post

  2. #2
    Hansum Man!
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    Isn't it odd that Muslims here are treated like second class citizens but when it comes to the mighty baht then they are Thai through and through.

    Who are they trying to kid?!

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