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Ramadan brings change of rhythm to Malaysia and Singapore

Enjoying the iftar meal inside the Singapore Islamic Restaurant. ​ (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

SINGAPORE -- Every day by sundown during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the cooks and serving staff at the Singapore Islamic Restaurant are swamped.

On a recent evening, there was barely a seat to be found as hungry diners settled in for iftar, the post-fast evening supper, with the aroma of the house special, biryani -- a mixed rice dish -- wafting through the crowded restaurant and onto the muggy street outside.

"This is the busiest time for us," said owner Kalil, leaning back against a railing outside the restaurant, which sits almost opposite the Sultan Mosque and around the corner from Arab Street, an area known as Kampong Glam that is a hub for Islamic life in the city-state.

For Muslims, almost a quarter of the world's population, Ramadan means a month each year of waking before dawn to eat suhour, the pre-fast meal, and working, hungry, through the day until nightfall, when eating is allowed once again. As the setting sun beats a tawny glow off the Sultan Mosque's golden minaret, people queue at stalls for kebabs, rice, and fruit such as dates, the latter a popular snack to break the daylong fast.

Women at prayer inside the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. ​ (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Only 15% of Singapore's 5.7 million population is Muslim, in contrast to neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, where Muslims make up around 88% and 64% of the countrywide populations respectively. According to Kalil, being a minority in a commerce oriented city-state such as Singapore does not mean that the precepts of faith are neglected.

"All the Muslims are disciplined, we follow what is needed to [be] done," noted Kalil, suggesting that Singapore's reputation as a "well-managed, disciplined place" makes the country's Muslims more -- rather than less -- likely to stick with the Ramadan program from start to finish.

Ramadan means restaurants do most of their business in the evening, in contrast to the rest of the year's schedule. For Ibrahim Tahir, the arrival of Ramadan means "business is a little slower" than usual, as evidenced by the idle nooks of his usually busy store, Wardah Books, which sits amid a row of Lebanese and Turkish restaurants near the Sultan Mosque. Here, the streets are a magnet for locals and visitors looking for a fix of Middle Eastern or South Asian cuisine.

Display of piety

A lone, would-be customer poked around the shelves while hundreds of hungry diners crowded the streets outside. In the meantime, inside the Sultan Mosque, several pious residents prostrated themselves on the carpeted main prayer room, while others sat cross-legged, leafing through ornately scripted editions of the Quran and quietly reciting verses.

"I tend to sell more translations of the Quran in Ramadan. This is because Ramadan is traditionally a time for studying the Quran," said Tahir, the bookseller.

A similar scene, albeit on a larger scale, can be seen every evening throughout the fasting holiday at Malaysia's national mosque, the Masjid Negara, in Kuala Lumpur. Hundreds of devotees line up to perform wudu, the ritual washing before prayer each evening, and hundreds again line up after prayer, for the evening meal.

The iftar meal dished out at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

"We have to wait until the time," said Aida Haryadi, an Indonesian living in Malaysia who had come to the national mosque for Friday evening prayers. She sat with her daughter by one of the dozens of massive pillars on the mosque's verendah, with plates of dates lying on the smooth tiled floor between the two.

Is it difficult to keep up the fasting regimen for a full month? Is it tempting, after not so much as a crumb has passed her lips since before dawn, to dig into the dates before time?

"It is ok, and inshallah [God willing], I will fast every day," Haryadi said, smiling, as the call to prayer echoed over the mosque tannoy. As hundreds of men lined up at the front of the prayer hall to bow and prostrate themselves at the appropriate times, women covered by their robes and shawls performed their own prayers at the back of the hall, in a line fronted by fans cooling the clammy interior.

After prayer, it is time to eat. "The best thing is to take just some dates first and some water," said Reza Fadzil, cautioning against giving in to hunger pangs and scoffing down rice and meat as soon as the long hours of fasting are over.

On his smartphone, Fadzil flicked through Ramadan-themed posts on how to work out during the fasting month and how to interact with non-Muslim -- and therefore non-fasting -- friends and colleagues. "A couple of my colleagues try to fast in the office even though they are not Muslim," Fadzil said. "Nobody expects them to but it is a considerate gesture, though I think maybe they have some snacks when nobody is looking," he joked.

Pedestrians crossing near the Sultan Mosque in Singapore as fasting time comes to an end. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Communal relations in Malaysia are not always as convivial or respectful as Fadzil's anecdote suggests. The country's most recent election in 2013 saw most of the 25% Chinese-Malaysian minority, almost all non-Muslim, vote for the losing opposition, prompting allegations of treachery from the ruling United Malays National Organization.

Islamic law

This year's Ramadan is taking place as tensions grow between Muslims and religious minorities, as well as within the Muslim community, over the role of Islam in the country's politics.

Malaysia's Islamist party, known by the Malay language acronym PAS, has long been pushing for a sharia or Islamic legal system to be established countrywide. As things stand, sharia courts only have jurisdiction over Muslims in issues such as family matters and property disputes, with most crimes falling under the penal code that applies to all citizens.

A 2015 survey of 10 countries by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center showed that 52% of Malaysians believed that "laws in our country should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran." In contrast, only around 20% of Indonesians agreed with the same statement.

PAS's campaign received a pre-Ramadan boost in May, when UMNO agreed to present to parliament PAS's proposal to allow hudud, or Islamic punishments for criminals, such as whipping or amputation, to be used in Malaysia.

The timing of the announcement was controversial, not due to the approach of Ramadan, but because Malaysia is facing two important by-elections on June 18. Najib Razak, the prime minister, has been under mounting pressure over allegations of financial impropriety, but the country's opposition parties have been too divided and leaderless to capitalize on the scandal.

Men at evening prayer inside the Sultan Mosque in Singapore. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

PAS was a key part of the opposition during the 2013 elections, but last year it broke with the Chinese-led Democratic Action Party and the People's Justice Party -- headed by jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim -- mainly due to disagreements over hudud. In the upcoming by-elections, former PAS members who remained with the opposition alliance will contest seats against the governing coalition candidates and against their former PAS colleagues.

Maria Chin Abdullah, leader of the Bersih [Clean] electoral reform movement that in August 2015 staged mass street demonstrations calling for Najib's resignation, warned that the politically-expedient promotion of hudud could stir tensions.

"In a multicultural, multireligious society like Malaysia, everyone, both Muslims and non-Muslims, must understand what is hudud and its impact on their lives. Such a bill cannot be rushed and bulldozed for political reasons as it will only further deepen division among the people."

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