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Do boycotts work?

AS the attacks on Palestine intensified before an uncertain ceasefire took place, one other clarion call, apart from the call to stop Israel, was to boycott American products and the US dollar. No less than former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has lent weight to this rally.


Placard in a demonstration in Seattle, Washington (© Berd Whitlock / Flickr)

A boycott is a form of consumer activism. It’s a voluntary and non-violent mark of protest. 

But apart from allowing individuals a sense of purpose over an obvious injustice, what do boycotts achieve? Are they even remotely effective in addressing an issue such as Israel’s continued aggression against Palestine? And have they been proven successful in previous campaigns?

Pressure spots


(Pic courtesy of Josie Fernandez)
“Boycotts are like acupuncture,” says social and consumer rights activist Josie Fernandez, drawing on the analogy that pressure in the right spot — in this case a company’s bottomline — may result in better moral health.

Fernandez cites the Burma Campaign UK as an example of a successful boycott initiative that aims to restore “human rights and democracy in Burma” by lobbying businesses, and discouraging trade, investment and tourism.


(Pic courtesy of Debbie Stothard)
“Individual companies have to recognise that they are accountable for supporting the military government,” says Debbie Stothard, of the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, an alliance of organisations based in Asean member states, working towards a free and democratic Burma. “They have to realise the economic cost of human rights violations that they cause directly or indirectly.”

The Burma Campaign maintains a “Dirty List” of businesses with ties to Myanmar’s military government. It has shamed companies such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, British American Tobacco, and Rolls-Royce into ceasing operations within the regime. Hence, this boycott campaign can be considered successful.

Mamaks and MSMs

Within our shores, Malaysia has had its fair share of boycotts. The most visible initiatives in 2008 were of a political nature.

For example, immediately after the March 2008 elections, Penang’s popular nasi kandar stalls and restaurants reported a sharp decrease in business because of an SMS-circulated call for a boycott. The SMS alleged that nasi kandar operators were involved in a protest against the DAP state government’s decision not to uphold the New Economic Policy. Nasi kandar workers denied involvement.

Another boycott — led by the Hartal MSM movement — started in earnest in late 2007. It was designed to draw attention to the pro-Barisan Nasional spin-doctoring perceived as widespread in the traditional Malaysian media. To date, its “Boycott the newspapers!” online petition has 1,505 signatories. This seems insignificant since boycotts are dependent on large masses acting in a concerted way to make an impact.

“We don’t have empirical figures,” admits organising team member Sharifuddin Latiff. But he is optimistic. Sharifuddin says the new voices on the blog’s comment threads have been “overwhelming”, indicating that the campaign is gathering momentum.


The short story published in Mingguan Malaysia,
believed to be about Seputeh MP Teresa Kok
“The idea of a boycott is spreading,” Sharifuddin adds, citing the Selangor government’s motion to boycott Mingguan Malaysia following the paper’s publication of a short story widely believed to promote a violent end for Seputeh Member of Parliament (MP) Teresa Kok.

One of Hartal MSM’s aims was to target advertisers of the so-called mainstream media, though Sharifuddin has not yet seen any company pull ads because of public outcry. Regardless: “Our main aim is to create awareness, and empower civil society,” Sharifuddin argues.

It is true that the market share of papers such as Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian has declined. In 2005, both these papers respectively reached 11% of the Malaysian population. But in 2008, Utusan Malaysia only reached 7%, while Berita Harian reached 8%.

Whether a concerted hartal has contributed to this decline is debatable and hard to measure. Instead, some have pointed to the traditional media’s general loss of credibility as the main factor.

The case against

There are, of course, legitimate concerns about the execution of boycotts. A major objection to the proposed boycotts of American and Jewish companies over the Israeli attacks in Gaza is that it will imperil the jobs of citizens, Malaysians included.

Citing US State Department statistics, Hafidz Baharom, in his 15 Jan column for The Nut Graph, has also pointed out that the US was Malaysia’s biggest foreign investor in 2007.


Muhyiddin Yassin
That might explain why Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin have both stated that the boycott will not be part of the government’s response to the issue.

Amnesty International (AI) Malaysia campaign co-ordinator K Shan says the human rights organisation respects the consumers’ right to wield economic power. But it also recognises that sanctions and boycotts may result in unforeseen circumstances.

“We believe that there is a separation between governments and people,” Shan tells The Nut Graph. “Boycotts have a punishing effect on people. We need to consider the public’s well-being and rights.”

What happens after?

Shan says that another reason to be careful of boycotts is that they tend to be flash-in-the-pan, stop-gap measures. “It is a protest — but what happens after that? How do boycotts translate into a long-term solution to a problem?”

A preferable methodology, he argues, is continuous engagement by civil society: communication with politicians and shareholders that indicate that people are watching, and will continue to watch.

Referring to the boycott of American products over the Israeli aggression in Palestine, Shan points out that strong consumer boycott campaigns are based on a particular company’s clear involvement in human rights violations. “They are not on the basis of mere ownership: as in race, religion, nationality, or even political sentiments or involvement.”

He ventures that, failing to explore the action and its implications completely, such boycotts can be easily manipulated to wrong-minded ends.

In announcing its nationwide boycott campaign against products by Jewish companies, Muslim Consumers Association Malaysia secretary general Datuk Dr Ma’mor Osman said, “Malaysians, especially Muslim consumers, should support this campaign.”

Couching the boycott — and, therefore, the crisis in Gaza — in religious and communal terms can be a powerful motivator for a successful campaign. Already, one targeted company, Starbucks, has felt compelled to declare that it does not have links to Israel.

Spooking companies into behaving responsibly is of course one way individuals can hold powerful interests accountable. But boycotts are more complex that just being a simple case of cause and effect. And some actions may just cause more grief than relief.


See also:

Buat apa boikot Israel?

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One Response to “Do boycotts work?”

  1. Debbie Lim says:

    Boycotts will only work if the consumers/market is “‘strong enough”. Tit for tat will not work long term.


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