At 5am every Ramadan morning, an estimated 60% of Malaysians wake up for sahur.
Catching the last of nightfall before it’s whisked away by the wrath of the sun, families, professionals and retired uncles rub the sleep out of their eyes and scurry to the kitchen, setting off a fill-up-for-the-day harmony of kettle whistles and bowl-and-spoon-clinking.
Sahur is a pre-dawn meal that precedes a 14 hour day of fasting which practicing Muslims undertake during the holy month.
While Malaysia is a secular country – a salad bowl of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and hundreds of other ethnicities and sub-ethnicities, representing a multitude of cultures and religions – Islam is the unofficial official faith, through sheer permeance.
With nearly two thirds of nationals practicing Muslims, and a government that more than reflects this demographic, Malaysia’s Ramadan is all-encompassing, with the subsequent Raya (Eid) an official calendar holiday.
From 5.30am to around 7.30pm people abstain from eating or drinking.
And while this is very apparent, it’s important to remember that Malaysia’s non-Muslim citizens go about their regular daily lives, munching chicken rice albeit in less busy restaurants.
“The first few days of fasting is slightly challenging because you’re trying to remind yourself that you’re fasting and you shouldn’t be eating or drinking from around 5.30am to 7.30pm,” says Suraya Omar, a work colleague at my office.
“Sometimes I forget that I’m fasting and I would walk straight to the pantry in the morning and get myself a nice warm cup of coffee!
“Once I get the hang of it, it actually helps me focus a lot more on completing my tasks. I actually enjoy working throughout lunch hours and it doesn’t really bother me if my coworkers are out having lunch or having lunch in the pantry area.”
At the end of the work day you can see crowds hovering over their food in restaurants, simultaneously watching the clock and salivating until the sun goes down and it’s time to buka puasa.
While it’s not illegal sit down and eat in front of someone who’s fasting, it’s common courtesy not to make a show of it.
As it happens, the idea of eating in front of fasting Malaysians has grown into contentious debate in recent years: should non-Muslims be able to eat while their countrymen fast?
Only last month, an Indian-Malaysian woman was scolded by a motorcyclist on her way to work, writing in a Facebook post:
“After all the shit we non-Muslims get, like if it isn’t enough, I really didn’t see this coming. I can’t even have a cookie in my car. So yeah. Malaysia boleh.”
Fasting in a multi-cultural metropolis such as Kuala Lumpur is seen to foster tension in this way, where deeply revered practices conflict with the behaviour and liberties of other individuals.
Two years ago, non-muslim students in a primary school were made to eat lunch in the toilet area, to much public backlash.
This is however a sensitive issue perpetuated by negative media focus and the actions of a frustrated minority. Poor management and handling of areas surrounding Ramadan overshadow what is an increasingly progressive and moderate Malaysia.
Take for example, these apologetic tweets from Malays addressed to the woman harassed in her car for eating:
“To that girl: don’t worry. That guy’s faith is only as thick as an onion’s skin, you just continue eating. Maybe he needs a lesson to learn how to fast.”
In a month where Muslims are tasked to practice their generosity, questions about the right attitude to take surface.
Yi Jia Loh, a law student from Penang, is Chinese-Malaysian and feels that she shouldn’t have to avoid eating in front of Muslims.
“It’s a religion and I’m not following it so why should I?” she said. “There is that fear element. Even in the LRT during Ramadan I try not to eat or drink because I don’t want someone to start drama.
“With friends it’s fine but when it’s strangers I’m more careful. I don’t want to hurt anyone because I don’t want to create trouble.
“You just go about trying to keep low attention.”
Irdhina Harith, a Researcher from Kuala Lumpur who is a practicing Muslim, shares similar sentiments.
“I think that people should be allowed – Muslims or otherwise – to eat,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be that someone is forbidden from eating just because it’s something personal.
“Fasting or any religious practice is personal. It can be done communally but it shouldn’t be enforced.
“I think if we’re more chill about it people can choose not to eat out of respect, not fear.”
Despite all the fasting-chatter, Ramadan is a time when Malaysia comes alive, with night bazaars popping up all over the country, catering to the hungry masses.
Sizzling skewers, brightly coloured drinks, curry laksa swirling in take-away containers, nasi kerabu neatly packaged in brown paper – vendors shouting, office workers with their top buttons undone, beautiful rainbows of hijabs gazing at the local fare.
Come to Kuala Lumpur this time of year and you’ll gain access to a world of food delights you otherwise may have never discovered.
Here’s just a taste of what to expect:
At the end of Ramadan comes Raya, a time for celebration.
All Malaysians of all faiths enjoy time off work to travel home to their families.
Open houses (where people invite friends and coworkers over for food), busy traffic on the way to surrounding towns and a sense of good-will permeates the air.
Time to eat and be merry.
Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri, everyone!