“As a marketplace leader, you have a critically important role in your business and community. Beyond building your business, you are motivated by a desire to pursue the grander vision God has given you to lead….”
— Willow Creek Association
In Malaysia, ethnicity and religion intertwine, tightly and perilously, through every facet of political, economic, and socio-cultural existence. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the matter of food and drink. For Muslims, certain food and drink is proscribed: what you eat and drink is religiously defined; when you eat and drink also has a religious dimension. Food and religion go together.
So the way food is marketed, in such a society, is a matter of some sensitivity. It is a measure of a civilized society that citizens respect one another’s religious faith – and the accompanying food and drink taboos. And it is a measure of good business, in such a society, that businessmen do not exploit communal differences, or the cultural and religious icons of groups other than their own, for private or sectional profit. Thus, one group’s food taboos should not be another group’s marketing ploy.
What, then, are we to make of Ninja Joe’s recent announcement of a new line called “P Ramly Pork Burgers”? The name was, at the very least, provocative: P. Ramlee is perhaps the greatest hero of Malay Muslim popular culture; while Ramly burgers are Malaysia’s favourite home-grown (and halal) fast food. Julie Koh, Director of Brand360, called the move “cheeky and bold … but risky”; some praised it as effective “guerrilla marketing”; and Campaign Asia noted that “Ninja Joe has (perhaps purposely) courted controversy.” Without doubt, the company will have raised the visibility of their product in the market that matters – that of Malaysia’s non-Muslim (and overwhelmingly Chinese) pork-eaters. To this extent, some would say, the move was good business.
But was it good manners? Or good politics? Or good religion? Give the Malaysian context – of a highly-charged conundrum of ethnic and religious differences – it is hard to avoid the suspicion of deliberate mischief. Indeed, the recriminations have been both predictable and one-sided: the Malay authorities have over-reacted; Muslims are thin-skinned; religion and ethnicity don’t come into it – and those who beg to differ are trouble-makers. It is hard to avoid the impression that the fuss over “P Ramly Pork Burgers” is just another example of Malay Muslim bigotry.
So was the idea just an innocent business gimmick? It may well be. However, if we are to question the motives of Ninja Joe’s detractors, we need to do the same for Ninja Joe’s promoters and defenders. Above all, and especially in a Malaysian context, we must establish that no mischief – especially religious or ethnic mischief – was intended.
So did Ninja Joe have an ethnic, or religious, agenda?
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When Ninja Joe’s founders, TJ and Janice Tee, set up their business of selling non-halal (and specifically pork) burgers in Malaysia, they got their capital back within a year. For many Christians, doing business is an act of devotion – an act ordained, defined, and blessed by God – and to TJ and Janice, their success was divinely ordained.
“God was good indeed!” observed TJ. “Looking back, it was clear that the peace of God was with us on our journey … we felt assured knowing that God would lead us according to His will … it is very important to commit everything to God. Put Him in the centre of everything, small and big … and especially in business.” To TJ and Janice, clearly, the business of Ninja Joe was a religious matter.
But the Tees are not merely good Christian business people, they are fervent missionaries for the cause of bringing Christ into every facet of the nation’s life. With the help of two Australian evangelists, Jesse and Liz Milani, the Tees run a company (Alphapod) which uses the smart phone “to create an easy way for people to read and understand the Bible.” More crucially, the Tees are keen members of a church which, in its connections to the global evangelical network, is one of the most strategic missionizing churches in Malaysia.
The Tees’ church is the Agape Community Church in Seremban – where TJ works in the PA ministry and Janice helps in the music and dance ministry. Agape holds both Chinese and English services and has created two outreach churches. But more significantly, it is the key link in Malaysia for Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek Association and its annual Global Leadership Summit. In the process of modernizing the global evangelical movement (and in particular strengthening it as an agent for secular change) few evangelical organizations are as important as the Willow Creek Association. In Malaysia, Seremban’s Agape Community Church stands with churches like DUMC and Grace Assembly as a vital artery of foreign missionizing.
The Willow Creek Association sprang out of the Willow Creek Community Church – a 26,000-member mega-church on the outskirts of Chicago. In concert with a number of major Christian business leadership networks (especially Bob Buford’s Leadership Network, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Network, and John Calvin Maxwell’s EQUIP), the WCA focuses on creating and mobilizing a vast army of leading personalities, from both the evangelical movement and the secular world, for the purpose of the Christian transformation of targeted countries. In particular, the WCA (like its partners) seeks to create a network of Christian leaders who will influence all aspects of a nation’s secular life, and interact effectively on a global scale. To this end, the WCA holds an annual Global Leadership Summit, addressed by major speakers and video-linked to key nodes in some 55 countries, where national leaders from church and “marketplace” assemble for two days of conference events and networking. Over the past decade, these summits have hosted politicians such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Tony Blair, business leaders such as Melinda Gates (Microsoft), Carly Fiorina (Hewlett Packard), Jeffrey Immelt (General Electric), and Alan Mulally (Ford Motors), “motivational experts” such as John Maxwell, Jim Collins, Pat Lencioni, Ken Blanchard, and Henry Cloud, and a wide range of other evangelical operatives such as Bono, Hillsong’s Brian Houston, World Vision/IJM’s Gary Haugen, Rick Warren, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Liz Wiseman, and A.R. Bernard (Advisory Chairman, City Harvest Singapore).
The process of which WCA is a part is variously known as the “liberal”, “middle-ground”, or “progressive” wing of the global evangelical movement. Essentially, its objectives can be summarized as “the corporatization of the Christian world, and the Christianization of the corporate world” – involving, in the words of one critic, the transformation of the evangelical movement “from a pastoral ministry model to a CEO/Innovative Change Agent leadership model”. The vision of men like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Bob Buford, and John Calvin Maxwell is united, simple, and effective: bring the marketplace into the church – and put the church firmly into the marketplace.
Naturally, such ideas are especially attractive to those in corporate business, and to entrepreneurial workers who aspire to greater corporate-style success. They also find fertile ground amongst the business classes of Asia, where a particular target is the Chinese community. Apart from Malaysia, the WCA’s Global Leadership Summit has been held in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai, and Beijing; the director of China’s Cypress Institute, Zhao Xiao, has spoken at the summit; and in 2011, Willow Creek Church was a special host for the Three Self Movement’s Chinese Bible Exhibition. And in Malaysia, in 2015, the Agape Community Church hosted the country’s first “Chinese Global Leadership Summit” – during which the entire WCA event was presented in Chinese translation to a gathering of 800 “leaders and volunteers.”
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Which brings us back to Ninja Joe, and “P Ramly Pork Burgers”.
In Kelantan, some years ago, a local businessman decided to name his food outlet “Kent Turkey Fried Chicken”. The name appeared in both English and Chinese lettering – and it sounded the same whichever you read from. It was cheeky, but it was also funny and offended no community feeling. Ninja Joe’s “P Ramly Pork Burgers”, however, are a very different matter.
The idea may have given the company a boost in its chosen niche, especially now it has been abandoned in the midst of controversy. Beyond that, at the very least, it would seem the idea was stupid, provocative, and ill-mannered. There is, however, a much wider dimension to the story than this.
For TJ and Janice Tee, God is at the centre of all they do. Above all, the Tees see their business activities as being guided by God. Their evangelical intent is publicly and proudly advertised. What is more, their church is purposefully and strategically part of a global evangelical project aimed at transforming secular life (especially business) in countries like Malaysia.
Could it be, in some subtle way, that the promoters of Ninja Joe knew exactly what they were doing?
Note: I came across the above piece written by Iain Buchanan – it definitely is worth sharing.
* Mr. Buchanan is the author of Fatimah’s Kampung and two other books that expose the Militant Christianity work and the evangelical mission of Dominionism and Christian Zionism in Malaysia – “The Armies of God” (2010) and “Sang Nila Utama and The Lion of Judah” (2015).
To order the books: CLICK HERE