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THE SPREAD of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 has brought the world’s social and economic movements to a temporary halt. At the time of writing, Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO) has just been extended a second time, till April 28. This means that the social distancing measure covers the start of the fasting month, Ramadan.
The traditions of Ramadan centre around Iftar gatherings, congregational Tarawih prayers and especially, food bazaars. Penang Monthly takes a look at how the MCO affects the celebration of Ramadan this year.1
Rice Bowl for Some, Attraction for Others
Bubur Lambuk given out during Ramadan (2019). Photo: Aiman Nazri.
On April 3, Senior Defence Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said in a press conference that all Ramadan bazaars should not operate as long as the MCO was still in effect; and in case no additional extensions were made to the order beyond April 14, the National Security Council would come up with a standard operating procedure for the Ramadan bazaars.2 That same day, however, Penang’s chief minister Chow Kon Yeow announced that he, after much consideration, wanted all Ramadan bazaars in the state to be cancelled for the security of Penangites and to curb the spread of Covid-19.3
“I had plans on expanding my business to other bazaars this year,” says Mohd Shamsulnizam Md Yusop, a regular vendor at the Bayan Baru Ramadan bazaar. Fortunately, his income does not depend entirely on his business at the bazaar; he manages a catering company with his wife, which had been operating on a smaller scale during the MCO. “Even if the state government had not called off the Ramadan bazaars, I don’t think I would have participated in any case. Social distancing measures may work well for supermarkets, but I’m not so sure about open public spaces,” adds Shamsulnizam.
Negeri Sembilan was among the first states to decide against holding Ramadan bazaars this year, and upon hearing the news, businessman Amirulrafiq Kamaruddin turned to Facebook instead. He set up the Seremban Online Bazaar Ramadhan 2020 Facebook group “as a platform for vendors to promote their businesses as more shoppers are now going online to make purchases for the festive season.” Amirulrafiq says he is glad to have received overwhelming support from the locals, adding that 30% of the 8,900 members in the group are vendors.
Depending on how one views it, perhaps Covid-19 is a blessing in disguise in which we all get to strengthen our ukhwah, especially among family members.
Mohd Aiman Abdullah is also a member of Seremban Online Bazaar Ramadhan 2020. The shift to social media, he says, is a pragmatic move. “Most businesses are going through a rough period, so we must make do with what we have now. But the number of sellers on the platform has also made promoting one’s business very challenging. Competition is tough; it all depends on your luck and how active you are in product promotion,” he says.
Universiti Sains Malaysia student Lashonde Lavelle Christian usually makes an effort to visit different bazaars in Penang each week during Ramadan. “I think the bazaar is an optional means for Muslims and others to attain food during the fasting month. It is an exciting time, but given the circumstances, I do very much believe that despite any social distancing efforts, it is best not to have them entirely. Everyone should just stay home and break fast with their families. After all, home is where the heart, and not the coronavirus, is,” she says.
Shamsulnizam also does catering for events (2019).
Visits to Ramadan bazaars in the past have uncovered the issue of food wastage, which has been on an unsettling rise with each festive season, from 15% to 20%.4 Although the government, to placate growing concerns and discourage panic-buying, has assured that there “was enough food for everyone”, perhaps the idea of completely foregoing Ramadan bazaars this year can further assist in food conservation efforts, and effectively reduce wastage.5
On the flipside, this results in greater negative economic implications for suppliers and vendors, who risk losing their source of income and are instead overstocked with raw materials. “This is where the government should step in, offering action plans to mitigate the overproduction of supplies which are normally allocated for Ramadan bazaar consumption,” says avid bazaar-goer Lutfil Hadi Azmi.
A Brief Break from Tradition
Normally performed after the final prayer (Isha’), Tarawih prayers are reserved for Ramadan nights. One can perform the prayers at home, though Muslims are encouraged to pray in congregation at mosques. Unique to Malaysia, the light meal moreh, prepared by kind-hearted individuals, is served after the Tarawih prayers.6
But for obvious reasons, the Malaysian public is no longer allowed to enter places of worship. Instead, the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs has advised Muslims to perform Tarawih prayers at home.7 In effect, no Tarawih prayers means no moreh at the mosque.
Iftar gathering with the community (2019). Photo: Engku Aiman.
Iftar is another facet of Ramadan all Muslims look forward to after a day of fasting. Besides satiating one’s hunger, being able to get together with family and friends for fast-breaking meals also brings more value to the month of Ramadan. The grounds of mosques will be typically filled with food, and treats are given to children and old folks, and no one is left out. But the presence of Covid-19 has somewhat changed this tradition.
“Mosque committee members might still be able to distribute food to homes nearby – maybe one neighbourhood per day. Another option is to hand them out with the help of the authorities to cars lined by the roadside. I would rather not have us all gather at the mosque; it’s too risky,” suggests Aqilah Husna Anuar, adding that now more than ever, it is imperative that we lend a helping hand to families affected by the virus outbreak.
Despite disruptions to the yearly traditions, the pandemic should not dampen the spirit of Ramadan and discourage Muslims from carrying out charitable deeds. Depending on how one views it, perhaps Covid-19 is a blessing in disguise in which we all get to strengthen our ukhwah, especially among family members.
Aliya Abd Rahim is (racially) a fusion of "sambal belacan" and "tandoori". She enjoys photography and is a Star Wars enthusiast. Like any other final year student, she hopes to attend the (hopefully not called off) USM 58th convocation this year.