Malaysia has an interesting time during Ramadan. With the general feeling of festivity, there is another side to it all. Ramadan, a month of charity, abstinence, reflection, and religious deeds, is also a month of overspending, wastage, shortages, and road accidents.
Hari Raya, literally ‘Day of Celebration’, is in a few days’ time. There is a growing feeling of festivity in the air here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Shopping malls, restaurants and even the local kiosks are playing traditional songs on a loop, ready to usher in the coming Eid-ul-Fitr and the end of the fasting month, Ramadan. Everything is decorated in the ubiquitous green banners and Eid lamps. The television is playing local shows and corporate-sponsored tear-jerking advertisements reminding us of the goodness of Eid. People are starting to travel to their hometowns in other parts of the country, leaving the capital quiet and exhausted from the month of fasting.
Muslim homes are stocking up on drinks, food and biscuits, also known as kuih, for the beginning of the new Islamic month, Syawal. My own kitchen is stacked with plastic boxes of biscuits, sourced from markets, shops and friends. My grandmother has spent the last week cooking dishes for the day (my duty was to stir only when necessary), ensuring that everything is ready for our yearly ‘Open House’, a Malaysian tradition where we literally open our doors to family, friends, and neighbours, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Crisp Ringgit Malaysia notes, issued especially by the Central Bank of Malaysia for this occasion have been put in colourful envelopes ready to be distributed to younger, usually unmarried, family members and friends. The days up to Eid has always been for me, personally, an exciting time.
Malaysia has an interesting time during Ramadan. With the general feeling of festivity, there is another side to it all. Ramadan, a month of charity, abstinence, reflection, and religious deeds, is also a month of overspending, wastage, shortages, and road accidents. A nation that loves to eat, food bazaars, enjoyed by everyone regardless of religious affiliation, pop up throughout the country serving savoury and sweet dishes. It is hard to judge how supply is able to satisfy the demand but unfortunately, with variety comes wastage as not everything cook is bought. In the days leading up to Eid, many return to their respective hometowns in order to celebrate with their families there. Not unlike Thanksgiving in America, on a smaller scale, Malaysia has to deal with similar issues. Traffic jams are caused by the rush to arrive home on time, which leads to the unusually high number of accidents, each year Traffic Police-led campaigns are launched to promote road safety and ensure fewer deaths. Morbidly, newspapers tally the number of those killed on the road.
Being a seemingly religious country, Ramadan and Eid is also used as an opportunity for by-the-way political campaigning. Members of Parliament, from both sides of the house, display posters wishing Malaysians a blessed Eid. Usually accompanied with pictures of local politicians in traditional outfits, posters would be strategically placed at mosques, traffic lights, below overhead bridges and on the side of buildings. Sometimes opposing political parties would have their posters side by side, in an attempt to out-banner each other. Although this is not unique for Ramadan and Eid (each religious celebration will see a display of greetings from your local MP), this is probably indicative of the need for politicians in Malaysia to be seen to be religiously conscious. Being a Sunni country, Ramadan is also a time where the religious authorities are particularly active. Over the last few years, the dominant racial group, the Malays have been going through what can arguably be called an “Islamic identity crisis” and this has led to a strengthening in the religious moral code in Malaysia. Although non-Muslims are allowed to eat and drink in the daytime, Muslims can be prosecuted and fined for eating in public during fasting hours. This year, some were sent for special Islamic courses to ‘correct’ their behaviour.
In spite of the slightly darker side of Ramadan, Malaysians still look forward to Eid and all the sense of renewal it brings. For Muslims, it is the end of a month of fasting and abstinence and the beginning of a month of festivities. A key component is forgiveness and it is very common for Muslims to apologise for any wrongdoings committed. Charity is also encouraged and a special religious tax, the zakat al-fitr is paid during the month of Ramadan. So in a few days’ time, we hope to be at the family table seeking forgiveness, enjoying a cleansed state of mind and body, hoping that the months until the next Ramadan will be filled with good deeds and good intentions.
Wherever you are in the world, Eid Mubarak and Selamat Hari Raya, Maaf Zahir dan Batin.