Ajinomoto scandal may be economic sabotage

Abdurrahman warns of the dangers to the economy if the Japanese firm were to shut down operations because of the halal debacle.

Economic sabotage might have been a key motive to brand a popular taste enhancer as pork-tainted and unfit for consumption in Indonesia.

As a political battle brews in the background over whether the monosodium glutamate-based Ajinomoto seasoning can be eaten by Muslims, President Abdurrahman Wahid and his aides have alluded to the possibility that the controversy was aimed at scaring off foreign investors.

Mr Abdurrahman, who declared the product to be halal after Indonesia’s highest Islamic authority declared it otherwise, warned of the dangers to the economy if the Japanese firm PT Ajinomoto were to shut down operations as a result of the debacle.

Police investigations into the case resulted in the arrests of eight top officials, several of them Japanese, and shutting down a major factory in East Java.

Said the President during a visit to Bandung on Wednesday: “The closure of the factory will threaten foreign investment. We could lose US$1.3 billion in investment in various businesses, and will face additional unemployment problems.”Palace sources said that his comments also underlined concerns that there were attempts to foment unrest at grassroots level by courting dangerously with Muslim sensitivities.

Presidential spokesman Wimar Witoelar said that Mr Abdurrahman considered the case to be “politically motivated”. “It is designed to incite unrest among Muslims,” he said. “Religion is used to make people panic.” The President’s advisers believe that the country’s multi-faceted problems over the last year point to a conspiracy to topple him.

“The politics of Ajinomoto is really about the politics of trying to get rid of Gus Dur,” said an aide, referring to Mr Abdurrahman by his nickname.

“There is a clear pattern to what we are seeing in Indonesia today. The bomb attacks, corruption allegations and now Ajinomoto all point to a very concerted attempt to undermine foreign investor confidence in the country and weaken the President’s grip on power.

“Ajinomoto is a plump target being one of the top firms in Japan. Remember, Japan is one of the largest investors in Indonesia.”

Some in the palace would like to believe that the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI), that certified Ajinomoto as a no-go for Muslims, might have been up to mischief considering certain elements there had an axe to grind with Mr Abdurraman. After all, MUI is divided between supporters of the President and his opponents from the modernist camp.

The Islamic body took three months to make public that they knew pork enzymes were being used in the product. Observers have suggested this could have been deliberate to embarrass Mr Abdurrahman and incite anger against the government.

The President’s stand on Ajinomoto has drawn fire from MUI officials who argue that he was confusing Indonesia’s predominantly Muslim population with an opinion aimed at assuaging foreign investors.

Despite Mr Abdurrahman’s claims that scientific evidence showed that Ajinomoto was safe for consumption, MUI continued to hold the view that the taste enhancer was forbidden for Muslims.

KH Maruf Amin who heads the MUI body that carries out food audits brushed aside suggestions that the Islamic council’s ruling was politically motivated. “This is a straight forward case based on facts we have gathered during the audit of Ajinomoto, nothing else,” he said.

“Unfortunately, now there are two views about the product now. We cannot ask PT Ajinomoto to withdraw the product. That is the government’s job. It is best that we leave it to the public to choose for themselves.”


‘Will investors want to come here if they know that any minute, irresponsible people can suddenly create a rumour leading to immense financial loss for a company? It does further damage to Indonesia’s reputation as a place to do business.’

– English-language daily Indonesia Observer, in a hard-hitting editorial titled “Another X-file?” on the Ajinomoto controversy

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