17 August 2013

FIRST of all, let me wish everyone a Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, maaf zahir batin.

This year, the idea of forgiveness seems more poignant than ever, given the rancorous Ramadan we just had.
I don’t recall a month more full of anger and tension than this year’s fasting month, ironic given that it is a month when believers are supposed to exercise restraint not only from food but also in thought, word and deed.
But the beginning of the month of Shawal gives us an opportunity to press the reset button.
We ask for forgiveness from our parents, family and friends for whatever wrongs big or small we may have done them in the past year including harsh words and rash deeds, and we forgive those who may have wronged us as well.
I was quite touched reading on Facebook the many status updates asking for forgiveness at Hari Raya by and from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Malaysians seem to understand the spirit of the Raya season very well, regardless of their religion.
In fact in spite of the many upsetting events during Ramadan, there was still much that we can celebrate as Malaysians.
One was the #Fast4Malaysia event organised by some friends of mine and I to foster unity through a common experience, fasting. On that one day, July 31, non-Muslim Malaysians all over the country and even overseas fasted in solidarity with Muslims to understand what it feels like to not have any food or water from dawn to dusk.
About 60 of us woke up at 4.30am to gather at a 24-hour eatery in Bangsar to havesahur, the pre-fast meal. Many of us knew one another but it was heartening to see people we didn’t know join in.
One young Chinese man came alone and was immediately invited by a young Malay family to sit with them. Another young woman drove all the way from Shah Alam to join in. Two Indian women happened to walk in the same restaurant without knowing what was happening but decided to join in when they learnt why we were there.
There was a sense of camaraderie among us that was truly unifying.
Some first-timers were nervous about how they would cope but everyone else assured them it would be fine. All day on social media like Twitter, people encouraged each other.
Many young Muslims were thril­led and fascinated that their non-Muslim friends were joining them in the fast that day and gave many tips on how to manage the hunger.
Non-Muslims chatted all day about their experience. They uploaded photos of what they ate at sahur and then later on photos of themselves breaking the fast with family and friends.
Some people organised special buka puasa gatherings at home, in their offices and restaurants.
Many blogged about their experience which was overwhelmingly positive. One teacher was at first greeted with incredulity by her fasting students which then became respect that she was joining them for the day. There were even some who continued to fast even after July 31 because they enjoyed the experience.
Even overseas Malaysians joined in. New Zealand was the first to sahur and break fast while Norway was the last. Thus, we were connected through this experience not only with our immediate friends and family, but also with those overseas – Malaysians linking hands around the world.
It’s a pity that such a unifying event got so little coverage from the mainstream media and no mention at all from our leaders except for a few young Opposition politicians.
Perhaps they should look up the #Fast4Malaysia Tumblr site to see how civil society can unite Malaysians in the sort of organic way that politicians cannot. There were no financial inducements, no sponsorship, no T-shirts involved.
People went Dutch at sahur and buka puasa although some generous people hosted meals in their homes for their friends. Many made new friends along the way.
The main outcome was something no politician nor even religious leader could have engendered, mutual respect. Non-Muslim Malaysians, having fasted themselves, renewed their respect for their Muslim fellow citizens who do this for a whole month each year.
Muslim Malaysians, in return, gained a new respect for their non-Muslim compatriots for attempting something which they had no obligation to perform. Both sides experienced something very precious for one another, empathy.
Of course, as is typical, there were detractors and cynics.
Some questioned why fasting should be the experience we used, seeing it as an attempt to impose one religion’s obligation over non-adherents.
This was an ironic question given that the organisers came from all faiths. But we simply took the opportunity of Ramadan to respond to the many upsetting events during the month. If anyone has other creative ideas that can also unify people in the same way, then they should also do it. God knows we need many of these.
Many asked if we would do this again next year and every year. The answer is we don’t know. This was an attempt at uniting Malaysians at a time when there was much that was (and still is) divisive.
We hope that there will be no more need for it in the future. But if there is, then we might. Or we might think of something else we can do that can bring us all together.
Ultimately it is a citizen initiative to bring peace at a time when our leaders fail us. And the more they fail us, the more ordinary Malaysian citizens need to find creative ways to keep us together.