Initial Thoughts on the Breach of Halal Standards in the Dining Hall

By Derek Lim, who wrote this article in response to the breach of Halal-certified standards in by the Chartwells Group, the organization engaged to manage the dining hall. (Original article can be found here)

On Thursday, some diners at the dinner session got wind of how the roast beef served at one of the Halal-certified counters had been improperly prepared. This worrisome information was raised by a member of the dining committee to the Residential College leadership, who were prompt in announcing the information and asking the Office of Housing Services (OHS), which manages the dining hall and oversees its operations, to investigate.

On Saturday morning, OHS sent an email about the incident to some students (primarily Muslim students, but I hear they failed to include Muslim exchange students). It was disappointing in the lack of details given about what the circumstances of the error was. While it acknowledged that ‘the roast beef served […] was prepared in a non-Halal kitchen oven’, it failed to provide an account of why this was done and whether it was permitted.

The email goes on to say that ‘[t]he errant kitchen staff has been suspended by Chartwells’, which not only failed to clarify things, but raised further questions about whether this response was sufficient or appropriate.

In addition the email stated that arrangements had been made for the food to be served at the Halal counter to be ‘provided by a Halal-certified source from Friday, 9 October 2015, onwards’. As was discovered on Saturday morning when a diner examined the certificate at the counter, catering had been provided by Eurest Catering, a member of the Compass Group. Chartwells, however, is also one of the brands owned by Compass (in fact, Chartwells is a newer name to some of the students than Compass: up to the renewal of the dining hall contract with NUS at the start of this academic year, students had known the contractor to be Compass). That OHS permitted this arrangement, with the contractor engaging a subsidiary to make the food instead, was a point of unhappiness for some students.

To be clear, OHS did not inform the students about this arrangement with the contractor. Given that the contractor has at present clearly demonstrated that they were not fastidious about observing standards of operation, I am surprised that OHS was not stricter in demanding either an assurance or an alternative solution, on behalf of the students. This is a situation where essentially the same contractor is preparing the food as before, and where presumably no other alternative arrangement has been discussed with the students who would find this untenable.

But aside from the lack of consultation with the students who would be directly affected by the arrangement, I think the general lack of explanation and information from OHS in general has also been frustrating and damaging.

I think it is fair to say that most students, Muslim and non-Muslim, regard this as a serious breach of trust, especially in Singapore, where observance of Halal-certified standards is regarded as a basic assurance. Given the seriousness of this lapse (which I hope was at least promptly investigated), I think the expectations of what an official account should be have not been met. The apology email that was sent did not contain much in the way of explanation or information from any investigation, leaving many questions unanswered. Many of these questions would be about the operations of the kitchen, and while the contractor may choose not to be entirely forthcoming with the details, surely it is the duty of OHS, the NUS office entrusted with oversight of dining hall operations, to ensure they are held to account.