As a young Malay-Muslim boy studying in a Hokkien Huay Kuan Clan school, I was often mistakened for a Chinese and first conversations with me were always spoken in Mandarin. That was only because I looked like a Chinese as well with my fair skin.
The first day in school I had a boy came up to me asking me, “What time is it?” in Mandarin and as far as I can remember, I couldn’t understand a whiff of what he said hence my reply, “I’m a Malay, I don’t understand what you said.”
As I accustomed myself to the Chinese cultures embedded in the school environment (ChongFu Primary School), I began to learn how to speak Mandarin as I was often sitting in Mandarin lessons as a result of my Malay teacher’s regular MC rate. And each and everytime I sat in, I’d be reprimanded by the Mandarin teacher because I didn’t have a book with me and I wonder how she never managed to distinguish me from the rest since she had an extra student.
With the progress of every lesson I sit in with my Chinese, Mandarin speaking friends, I pick up new words from the lessons as I read the Hanyu Pin Yin with them to the point that I could converse with my Chinese, Mandarin speaking friends in Mandarin.
Things began to grow in my relationships with my Mandarin speaking friends as I never had a Malay friend in class. My first best friends were a pair of un-identical twins of different genders. We often spend our time in school and after school together to the point where I’d visit them at their place to play.
It was during this period of time that I had my first taste of religiously educating my friends about Islam as they’d often ask me “Why Malays don’t eat pork?”
My reply would often begin with, “Not Malays. Muslims don’t eat pork because ….”
Such was the frequency of my conversations with them on my religion as they were curious to know why I’d never eat pork until such time when I was at their home one day when my friends mom bought ice-cream for me and served it using their porcelain china.
Being very cautious about utensils that have been in contact with pork, I remember I politely said no which made her disappointed and got her asking me if I didn’t like vanilla and preferred chocolate instead to which I said, “Yes”. I was lying here because I didn’t want to say I can’t use your utensils but what came next was unexpected.
Not only did my friends not want to eat the ice-cream without me, my friends mom went to purchase a new tub of chocolate ice-cream just so I can be treated well as her guest and served me in her porcelain china again. This time, I obliged and ate it because what was I to say next having troubled her to make a new purchase for me.
During the course of me enjoying the chocolate ice-cream, I remember her then coming out and telling me to give her the spoon I was using and she substituted it for a plastic spoon instead. At that juncture, she further went on to apologise and said that she remembered that I wasn’t supposed to use her cutleries which had been used for pork consumption.
I remember saying that it was ok but she insisted as she felt bad about it.
I don’t remember where my friends are today but such an incident 20 years back was a reflection of perhaps what Singaporeans today need to understand – Religious understanding and sensitivity as well as mutual respect.
As Muslims, whilst it is our duty to ensure that we keep to our religious values and conduct, there are also other means whereby we can uphold them without hurting the feelings of others and others will reciprocate it to us through their understanding of our actions.
There have been many more occasions whereby I’ve had to explain to my non-Muslim friends about certain things that Muslims do, even till today but I think the most important aspect of all is to ensure that we can still live harmoniously together.
There are occasions when I’d eat at establishments without the Halal sign but only after I observe that the establishment doesn’t serve pork. Of course, not every Muslim is obliged to do as such but I only do so because I do not want to trouble my friends to go in search of establishments that strictly serve Halal food or to dampen their appetite for that particular meal that is only served in a particular establishment.
Perhaps, this is what MM Lee was referring to when he mentioned “less strict on observances” but definitely, there are rules and restrictions that Muslims still need to adhere to which cannot be bent.
Now, I’m not quite the pious Muslim, hence I don’t think everyone should start saying that Muslims should be less pious to adapt to the environment. It is, at the end of the day, an individual’s decision on how he/she wishes to live his life whereby god will be the eventual judge on the Muslim.
But certainly, if there’s one thing that needs to be changed or improved on in Singapore will be the need for ‘Religious Understanding’ between all faiths through public education. The Inter Religious Organisation is there for a reason but I guess because MM Lee doesn’t participate in its events, he isn’t aware of it’s activities and what it stands for.
For the rest of us reading this, that website is a good start towards understanding the different faiths that co-exist in Singapore. The IRO should also consider giving public speeches or hold displays in schools to educate the young and schools should begin to look into organising field trips to the different religious institutions in Singapore.
The current situation has only showed that there are gaps in society whereby there is plenty of misunderstanding between faiths leading up to such issues – including MM Lee’s.
So, let’s stand alongside our friends and relatives of other faiths and acknowledge that we are indeed unique (distinct and separate) but through religious understanding and mutual respect, we can live harmoniously together.
(Anyways, I broke a vase in my friends home whilst playing badminton in their home! She just said, “Carry on!”)