Hangry in school: NTU students frustrated over limited halal food options on campus

Affected students say that they have been frequenting the same stalls for years due to the limited number of halal food options available in school.

Alfie Kwa | January 12, 2022, 11:47 AM

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“Can someone do something about the halal food situation in Nanyang Technological University (NTU),” said an anonymous post on the NTU Confessions Facebook page.

The situation, as I’ve come to learn after perusing similar posts, refers to the apparent lack of halal food options on campus.

Affected students bemoan the fact that they have to patronise the same (few) stores and eat the same food — food that they've been having for years.

According to the NTU/NIE Muslim Society, there are 30 halal food options spread across campus.

While one might think that that is a decent number, it isn’t quite so as almost half of them are fast food joints, supermarkets, convenience stores and vending machines.

Accessibility is also an issue.

At 200 hectares, NTU boasts the largest university campus in Singapore. Although there are buses that run through the school, some areas in school have few or no halal food options at all, making it inconvenient for Muslim students at mealtimes.

One post reads: “South Spine only has one nasi padang. North Spine only has fast food and the canteen there has (sic) ZERO halal food.”

It is concerning because both the North Spine and South Spine are areas where many faculties, lecture theatres, and tutorial rooms are located — in other words, areas which see the most footfall on campus — but there is a limited number of food establishments offering affordable and healthy halal food there.

According to these posts, both the school and the NTU Student’s Union are aware of the issue. But so far, affected students feel that not much has been done.

I decided to speak to some NTU students to find out more about this.

Limited halal food options

“We feel angry and frustrated as it is especially inconvenient to find good and cheap halal food,” said 22-year-old Siti Nurhalizah, a third-year Sociology student.

Most of her classes are held at the South Spine and The Hive, two locations that are frequented by many students on campus. Yet, there’s still a limited number of halal food options there.

The Hive and the South Spine have six halal food options, three of which are from vending machines.

Since there are only a few to choose from, these halal-certified stalls often see snaking queues during the busy lunch hour. More often than not, Siti finds herself joining a queue to wait in line even though it eats into her lunch time.

“Beggars can’t be choosers right,” she shrugged.

If food options are limited in the main parts of campus, it is even more in the residential halls.

26-year-old Haikal, a fourth-year Sports Science and Management student said that the options in halls are “very limited”:

“There are several stalls in Canteen 1 and Canteen 2 which claim to sell halal food and display signs informing that they have already applied for the halal certificate. However, it has already been more than a year since the signs were up, but the stalls are still not halal certified.”

List of Halal food options and Muslim Owned stalls in Hall 2 and Tamarind Canteen. Image via NTU/NIE Muslim Society.

The Hall 2 resident often gets his dinners from canteens in Hall 2 or Tamarind Hall which are nearest to him.

Otherwise, he travels to the National Institute of Education (NIE) building which is about a 10-minute walk away from his hall to get dinner which he prefers.

While he doesn't mind the food available, he added: “It gets repetitive after a while. Imagine eating the same meal for dinner for four years.”

Nurul'Ain, 24, who graduated last year, agreed, saying that the school lacks a variety of food choices for Muslim students.

“The type of halal stalls are similar across the campus. For example ayam penyet stalls or Indian Muslim stalls.”

Ayam Penyet stall in Hall 2. Image from ntu_halal_eateries/IG.

For a year, Ain lived in Hall 7, which does not have halal food in its canteen. The food court nearest to her hall is Koufu, which is a five minutes bus ride or 15-minute walk away.

Hoping for more understanding

Image via Nanyang Technological University, Singapore/FB.

“Just small changes like having one halal food stall in each canteen in NTU — I think that's a good start,” she said.

“It resulted in myself eating fast food like Mcdonald's or Long John Silver’s after classes or even going to Pioneer MRT station or Jurong Point to get supper and dinner.”

Ain even resorted to bringing food from home and reheating it for dinner so that she would have enough meals for the week.

She added that it was “annoying” that she couldn’t follow her friends to eat at some hall canteens and had to constantly explain that those canteens didn’t offer halal food.

Haikal urges the public to “put yourself in our shoes” especially in the face of comments that brush aside these students’ concerns — such as:

“Where got no halal food. Macs is halal.”

“There’s not enough demand for halal food.”

The latter is not an uncommon sentiment.

“The halal canteen problem is simply a case of economics, demand and supply. If there is enough demand, no one is stopping any vendor from opening a stall, or even the whole canteen full of halal stalls,” a person said.

But Haikal disagrees.

“How can this be measured when the absence of halal stalls does not even pose an opportunity for us to show whether the demand is there or not.”

Students say little has been done

Muslim food in NTU. Image from ntu_halal_eateries/IG.

All three whom I spoke to agreed that the most infuriating thing is how the issue has persisted year after year, even after multiple feedback.

“I’ve given my opinion about halal food in NTU three times,” said Ain, adding that this issue has “been going on and nothing much has changed” since her time in school.

Haikal said that his seniors had flagged this issue to him even before he started at NTU.

“I feel angry that the problem has not been resolved,” he said, “I did speak to the student union to highlight this issue. They told me that they have raised this issue to the school.”

Hoping for a solution

When I contacted NTU, a spokesperson from the school’s Office of Commercial and Auxiliary Services said that it has been responding to the campus community’s dietary needs, and regularly engages students on the matter.

However, the spokesperson also pointed out that potential vendors also look at business viability before setting up shop at NTU.

The spokesperson added that seven existing and new outlets are in the process of obtaining or will be applying for halal certification.

In addition to that, there are a dozen halal-certified food vending machines available, serving a variety of sandwiches and dishes for takeaway.

“We will continue to encourage food operators to obtain halal certification where feasible. We are also working with another 11 no-pork-no-lard stalls across campus to encourage them to apply for halal certification progressively, so that more customers can benefit from their offerings,” they said.

Speaking to the NTU Student Union (NTUSU), they said that they have worked with the NTU Muslim Society and the University to look into the installation of a dedicated microwave oven specifically for halal food in 23 residential halls in NTU.

“This would make it easier for students to prepare or reheat food in their halls, particularly during Ramadan,” said a spokesperson from NTUSU.

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Top images via scholarships-positions.com and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore/FB.