Photo: Food from the ayam penyet stall (top) is the only halal-certified option out of eight stalls at Tamarind Hall’s canteen. It’s also one of the only two halal-certified options available from all of NTU’s hall canteens. Credit: Aditi Bharade.
- A dearth of halal food near NTU’s halls of residence means many Muslim residents sometimes cannot find full meals or have to travel out of their halls to eat.
- Only two out of 74 food stalls in NTU hall canteens offer halal-certified food.
- Students have tried raising the issue for years, but said they have not seen improvement.
Whenever Year 2 student Anatasha Abdullah, 20, wanted to grab a meal at her hall canteen, she had only one option — the Ayam Penyet stall.
While her peers from Saraca Hall had eight stalls to choose from every day, Anatasha, who is Muslim, constantly struggled to find halal food near her on-campus residence.
“I sometimes had to travel all the way out to Jurong Point just to get dinner,” said the public policy and global affairs student.
“Almost all food courts in Singapore have at least two to three halal food stalls. It was quite shocking to see how few options I had in NTU,” she told Soapbox.
Anatasha’s difficulty finding food was one of the key reasons she moved out of hall this semester. She now commutes to NTU every day from her home in Braddell, but prefers it to last year’s arrangement.
A halal food shortage near NTU’s halls of residence is severely limiting Muslim residents’ access to meals, several such students told Soapbox. They described needing to leave campus or take a bus to get something to eat, even though they stay next to some of the University’s most popular canteens.
Muslim students and alumni also said they highlighted this deficit numerous times to school authorities for years, and that the situation has barely improved since.
NTU’s current halal food situation
In 2018, there were two halal-certified stalls across all of NTU’s hall canteens, according to The Nanyang Chronicle, a school newspaper that ceased circulation in 2019.
An updated count by Soapbox in September found that there are still only two halal-certified food stalls out of NTU’s total 74 stalls across 11 hall canteens. These are the ayam penyet stall at Tamarind Hall’s canteen and the Happiness Sunbo Foods stall at the North Hill hall cluster’s canteen.
Spread across the hall canteens are also six Muslim-owned stalls and seven stalls that serve food cooked without pork and lard. These vendors do not have the halal certificate, a document awarded by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore that guarantees the vendor’s products are in accordance with Islamic law.
While the certificate is an assurance to customers, its absence does not necessarily mean a vendor’s food is unsafe for Muslims to eat. For example, Muslim-owned stalls that do not have the certificate are often trusted by Muslim diners.
But only four Muslim-owned stalls in hall canteens serve full meals; the other two serve snacks or desserts like waffles.
As for no-pork-no-lard stalls, some Muslim residents said eating from these vendors is a compromise they are willing to take if left with no choice. But they added that the lack of a certificate still makes them uneasy.
Sarah Tan, 20, a Muslim student, said: “It honestly doesn’t feel very good because there’s a lack of assurance of whether you’re doing something against your morals. It really stimulates a lot of guilt.”
The public policy and global affairs student said she once saw stalls in the South Spine’s food court with signs announcing they applied for halal certification.
“I was excited to see that, but after a few months, the signs were removed, and no-pork-no-lard signs were put up. I got very frustrated,” said Sarah, who stayed in Tamarind Hall last year.
Even if Muslim students like Sarah are willing to eat from such stalls, at least two hall canteens — namely Canteen 13 and 14 — have neither Muslim-owned stalls nor no-pork-no-lard options for nearby residents.
The choices are further limited in the evening. Several Muslim students told Soapbox that finding dinner on campus is even more challenging because many halal-certified and Muslim-owned food stalls close by 5 or 6pm.
“Sometimes I have to resort to buying waffles for dinner,” said Sarah.
When Year 3 sociology student Qistina Warren does manage to find a meal on campus, the menu is often the same on most days. Because halal food stalls near halls are sparsely spread across campus, Muslim residents often only have easy access to one of these cuisines every day.
“Not every Muslim student wants to eat Malay food. We want more variety, we need more diverse halal food options,” said Qistina, 24.
In contrast, other universities in Singapore that regularly provide housing accommodation to local students have halal-certified options or Muslim-owned stalls accessible from all of their dormitories.
The National University of Singapore (NUS) offers halal-certified food from its hall canteens and all of its meal plans, according to the NUS Muslim Society. Other Muslim-owned stalls are available at University Town and Yusof Ishak House, said the society.
Meanwhile, the university canteen at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) has two Muslim-owned stalls, per the SUTD Muslim Society.
The NTU Muslim Society did not respond to Soapbox’s requests for comment by press time.
A deficit lasting years
Several Muslim students also said they have raised concerns about the halal food situation to no avail.
Mr Faris Ahmad, an NTU alumnus from the school of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, said he has tried asking school authorities for more halal options before he graduated in 2020.
“When I first came to NTU in 2016, it wasn’t too bad. There was a fair bit of halal food on campus, scattered amongst the hall canteens: vegetarian, Indian and other halal food. After my third year though, it really went downhill. Most of the Indian food vendors left, and there were fewer vegetarian options,” said Mr Faris, 25.
Qistina said she sent the NTU Students’ Union an email in February asking whether more halal food options will be introduced to halls.
“They replied saying that they were working with food vendors, but I don’t see many changes,” said Qistina.
“I was really shocked. I had a very idealistic vision of NTU, that it was a world-class university that would cater to minorities too,” she added. “As the weeks went by, I realised I was eating the same things over and over again. I thought: ‘Where is the diversity?’”
In response to Soapbox’s queries, an NTU spokesperson said that the university is “always on the lookout for potential vendors to expand halal and vegetarian options in its food courts and canteens”.
“There are currently 18 halal-certified outlets on campus,” said the spokesperson, who did not specify how many of these establishments are located in hall canteens. Most of NTU’s halal-certified outlets are concentrated in the North Spine Plaza, and include fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Subway.
The spokesperson further said that the Quad Cafe at the School of Biological Sciences is in the process of being fully halal-certified and that there are two Muslim-owned stalls on campus that serve halal food.
They added that NTU is encouraging 15 no-pork-no-lard stalls across campus to apply for halal certification.
Additionally, the representative said that Canteen 4 is the latest food court to be fully halal-certified since May.
But when Soapbox visited Canteen 4 in September, there was no halal certificate displayed. A staff member there said the canteen is run by Pines Cafe, a restaurant which has halal-certified branches outside NTU. She said the Canteen 4 location has not received its certification yet.
When asked to clarify, the NTU spokesperson restated that Canteen 4 is halal-certified.
The NTU Students’ Union responded to Soapbox queries on the halal food shortage by saying it was “aware of this issue” and had previously brought the shortage up to University management.
“It is actually a requirement for each canteen to have at least one halal-certified stall and one vegetarian stall to ensure that our muslim and vegetarian students have food options,” it said in an email.
However, the Union said there were problems in upholding the requirement, and that multiple halal food vendors left canteens because they were not getting enough customers.
The Union added that it has conducted a survey for students to identify halal and vegetarian stalls they wish to see on campus, and that it shared the results with University management, though it did not specify when.
In the meantime, Muslim residents will have to wait for better access to food, or find other solutions like moving out just as Anatasha did.
“When I moved out, I felt really relieved, especially knowing that I don’t have to worry about where I was going to get my next meal from,” she said.
Additional reporting by Isabella Goh, Tan Yu Lynn, Srinidhi Ragavendran, Asyiqin Binte Shahmudin, Eunice Sng, Krissten Tan, and Yong Hui Ting.