This year’s Hari Raya celebration is an especially meaningful one for myself. Other than being a newly elected Member of Parliament in a constituency with more than 50,000 Malay voters, this will be the first Hari Raya where I followed the fasting schedule during the month of Ramadhan. I reaped not just physical and spiritual rewards during the fasting month but also benefitted from experiencing the challenges and the feeling of solidarity with a larger community. I embraced this learning opportunity and gained tremendously from it. Sadly, at the national level, many opportunities that could have been moments of teaching and understanding were lost as a result of political expediency.
Many have asked me why I choose to fast? Was it merely for the purpose of ‘sandiwara’ or political showmanship? The truth of the matter is that I’ve ‘fasted’ before in previous Ramadans where I’ve limited myself to one meal a day but did not refrain from consuming water. Back then, my reasons for fasting were to practise self-restraint especially in terms of controlling my physical appetite, and also to step into the shoes of my Muslim friends to experience what they felt during the fasting month. As a Christian, I also felt that I had forgotten the biblical imperative to fast and pray. What better time to fast than during the holy month of Ramadan together with 60% of the population of Malaysia?
This time, I decided to do the full fast, which meant getting up in the morning at 5am to have breakfast or to ‘bersahur’, to refrain from drinking water during the day, and to break fast at 730pm (Peninsular Malaysia time). The reason for doing the full fast was simple – I couldn’t stand in the shoes of my Muslim friends and experience what they were going through if I did not fast in exactly the same way as they were fasting. Hence the full fast.
I was having difficulty imagining going without water for more than 12 hours, especially when one has to carry out one’s duties as a parliamentarian which included speaking in parliament – parliament was in session for about one week during Ramadan – and talking to constituents, the press and other assorted individuals during the course of a day. Thankfully, the body slowly adjusted and I got used to not consuming water during the day.
I must admit that I did feel more tired than usual in the middle of the day and especially low on energy in the one or two hours just prior to breaking fast. But there were also other challenges including having to explain to my non-Muslim friends why I was fasting and meeting up with friends during ‘lunch’ and having to watch them eat. Most of them were very accepting but I did have a few sceptical looks from friends even after explaining to them the reasons I was fasting.
I received the most encouraging responses from my Muslim friends – on twitter, on facebook and in my constituency – because most of them had never met any non-Muslim who fasted voluntarily during Ramadan. The ADUN for Bangi from PAS, Ustaz Shafie Ngah, was especially encouraging when he told me that he was praying for strength for me to carry on fasting during Ramadan.
When I broke fast in the suraus and masjids in my constituency, I felt the sense of the community bonds built by going through the practice of ‘self-denial’ by not eating or drinking during the day. The simplicity of the buka puasa meals I partook in the suraus and masjids was a welcome contrast to the Ramadan buffets in many high end hotels where overindulging in food seemed contrary to the spirit of the fasting month. The sense of community is further heightened through the giving of duit raya, rice and milo to poor families and single mothers by the surau and masjid committees. I had the privilege of visiting and giving aid to a family where one of the children had been dropped by an irresponsible caretaker while he was young and is now paralyzed from the waist down. A sobering experience indeed.
Another memorable experience was staying with a Malay family courtesy of a DAP arranged ‘Anak Angkat’ Program during the fasting month where I got to know a young Malay boy by the name of Muhaimin, who is a culinary arts student at UniKL and also an avid DOTA player. Staying with Muhaimin allowed me to get to know more about him and his family and their experiences growing up and moving around the country. I also had the chance to have supper with some of his high school friends, one of whom was none other than Umar Mohd Azmi, a student activist who was charged “for obstructing a Kuala Lumpur City Hall officer from carrying out his duties during a raid on the “Occupy Dataran” student movement” in the lead-up to the Bersih 3.0 public protest.
I probably could not have gone through the fasting month without the support of my wife, who dutifully got up every morning at 5am to prepare a healthy and nourishing breakfast for the both of us. Smoothies, fruits, bread with Nutella, porridge, oats were our staples during the fasting month.
Nevertheless, I did miss 5 days of fasting. The first day was while I was in Kota Kinabalu to give testimony as a witness in the Sabah Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on Immigration. Since sunrise was much earlier in KK, I had to get up at 3am to have breakfast, which was available in the early hours since I was staying in a Tabung Haji hotel. The lack of sleep, preparing for my testimony and my one hour on the witness stand parched my throat and I had to drink something for fear of falling ill. But it was already too late. I had developed a cough that would persist for the next few days. Coupled with the fact that I had to be in Singapore for a conference and the hotel I was staying at only started their breakfast at 630am, I decided to postpone my full fast while I was there. I drank water during the day but did not have solid food until break fast time in the evening. On twitter, I was informed that it was acceptable not to fast when one was travelling and I could replace back my lost days during Syawal, immediately after Hari Raya.
There were many teaching and learning moments for me during while fasting during Ramadan. I had more time to have meaningful conversations with my wife during our early morning breakfasts. I was able to set aside time after sahur to read the bible in English and in BM and also read Surah Al-Baqarah in the Quran. I learned to control my appetite for food and experienced a side benefit of losing 5kg in the process. I learned more about the practices of Islam through my constituents and through friends. I learned a little bit of what it was like to walk in the shoes of a Muslim in Malaysia during this month.
Sadly, such teaching and learning moments were few and far between when it came to issues of national politics. The actions of Alvin and Vivian – better known as Alvivi – and of Maznah Mohd Yusof – better known as Chetz – were incidents that although took place with very different intentions and motivations on the part of the parties involved, could have been opportunities to teach and explain Islam to a wider audience. However, because of political expediency and the pressures of an upcoming party elections, this opportunity was lost.
The efforts of the many Malaysians including non-Muslims who took part in the Fast4Malaysia initiative gave us an indication of how Ramadan can be a time to unite Malaysians of all faiths. Unfortunately, these moments were few and far between.
As far as I know, Tian Chua (MP for Batu) and myself were the only two non-Muslim MPs who attempted the full fast during the month of Ramadan. I hope that in the future, more non-Muslim MPs will join us in fasting together with our Muslim friends in Malaysia and in doing so, take a small step towards using the holy fasting month as an opportunity for solidarity, for learning and for understanding.