A revelation by McDonald's that it is working with the government to bring sedition charges against those calling for a boycott in the wake of the Gaza conflict has threatened to mire the fast food franchise in a bigger public relations nightmare, with a rights lawyer expressing shock that the company would resort to the use of controversial laws.
The announcement was made on social media by McDonald's chief technology officer Zaid Hasman on Nov 3, but only picked up on in recent days with many netizens expressing shock that the company was turning to the government.
In the post, which has since been removed, Zaid Hasman shared a photograph of him and other senior McDonald's colleagues with the chairman of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), Mohamad Salim.
MCMC, the internet regulator under the communications and digital ministry headed by Fahmi Fadzil, was recently under fire over its move to block websites carrying news critical of the government.
Thanking MCMC for its cooperation to stop "slander" against McDonald's, Zaid Hasman also announced that 60 individuals "would be charged with the Sedition Act".
His post renewed criticism against McDonald's, whose bosses have repeatedly pleaded with the public to stop linking it with its franchise partners in other countries where the company is seen as having taken a pro-Israeli stance, including the move by McDonald's Israel to supply food to soldiers involved in the bombardment of Gaza.
McDonald's Malaysia has several times pointed out that it is an independent entity, and highlighted its annual contributions to zakat, hoping to soothe the anger of Muslims in Malaysia who have responded to a popular global boycott targeting cooperation based in the US, Israel's main ally which has supplied it with weapons and other assistance in the current war.
The company's bosses had also turned to state muftis and religious scholars while announcing a contribution to the government's humanitarian fund for Gaza.
Nevertheless, the boycott trend appears to have continued, leaving many McDonald's outlets in the Klang Valley almost deserted even during peak hour.
Many videos to counter the boycott have meanwhile backfired, resulting in a flood of comments attacking an oft-repeated narrative by the company that the boycott is hurting Malay Muslim staff.
McDonald's latest move to resort to the Sedition Act elicited shock from a prominent rights lawyer.
"It is entirely bizarre and improper that a cooperation is announcing that 60 people are being investigated under this archaic and draconian law. If anything, criminal investigation and prosecution is under the purview of the police, and it is for the attorney-general to announce," Zaid Malek of Lawyers for Liberty told business station BFM yesterday.
Adding the company could have been "ill-advised", Zaid Malek said the Sedition Act had nothing to do with accusations against a business entity.
"It is clear that McDonald's as a cooperation does not fall within the ambit of the Sedition Act because it only envisions any sort of 'seditious' statements made against the government or any organ of the government.
"It should not be any business of the state to protect the image of any cooperation," he said, adding that the company should use its own resources to take legal action instead of taxpayers' money through the use of government machinery.
Zaid Malek also said it was probable that the company's decision to turn to the Sedition Act was inspired by the government's own abuse of the act to silence any criticism against it.
MalaysiaNow is awaiting for a response from McDonald's Malaysia.
Meanwhile, many have taken to social media to say they are joining the boycott against McDonald's due to its decision to use the authorities.
"Initially I boycotted McD because of the royalties paid to the US, indirectly supporting Israel. Then found out that McD belongs to Saudi (company), made me more eager to boycott. Now, McD wants to use the Sedition Act to silence the people. It has dug a deeper hole," a popular political commentator who goes by the handle @chairmanGLC said on X.
The comments reflect a growing anger from the pro-Palestinian side against Saudi Arabia in the wake of a recent meeting of Arab-Muslim heads of state, where Riyadh and several Gulf states reportedly opposed a plan to impose economic sanctions against Israel including a halt on oil exports.
McDonald's Malaysia is owned by Gerbang Alaf Restaurants, which is part of Saudi Arabia's Reza Group.
McDonald's is among the Western brands named by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), an international movement that organises the boycott of companies, brands and academic institutions that allegedly fund and support the Israeli regime, directly and indirectly.
The BDS lists the boycott of McDonald’s alongside other US fast food chains as part of a "grassroots organic campaign".
It said the brands were targeted "because these companies, or their branches or franchises in Israel, have openly supported apartheid Israel and/or provided generous in-kind donations to the Israeli military amid the current Israeli offensive against 2.3 million Palestinians in the occupied and besieged Gaza Strip".
Founded in the US in 2005, the BDS is inspired by the economic sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s which led to the end of the white apartheid regime.
Meanwhile, social media users in Malaysia continued to support calls for the boycott of business entities with any links to US government revenue.
One infographic making the rounds refers to McDonald's income tax of US$1.9 billion paid in the US, while giving an overview of the tax laws in the country.
"The US has a system of worldwide taxation, which means US citizens and domestic corporations are subject to US taxes on their worldwide income."
The statement, accompanied by a screenshot of McDonald's Israel announcing its contributions to Israeli soldiers, is followed by a news summary of US aid to the Zionist state.
"On Nov 3, 2023, the US House of Representatives passed a plan to provide US$14.5 billion in military aid to Israel. The plan is funded by cuts to the Internal Revenue Service," it added.