Raya wishes for Syawal

THIS Raya I will not be having an "open house" but our house is open to family and friends who wish to share with us the customary good cheer and goodwill in the Muslim month of Syawal.

Coming after Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to complete their cycle of abstinence with another six days of fasting after the first day when Hari Raya or Aidil Fitri is celebrated.

After observing a Ramadan of gastronomical prudence and sacrifice, Syawal is celebrated with the same modesty and restraint that Islam teaches its adherents to observe in all aspects of their lives.

Some people reason that because of Ramadan's restrictions, it seems right that family and friends are greeted with a lavish spread of food and drink on Hari Raya. Raya tables often groan with traditional delicacies and convulse with modern culinary delights.

Today it's not unusual to have an array of local varieties with popular international ones – lemang and rendang with spaghetti bolognaise or cupcakes with dodol.

Another reasoning is that it is easier to entertain everybody at the same time than to have visitors come in twos and threes and run the risk of a diminishing food table.

And so in Malaysia, the culture of big private, corporate and national "open houses" has evolved and become a huge celebration of interethnic food and drink over the whole month of Syawal.

And so, beside the Malay savouries and sweetmeats are the Chinese and Indian favourites in a delicious swirl of coexistence and collaboration. Selamat Hari Raya should rightly become Selamat Bulan Raya and Selamat Kongsi Raya.

Being the killjoy and sceptic that I have become after observing so much decay and disarray in the Malaysian scene of togetherness, I wonder if the time has not come for us to take stock of our way of managing things.

If national open houses have not done much to seal national integration, why waste precious funds feeding people who have no idea what their objectives are in the first place? If all these platforms have done is to promote superficial smiles and handshakes, why waste the rakyat's money only to encourage overeating and bad eating habits among Malaysians?

Would it not be more meaningful for Malaysians to meet in smaller groups where, over a modest meal, they find time to engage one another with sympathy and empathy? Would not the bond of goodwill and friendship be better promoted among people who truly care to understand one another's ways?

Multiculturalism should be seen as more than the sharing of food and drink or enjoying one another's songs and dances. It is more than knowing the festivities, rites and rituals of the communities in a plural society. It is more than celebrating the colours of Malaysia against the cacophony of interethnic drumbeats.

True multiculturalism comes with a genuine understanding of one another's beliefs and the reasons behind them. It should be accompanied by the willingness to listen and empathise even when they go against one's own convictions. The thing is we don't have to believe, but we do need to be compassionate and caring.

It saddens me that in the month of Ramadan, something as trivial as beauty pageants should take up so much space in the media discussion forums. Suddenly, the banning of the four Muslim contestants from taking part in a beauty contest has become an interethnic, religious issue which has the potential of turning into a full-blown national one.

Typically, the more liberal in all faiths and religions are ganging up against their orthodox compatriots via an onslaught of modern arguments with human rights and individual freedoms as their basis.

Typical comments on Facebook include "If Muslim males and females are allowed to participate in sports in skimpy clothing, why not the beauty contestants?" or "If Muslim men are allowed to show off their half-naked, rippling torso in a body-building competition, why can't Muslim women show off their female form in a beauty contest?"

What is disconcerting is that non-Muslims are also entering the discourse space which is better managed by the affected Muslims.

Perhaps Malaysians would also welcome Roman Catholics and other orthodox religious groups taking their churches and priests to task over formal decrees on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

The churches and temples would then be obliged to explain why their adherents typically disobey these decrees and the action taken against them.

Only then would the concept of fairness, liberty and freedom of speech be manifested across all faiths and religions.

Only then would the custodians of holy books and holy places be given the opportunity to explain their stand to the rest of us who stand and stare.

My wishes for Syawal may be personal but I hope they have implications at/for higher levels. Meantime, I pray endlessly for the peace and harmony which threaten to elude me at the personal and national levels.

The writer keenly follows developments in politics, culture and education. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com