Ramadan in 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 was 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 progressed I had hoped torrential rain wouldn’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 coconut water to accompany traditional dates (I was pleased to perform well against my competitors compared to earlier in the year). Third are the trips to the rural heartland of Luak Tanah Mengandung in Negri 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 is 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 was 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 often turned — with equal gusto either from the Felda officer, the spouse of the newly-elected representative, the Bank Negara staffer, or a child of an alleged political crony — to the process of cleansing occurring in the country (although many cynics argue the timing of Ramadan has been exploited to benefit from the metaphor of purification 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 towards 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 may remain just as authoritarian as what they replaced.

Still, for all that banter, it is the kids in the fifth category 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 future 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 IGCSE asked to take a selfie. As I shared with him memories of my GCSE exams, I realised for him, this is always the new Malaysia.

In turn, I hope the new Malaysia realises that treating him right can open up a new world for us — 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