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Analysis: A war of opinions brewing in Malaysia and Indonesia over impact of anti-Israel boycotts

KUALA LUMPUR/JAKARTA: The lunchtime crowd at the McDonald’s outlet in Section 3 of Shah Alam, Selangor usually has the fast food restaurant packed with diners, with empty parking lots a rarity. Multiple vehicles would also normally be lined up at the drive-through.

But these days, this and many other outlets of the popular fast-food chain in Malaysia have been experiencing a slowdown in business as a result of boycotts protesting the Israel-Hamas war.

The calls for boycotts against companies with alleged links to Israel have been strong on social media platforms such as X, TikTok, Instagram and Facebook.

Checks by CNA at several McDonald’s outlets in the Klang Valley area – including the one in Shah Alam – on a weekday showed that there were fewer customers than usual. 

Other firms that are facing calls for boycotts include Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Pizza Hut and Burger King.

Grab Malaysia, too, has been a target of the boycotts. This after screenshots of several Instagram stories posted by Ms Chloe Tong – the wife of the ride-hailing company’s chief executive officer Anthony Tan – circulated on social media platforms. 

In the undated posts, Ms Tong had said that she had fallen “completely in love” with Israel because of her past visits there. 

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Over in Indonesia, while netizens have pushed for a boycott of products produced by alleged pro-Israel companies, the situation on the ground has not been reflective of this as scepticism hovers over the actual impact of such actions. 

Business was still as usual at several Starbucks and McDonald’s outlets in Jakarta, as seen by CNA, with an expert noting that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has not gained much traction in the country.

BDS is a Palestinian-led movement which seeks to pressure Israel to comply with international laws by promoting boycotts, divestments and sanctions against the country. 

Muslim-majority nations Malaysia and Indonesia have been vocal in condemning Israel for the atrocities in Gaza that have seen more than 10,000 people – over 4,000 of whom are children – killed in retaliation to Hamas’s cross border assaults on Oct 7.

Similar anti-Israel boycotts have been also seen in other parts around the world such as South Africa and Türkiye. Meanwhile, some South American countries including Bolivia and Chile have broken their diplomatic ties with Israel and recalled their ambassadors.

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Most other staff members in McDonald’s, when approached, did not want to speak about the issue, including one at an outlet who could be seen donning a Palestinian scarf on top of her tudung.

“You can see for yourself,” she said curtly when asked how business was doing.

While most Grab car and delivery riders told CNA that they have not been affected much by the supposed boycott against the company, one told CNA that there were fewer orders in the past few days.

The delivery rider, who wanted to be known only as Aref, said that the orders for McDonald’s and Starbucks have seen a decrease, while the orders from other restaurants have remained constant.

“I understand if people want to boycott but I hope they think it through because these things can affect the income of riders,” he said.

Another Indonesian, Ms Izmiria Az Zahra, 27, told CNA that she believes the boycott will affect the sustainability of companies, citing how the stock of some alleged pro-Israel companies has gone down since the conflict. 

After McDonald’s Israel announced on Oct 12 that it would provide free meals to Israeli soldiers, the parent company saw a fall in its shares at the end of the trading session that day, with a 1.89 per cent fall from the previous day. 

Commenting on concerns that the boycott may affect the livelihoods of local workers, Ms Izmiria said that “priorities must be considered”. 

“There are people who are really going to be killed (under the) genocide in front of our eyes.

“It’s not that I don’t sympathise with employees of companies that are boycotted. But the fact is that these employees still have a choice of work, still live in an independent country, and can still find clean water, electricity, and food,” she said. 

However, Mr Made Supriatma – a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore – told CNA that the success of the BDS movement has been limited in Indonesia, with domestic political issues taking precedence. 

“While people may have sympathy for the Palestinian issue, their attention and engagement seem more focused on pressing domestic matters that directly affect their daily lives,” said Mr Made. 

Among such matters is the upcoming general election, he said, which is set to be held on Feb 14 next year. 

Mr Made said that even for the boycott against McDonald’s, many consumers appear unaware of it, with outlets continuing to operate normally with no noticeable decline in customers. 

“This demonstrates that the success of a boycott can vary significantly based on factors such as consumer awareness, local ownership, and brand perception,” he told CNA. 

He also doubted that the boycott would be a long-lasting movement or have long-term consequences, particularly as those boycotting are likely to be those who are peer pressured as well as those who do not regularly purchase from such companies. 

“Some boycotters are motivated by peer pressure … When this peer pressure diminishes, perhaps due to the passage of time or changing social dynamics, these individuals are likely to resume consuming the products they once boycotted,” he said. 

“And those boycotting McDonald’s, for example, are often not regular McDonald’s customers. They (already) hold pre-existing beliefs or religious views that shape their perceptions of these products, (such as) a conservative Muslim who may already have clear opinions that McDonald’s food is (not) halal.” 

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