Those who have visited this Southeast Asian destination in the past few weeks have been treated to the spectacle of the nationwide celebrations of the Eid al Fitr holiday. Although the religious significance of Eid, its rituals and its message of spiritual and moral renewal upon the conclusion of the fasting month are universal to all Muslims, the way it is observed in this part of the world takes on additional meanings. Some are related to traditional Malay culture and customs as well as local family structure; others stem from the contemporary realities and dynamics of Malaysia as a pluralistic, multiracial society.
In the Malay language, the holiday is commonly named Hari Raya Aidilfitri (‘hari’ means ‘day’; ‘raya’ is ‘festive’; ‘festival’; ‘celebration’). Sometimes it is also referred to as Hari Raya Puasa (‘puasa’ meaning ‘fasting’). In the old days, Hari Raya was a festive but simple affair, marked by prayer, visits to the mosque, and small family gatherings. Thanks to the staggering growth in Malaysia’s prosperity over the past thirty years, however, the core festival alone has evolved into a lavish, week-long celebration. The follow-up social activities fill up everyone’s calendar for several weeks, throughout the Islamic month of Syawal.
One of the main reasons behind this trend is the famed cohesiveness of the Malay-Muslim family. Even rapid urbanization and suburban sprawl haven’t stopped Malay people from driving en masse, practically every weekend, to the kampong (‘rural areas’; ‘hometown’) to visit their relatives. The Hari Raya festivities serve to punctuate further this long-established rhythm of things. Granted, the average family size may have shrunk over the years, as today’s married couples have two or three children rather than the previous generation’s five to ten. But that still leaves most people with dozens of relatives to catch up with.
On the first day of the holidays, people dress up in traditional bright-coloured (purple, pink, yellow) Malay attire. Men put on baju Melayu (‘Malay clothes’) – an ensemble of loose silk pants and a matching, long-sleeve, V-neck top, with a golden, hand-embroidered (and sometimes very costly) songket sash tied around the waist. A black-velvet, fez-like songkok or, for the more adventurous type, a Malay warrior-style, somewhat complicated triangular headpiece completes the look. Women don an equally colourful baju kurung, a knee-length blouse worn over a long skirt.
In the morning of the first day of Hari Raya, people ask forgiveness of their parents and siblings for any slights they may have committed or harsh words uttered in the past year. The Malay psyche is marked by humility and being closely in touch with one’s emotions: the sight of adults kneeling on the floor in front of a parent and weeping openly is not uncommon even among Westernized, UK- and Australia-educated professionals.
Once the family bonds have been acknowledged, the majority of reunions shift their focus to “food, glorious food!” Fittingly, the Malay word for a party is ‘pesta’, similar to the Spanish ‘fiesta’, or feast. Many ladies of the house and their Indonesian maids will literally slave away overnight to prepare for their guests a smorgasbord that looks like a visual encyclopaedia of Malay cooking: the highlights include beef rendang, satay sticks served with peanut sauce, and a plethora of seasonal rice delicacies such as ketupat dumplings lovingly hand-wrapped in palm-leaf pouches, or lemang – glutinous rice cooked in a hollowed bamboo stick lined with banana leaf. Recently, some of these dishes have been listed among Malaysia’s national heritage. For example, rendang is mentioned in a Malay literature classic Hikayat Amir Hamzah (Amir Hamzah’s Chronicles), proving its existence as early as the 1550s, shortly after the demise, at the hands of Portuguese colonisers, of the Malacca sultanate. The origins of lemang date even further back, to the heyday of Malaysia’s aboriginal (orang asli) cultures.
Just as the Malay language is a borrowing language, the Malay culture has always been open to external influences – from Arabic tradition and attire through ‘jolly’ English-style fun and games to the visual splendour of Bollywood. For its part, the Raya custom of giving children (or elderly parents; after all, any custom can be reinterpreted to suit the modern context) pocket money in small, red and green-coloured envelopes, has been adopted from Chinese New Year celebrations, along with the term ‘angpaw’ (a Hokkien-dialect equivalent of Mandarin hong bao / Cantonese lai see, meaning ‘red envelope’).
The yearly indulgence is not without its critics: they point out that the higher material standard of living that is reflected in the holiday excess may have taken away from the original spirit of giving. Whereas Islam encourages its followers to reach out consistently to other people, the modern-day “open house” gatherings are held exclusively during the Eid season. Instead of giving food to the poor, the communal meal is often used as an occasion to network with business associates, important clients, government officers and other “special people”. Much too often, it is hard to resist the temptation to show off one’s status symbols such as the latest expansion to the family bungalow, a newly-renovated interior and, implicitly, one’s wherewithal to feed and entertain hundreds of friends and relatives for days on end.
What is encouraging in the Malaysian context is the holiday’s openness and inclusiveness towards the country’s sizable and predominantly non-Muslim minorities – Chinese, Indian, Siamese, Eurasian, aboriginal and others. It is not an exaggeration to say this openness towards diversity has to be seen to be believed. This year, during my annual visit to a Malay friend’s house, I ran into a smartly-dressed Malaysian-Chinese family bearing a gift hamper. Are they neighbours, or perhaps a part of the family, I enquired of my friend. Oh no, not at all, he answered. Then the families must have known each other for a long time? Wrong again. In the end, I learned that the forty-something Chinese lady’s name was Karen, and she was Christian. A few years ago she shared a hospital room with my friend’s seventy-plus-year-old mother. Karen, a mother of one, communicates mostly in Cantonese and English; my friend’s mother, who raised eight children, understands only Malay. Yet somehow they managed to come to know each other. Since then, not one big festival has gone by without the two families getting together.
Similarly, the Malaysian Prime Minister’s open-house celebration, held in the futuristic new capital city of Putrajaya, drew a crowd of 50,000, coming from all racial, ethnic and social segments of the society. The newspapers, local and foreign, often lament what they describe as Malaysia’s racial polarisation – and as in every multiracial society, tensions and hidden resentment are inevitable. But if this is the situation ‘on the ground’, then surely the Malaysian spirit of muhibbah – respect and tolerance for other communities’ way of life – is alive and well.