Ra­madan in the new Malaysia

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RA­MADAN is about cleans­ing and pu­rifi­ca­tion, and for most Mus­lims it is both a joy and a chal­lenge to be as pro­duc­tive while ful­fill­ing the re­li­gious obli­ga­tions. For me the daily rou­tine of this year’s fast­ing has been sim­i­lar to pre­vi­ous years, though there were more board meet­ings than usual given the ne­ces­sity to hold AGMs, sub­mit an­nual re­turns, and dis­cuss first quar­ter re­sults. As af­ter­noons progress, one hopes tor­ren­tial rain doesn’t paral­yse the roads: but luck­ily I was forced to buka puasa in the car just once.

Typ­i­cally, I have five cat­e­gories of buka puasa. First, there are soli­tary bites fol­lowed by quiet evenings of prayer and con­tem­pla­tion. Sec­ond, there are ses­sions by the squash court, where sets are in­ter­rupted by ice- cold co­conuts to ac­com­pany the tra­di­tional dates ( I was pleased to per­form well against my com­peti­tors com­pared to ear­lier in the year). Third are the trips to the ru­ral heart­lands of the Luak Tanah Men­gan­dung in Negeri Sem­bi­lan to ac­com­pany my fam­ily to break fast with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Fourth are the buka puasa events hosted by com­pa­nies and societies at ho­tels and coun­try clubs to strengthen bonds among col­leagues and friends. The fifth type are where char­i­ta­ble or ed­u­ca­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions in­vite spon­sors and donors to their premises to break fast with the chil­dren or stu­dents con­cerned.

This di­ver­sity con­nects to the theme of the month in dif­fer­ent ways: the first speaks directly to one’s own spir­i­tu­al­ity and com­pass in life, while the sec­ond ful­fils the in­junc­tion to keep fit and ac­tive dur­ing the holy month. The third, fourth and fifth ref­er­ence the im­por­tance of com­mu­nity, camaraderie and com­pas­sion.

There has been an un­mis­tak­able new en­ergy in the tenor of the evenings (re­gard­less of the vo­cal reg­is­ter of the imam). Whether seated around um­but ke­lapa masak lemak putih in Jem­pol or hard-fought roast lamb at an (in­evitably over­crowded) buf­fet, the dis­cus­sion has of­ten turned – with equal gusto as from the Felda of­fi­cer or the spouse of the newly- elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive as from a Bank Ne­gara staffer or a child of an al­leged po­lit­i­cal crony – to the process of cleans­ing that is go­ing on in the coun­try (al­though plenty of cyn­ics ar­gue that the tim­ing of Ra­madan has been ex­ploited to ben­e­fit from the metaphor of pu­rifi­ca­tion that the holy month in­evitably brings).

Every­one has some­thing to say about how their lives will change for the bet­ter – “my for­mer boss was so cor­rupt, now we can do our work prop­erly” or “my dad ac­tu­ally hated that guy, fi­nally we can clear our name”. For now, the good­will to the new govern­ment re­mains to the ex­tent that if some ba­bies end up be­ing drained out with the bath­wa­ter, it is seen as a price worth pay­ing – but as I said at a Bar Coun­cil fo­rum over the week­end, it is pre­cisely dur­ing this honey­moon pe­riod that we must be vig­i­lant of os­ten­si­ble ‘re­forms’ that may turn out to be power grabs; af­ter which the poli­cies re­main just as au­thor­i­tar­ian as what they re­placed.

Still, for all that ban­ter, it is the kids in the fifth cat­e­gory of buka puasa whose lives could be im­pacted the most by the poli­cies of the new govern­ment. Do they be­lieve in ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion by all, in­clud­ing refugee and state­less chil­dren (and if so, how will they im­ple­ment that be­lief)? Will peo­ple with autism have greater op­por­tu­ni­ties to thrive in the new Malaysia, from schools to job op­por­tu­ni­ties? These are the finer points of pol­icy that were not cen­tral to the elec­tion cam­paign; yet could de­ter­mine the fu­tures of so many.

And so, while Ra­madan 1439 will al­ways be the first fast­ing month af­ter the 14th gen­eral elec­tion, I am hum­bled to have met the young chap of Yayasan Chow Kit who dreams of fly­ing a he­li­copter even though the Malaysian govern­ment doesn’t recog­nise him as hav­ing been born here; or the young girl of the Ideas Autism Cen­tre, who helped bake the best cook­ies I’ve had this year.

As I walked down the stairs to leave Ideas Acad­emy (the note by the lift de­clares ‘ there is no lift to suc­cess’), one cheer­ful lad who had es­caped con­flict in Su­dan and is now study­ing for his IGCSEs asked to take a selfie. As I shared with him my mem­o­ries of my GCSE ex­ams, I re­alised that for him, this was al­ways the new Malaysia.

In turn, I hope the new Malaysia re­alises that treat­ing him right can open up, for us, a new world: and a golden op­por­tu­nity for cleans­ing and pu­rifi­ca­tion. Se­la­mat Hari Raya Aidil­fitri. Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is found­ing pres­i­dent of Ideas ( of which Ideas Autism Cen­tre and Ideas Acad­emy are spe­cial projects) and Trustee of Yayasan Chow Kit.

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