7 March 2018
New Go South Initiative Sees Taiwan Look to Super-Serve Halal Sector
With trade still notably down with mainland China, Taiwan has looked to make up the continuing shortfall by targeting emerging opportunities within the ASEAN bloc, with the halal-food sector seen as one of its priorities.
As there are far more Muslims in the Asia-Pacific region than in the Middle East, it's little wonder that so many Asian businesses in general – and Taiwanese businesses in particular – are getting serious about the halal sector. Proof positive of this was the launch of an International Halal Expo in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's third-largest city.
One of the most high-profile individuals attending this inaugural event was Chen Chu the Mayor of Kaohsiung. Happily posing for photos with the event's hijab-wearing organisers, the Mayor had a clear message for attendees, exhibitors and the wider world, saying: "We want Kaohsiung to be the most Muslim-friendly city in Asia."
With Taiwan and mainland China suddenly far more at odds than they have been for a generation, Chen's words are just one more manifestation of the territory's New Go South policy, an initiative aimed at filling the huge trade and tourism gap left by Beijing's decision to play hardball with its newly recalcitrant neighbour.
As a consequence, Taiwan has begun to avidly woo members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a bid to pivot its economy away from its semi-reliance on cross-Strait goodwill. As part of this, it has been keen to build bridges with the wider Muslim community, hoping to increase its tourism numbers and extend its export reach.
It is not an entirely untoward development for Taiwan. The territory is already home to a 60,000-strong Muslim population, while it also regularly welcomes a substantial number of predominantly Muslim migrant workers from Indonesia, Pakistan and Malaysia. In 2015, there were 245,000 such workers, with several mosques established to meet their religious requirements.
Looking to boost these ties still further, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau has been working closely with the Taipei-based Chinese Muslim Association (CMA). In 2016, this saw the two collaborate on Travelling in Taiwan for Muslims, a comprehensive list of Muslim and Muslim-friendly restaurants and hotels.
With the CMA clearly one of the key movers in the launch of the new expo, its Secretary-General – Salahuding Ma Chao-yen – was on hand to offer his own view as to how Taiwan can capitalise on its existing links to the Muslim community, saying: "All that is required is halal food, a good environment, places to worship and signs that point to Mecca. These are not big things, but if we take care of the small things then Muslim visitors will see that we are sincere in our offer of friendship."
Within the exhibition proper, officials remained keen to emphasise the importance Taiwan is now placing on its Muslim ties. Outlining the sheer scale of the halal market, Alvin Hu, a Project Manager with the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA), said: "As there are 986.5 million Muslims in the Asia-Pacific region, this is clearly a huge potential market for Taiwan and one we have only recently taken serious notice of.
"We are not alone in this. Many companies have come to our stand today and asked how they go about securing halal certification, something that is essential if they want to serve this market, which is about far more than just food. Halal also extends to cosmetics, personal-care items, fashion, medicines, logistics, financial services, tourism…"
According to one of Hu's colleagues – Tony Liu, a Senior Project Manager with the Council – TAITRA staged its first halal food show in Taipei in 2013, while its co-operation with the Taiwan Halal Integrity Development Association (THIDA) dates back to 2008. For his part, Liu sees halal as transcending religion, saying: "I personally think halal food is cleaner and healthier."
Citing the establishment of the Taiwan Halal Centre as key to the growing trade between the territory and Southeast Asian markets, James Zhang, a member of the food-marketing team at the Bureau of Foreign Trade, said: "Since the Centre opened, we have made huge progress. Last year, such exports grew 8.4% year-on-year, reaching a total of US$25.52 billion."
The latest event has even secured the blessing of the local mosque, with Iman Husein Abu-Yasim, an Executive Director of the CMA, saying: "Events like these open doors and help create understanding and friendship."
One of the first through the opened doors of the new expo was Faradillah Amalia Rivai, an Indonesian applied-sciences student at the nearby National Kaohsiung University. While confessing he hadn't expected too much, he said: "I initially came here just to have a look around and find out more about the Taiwan halal food scene. I must admit, though, I have been quite impressed by what I've seen."
Indeed, there was no shortage of things to see and, more importantly, things to sample. While local firms dominated the event, a number of overseas businesses had also taken a stand, including Linaco, the Malaysian company behind the Cowa range of coconut beverages, with its staff reporting that business was surprisingly brisk for a debut event.
Particularly well-represented was the halal fish sector, something that no doubt benefitted from the host city's role as one of Taiwan's busiest ports. With every fish that has scales technically halal, this is one area where Taiwan, which maintains one of the world's largest fishing fleets, is particularly keen to make inroads.
Sounding a word of warning though, one employee of Sy Tuna Sushi, a Taiwanese restaurant chain, said that although halal certification had its benefits, it didn't necessarily guarantee access to the massive Indonesian market. Notoriously protectionist, the authorities there insist that would-be importers secure official Indonesian halal certification, a process seen as prohibitively expensive.
Acknowledging this, Hu cited the example of a Taiwanese popcorn company that decided against securing Indonesian halal certification after the true cost became apparent. Outlining the figures involved, he said: "They were told they would have to pay for an Indonesian cleric to fly to Taiwan and then cover all the costs of his accommodation, taxes and other expenses – a sum that came to about NT$600,000 ($20,000). Then, if they didn't pass the first time round, they would have had to do it all over again."
The Kaohsiung International Halal Expo 2017 took place from 26-29 October at Taiwan's Kaohsiung Exhibition Centre.
Jules Quartly, Special Correspondent, Kaohsiung