Thursday, September 30, 2010

Why Shamsul Amri dislikes Facebook

Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin

People who do not use Facebook fall into three broad categories.

The first group is completely indifferent to it, the second finds it mildly irritating and the third dislikes it intensely.

Malaysia's prominent sociologist Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin is of the last type.

I made the mistake of asking Shamsul, who is director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, if he was on Facebook, the social network which was hatched up in the dormitories of Harvard six years ago.

"I have a face and I keep thousands of books. Why do I need Facebook?"

How do you react to that reply?

I didn't. I meekly invited him to elaborate on his reasons.

"Facebook will take away my soul and I won't allow that to happen because I am a believer," says Shamsul fiercely, who launched into a tirade of accusations against Facebook.

Ninety per cent of the things you read on Facebook are either petty, bitter, rude or offensive.

"I refuse to read something that I may not want to know. I have the right to read what I want," says Shamsul, adding that he does not want the social network to take away that right from him.


The very private Shamsul is unwilling to open up to strangers.

"Only Allah knows about me; why should I elevate Facebook to the status of Allah?"

There are now 500 million Facebook users and the social network is "adding 50 million new members each month".

So what?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The impersonal open house


The Malaysian Open House is a tradition that is likely to continue for a very long time.
It has been non-stop feasting for many Malaysian Muslims as they continue to manage or visit open houses during the month of Shawwal which began on September 10.

Many have expressed admiration for this "unique and peculiar Malaysia tradition".

The Malaysian open house or rumah terbuka (in the Malay language) is mostly held during major festivals such as Eid-ul-Fitr, Diwali, Christmas, Chinese New Year and Hari Gawai, among others.

It is the season to welcome relatives, friends, colleagues and sometimes strangers from the different ethnic groups into their homes.

The activity creates goodwill and may lead to friendship for some people.

While I like the idea of an open house, and by extension an open heart (because that is what the gesture implies), I find the sort organised by corporations a little impersonal.

I prefer small gatherings of family and close friends. I am actually terrified of mingling with thousands of people I do not know.

That was how I felt when I attended the Maybank Eid-ul-Fitr open house yesterday.

I was told by Prakash, the corporate communications executive at Maybank, that the open house hosted by Malaysia's largest banking group catered for 3,000 guests.

If it had not been for Yani, an old school chum who is now working for Bernama, the national news agency, I would have skipped the festivity.

I wanted to meet Yani, whom I have not seen in a while.

I found out at an Eid-ul-Fitr dinner party prepared for close friends at the home of another pal later that day that some people accept invitations to open house dos of the kind I had alluded to earlier for the same reason I appeared at the Maybank function: to meet up with buddies.

Many more do it to network with vendors, customers, business contacts and even competitors besides using the opportunity to be seen with the powerful and famous.

What happened to the idea of enhancing ethnic relations?

Nowadays, the desire to promote ethnic harmony and understanding during such occasions seems less important.

It is all about making lots of money now.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why I love Malaysia


Globetrotters often express the following sentiment: "The best part of travel is coming home".

I am going to modify that slightly: "The best part of travel is returning to Malaysia."

After a few days in a foreign land I begin to crave for all things Malaysian and that include teh tarik, street food, ethnic diversity and even the corny (some may say racist) jokes that Malaysians are fond of making.

It would be nice if the weather was kinder, the transport system more efficient, traffic flow smoother and people remembered to hold doors behind them as a courtesy to others.

It's not perfect but we are getting there.

Today Malaysians celebrate the 47th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia when Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined Malaya on September 16, 1963. Singapore left the federation in 1965.

From this year Malaysia Day is a national holiday.

The following pictures show some of the things that make Malaysia so lovable.

Terengganu boasts the best beaches in Malaysia. This one is a short walk away from Awana Kijal Golf, Beach & Spa Resort. Go ahead ... indulge yourself with a weekend stay here. 

Malaysians and durian are inseparable. Some would disagree but they don't count.

Picture shows the interior of Hai Peng Kopitiam (Chinese coffee shop) in Kemaman, Terengganu. It is 70 years old and serves great local coffee, toasted bread with butter and kaya (egg custard). There is always a steady stream of visitors here so be prepared to wait for an empty table.

I miss Malaysian street food when I am abroad. Some complain that such places are dirty. Yes, that's true in a few cases but the majority of food stalls such as this one observe good food hygiene. 

Eating out Malaysian-style. Stalls like this are everywhere.

A mug of nescafe or teh tarik? This one is nescafe tarik. There is nothing I'd like better! Remember the English  and their inevitable cups of tea? The feeling is similar.

This is tako, a Thai dessert, made in Malaysia. The choice of sweet food is endless.

Hussain Restaurant serves the best Indian Muslim food in Peninsular Malaysia. I discovered this when I was in Sungai Petani, Kedah a few years ago. Don't forget to have your meals here whenever you are in Sungai Petani.
I am proud of the fact that we are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Let's inspire young Malaysians to appreciate diversity. Don' they look sweet?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Eid-ul-Fitr: A time of great rejoicing

Yesterday was Eid-ul-Fitr, the first day of Shawwal, which marked the end of Ramadan.

Muslims in Malaysia celebrated Eid-ul-Fitr or Hari Raya Aidil Fitri in true Malaysian fashion: holding open house to spread the festive joy with friends and colleagues from the different ethnic groups.

It's always open house at the homes of most Malaysians during major festivals. It is a well-established tradition in Malaysia.

Believers had gathered in mosques all over Malaysia on Friday morning to offer the Eid-ul-Fitr prayers.

After prayers they exchanged greetings by saying "Selamat Hari Raya (Happy Eid)" and asked for forgiveness for any wrongdoing they had done.

Then it was time to welcome guests to their homes. For some the open house is held later in the month of Shawwal when Malaysians continue to engage in festivities until the very end.

This is because they want to focus on other things on the first few days of Shawwal such as visiting graveyards to pay their respects for the departed and reuniting with family members in other parts of the country or balik kampung as Malaysians call it.

Traditional and modern delicacies sit happily together on the Eid-ul-Fitr culinary table. The staples include rendang, lemang and ketupat.

Many say Eid-ul-Fitr is for children who expect new clothes, the customary Eid-ul-Fitr cash gifts (or duit Raya in Malaysia) and special food on the table.

Even parents who were not in the festive mood due to a variety of reasons tried their best to inject enthusiasm into the Eid-ul-Fitr preparations during Ramadan because they wanted to make their offspring happy.

Believers fell prostrate in worship during Eid-ul-Fitr prayers held in mosques throughout Malaysia on Friday morning, the first day of Shawwal. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times.

Children visit their elders on the first day of Shawwal to ask for forgiveness. The best part of this ritual is the Eid-ul-Fitr cash gift which all youngsters look forward to receiving. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times.

This teenager in Malacca is about to leave after visiting his neighbours (and receiving duit Raya from them) yesterday. He dropped in on them with a group of friends. This is a typical scene in Malaysia during the month of Shawwal.

The rear of the teenager's bicycle is cleverly fitted with a spare part from an abandoned motorcycle. His friends think his vehicle looks pretty cool with that fixture.

Lemang stalls such as this one dot Malaysian trunk roads during most of Shawwal. Lemang is made from a mixture of glutinous rice and coconut milk that is very slowly cooked in a bamboo stick lined with banana leaves. It is best eaten with rendang and both dishes are must-have on the  Eid-ul-Fitr menu. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times.

Picture shows ketupat palas (left), glutinous packed rice in English, and it is usually served with a savoury meat dish such as rendang tok (right), a spicy beef dish from the state of Perak.

Cookies and cakes complete the wide array of Eid-ul-Fitr food. 

This delicious strawberry cheesecake makes a great centrepiece of  the Eid-ul-Fitr huge spread.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Eid-ul-Fitr: When the hometown beckons

The balik kampung rush began about a week ago. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times.

Indonesian house helper Ien was reunited with her teenage daughter and parents in Brengkok Village, Central Jawa, Indonesia last week.

The reunion was an occasion she had longed for because the last time she returned to the family abode was more than two years ago.

Ien and her husband -- a Kuala Lumpur-based construction worker who is also from Indonesia -- made the journey home because they wanted to savour Eid-ul-Fitr or Hari Raya Aidil Fitri with family and friends this year.

It's the first day of Shawwal -- the month that marks the end of Ramadan -- tomorrow and by this time many Muslims who are residing outside their hometowns are with their loved ones or are on their way to be together with them.

Malaysians have a term for the social reunion: balik kampung which literally means "going back to the village".

Malays are not the only ones who observe balik kampung as a form of social reunion. The Chinese, Indian, Kadazan, Murut, Iban, Bidayuh and other ethnic groups in Malaysia do it too.

It is also a regional phenomenon as exemplified by Ien and other foreign workers in Malaysia.

The reason the other ethnic groups in Malaysia have adopted the Malay term balik kampung to describe their journey to a social reunion "is because it has existed in the realm of popular idiom much longer than any other expression that is available locally," Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin told me 13 years ago, when  I interviewed him for an article on the topic.

The Professor of Social Anthropology at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia defined balik kampung as essentially a reunion of loved ones, that is, between those who have been forced to live separately from their rural-based families, owing to economic and social circumstances, and those who stayed back in the villages.

It is a time to maintain, enhance or repair the social bond that has declined, fragmented, stretched to the limit or partially broken down by forces within modernisation, the two most critical components being urbanisation and industrialisation.

Shopping for Hari Raya Aidil Fitri includes buying gifts for the folks back home. Material and non-material sharing enhances the social bonding during the festive season. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times.
The Malays' first taste of modernisation began in the colonial period when villages became urbanised and modern education was introduced.

For the Malays, who were then predominantly peasants, this was the beginning of the fragmentation of their families and social life.

Some orang kampung (rural people) became orang bandar (urban dwellers) and this gave rise to the rural-urban divide which expressed itself in complex ways.

As Shamsul put it then: "It affected differently and unevenly the life spheres of those who live in the kampung (village) as well as those in the bandar (town or city). It also influenced their relationships."

Industrialisation further complicated the plight, in some ways rupturing altogether the already tensed relationship between the orang kampung and the orang bandar.

"The pressure of the felt difference especially by those who live in the bandar forced them to seek ways of coping with it, one of which is balik kampung."

And from then on balik kampung as a social reunion became central to Malay life, providing the parties involved, who recognise that they have become dissimilar in their world views as well as the way they conduct their daily lives, with a chance to pursue a new kinship.

In cases where the difference is so wide or where it has reached a desperate level, the reunion becomes obligatory to avoid a total collapse of the social bonding.

For that reason, it is often an emotionally-charged event and an attempt to minimise the contrast is made through material and non-material sharing.

Baking cookies for Hari Raya Aidil Fitri is a major activity during Ramadan. It is time-consuming but fun and even the youngest member of this family wants to be a part of it. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times.
Even so, the reunion which is a celebration of change as well as solidarity-making, is a temporary relief from the pain which the difference has brought into the lives of the Malays.

Besides Hari Raya Aidil Fitri and Hari Raya Aidil Adha, there are other social events in the life of a Malay such as weddings and funerals that can reunite him or her with far-flung relatives.

Are Malays still enthusiastic about balik kampung?

Shamsul predicted 13 years ago that "balik kampung is here to stay". And it has.

Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that the level of intensity has dropped a notch recently.

How do you explain the growing tendency among Malay professionals, whether single or married, to "go away" during the festive season?

The idea is not to balik kampung but to travel to other places for their Raya holidays.

Alternatively, they would stay back in the urban centres they now call home and rejoice at the peace and quiet that descended on city life after the balik kampung exodus.

This is especially true of Malaysians whose parents have passed on.

This photo shows shoppers making a last-minute dash to buy Hari Raya stuff. Many stalls at this bazaar on Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Kuala lumpur stay open until very late on the eve of Aidil Fitri. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times. 
There is no compelling reason to balik kampung particularly if they are not close to their siblings or other relatives who are still living in the old hometown.

Interestingly, the balik kampung reunion is no longer viewed as compulsory. There are various options open to them and balik kampung is just one of the many.

But purists are not happy about this and my friend Yani is one of them.

She cannot conceive that Malay Muslims would wish to spend Hari Raya Aidil Fitri in unfamiliar surroundings.

For her Hari Raya Aidil Fitri should be enjoyed with your parents, siblings, relatives and close friends at the place where you were born or lived as a child.

After months of hard work in noisy, crowded and unfriendly Kuala Lumpur a retreat to the birthplace is just the thing for tired bodies, frayed nerves and dejected spirits.

Yani, like Ien, derives great pleasure from engaging in festivities kampung-style (village-style) and the trip home is trouble worth enduring.

Eid-ul-Fitr greetings to all Muslims!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Muslims still sore about TV3 ad!




Muslims in Malaysia are still upset about the controversial Hari Raya Aidil Fitri (Eid-ul-Fitr) advertisement which was pulled out recently following protests from viewers.

They cannot believe that TV3 -- a popular television station in Malaysia -- had approved the festive commercial which depicted Hari Raya Aidil Fitri as Christmassy.

There were elements of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism in the commercial: flying trishaw (which resembles Santa Claus' sleigh), lamps and lotus.

"This is totally unacceptable," says an academic from a well-known private university college, who requested anonymity.

"It is possible to be 1Malaysia but not 1Religion," he adds, alluding to the 1Malaysia concept, which Prime Minister Dato' Sri Najib Tun Razak is promoting.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Soaking up the Eid-ul-Fitr mood

Today is the last Sunday before Eid-ul-Fitr or Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, as Malaysians call it, which is likely to fall on September 10, this year.

Eid-ul-Fitr is the first day of Shawwal, which marks the end of Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic calendar.

This is the day Muslims celebrate the end of fasting and "thank Allah for the help and strength that he gave them throughout the previous month to help them practise self-control".

For some Muslims in Malaysia preparation for the day of rejoicing started early.

Many wives and mothers did their Raya shopping, as we name it in Malaysia, about a month before Ramadan began while others prefer to do it later.

Land Public Transport Commission chief operating officer Shahril Mokhtar window-shopped two days after the start of the fasting month to "check out the prices" and to observe the festive trends this year.

"Today is my actual day of shopping," said Shahril, who was trying skull caps for size at the Jalan Masjid India bazaar.

Sisters Siti Zulaika Mohd Sokri and Siti Marlina Mohd Sokri were also out shopping today. They go for ready-made clothes because they are cheaper than buying fabrics and getting them tailored.

Looking at the crowds out shopping, you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone has plenty of money.

Indeed, many went into the Jalan Melayu/Jalan Masjid India/Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman shopping belt to indulge in some serious shopping.

Bazaar retailers say they are not affected by the recession because they have a steady stream of regular customers.

Here are some photos I took this afternoon at the Jalan Melayu/Jalan Masjid India/Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman shopping area.

Urbanites strolling to their favourite outlets at the Jalan Masjid India bazaar. 

Siti Marlina (left) and her sister Siti Zulaika showing off their new headgear. Hari Raya will be a low-key affair for the siblings and their families.

This skull cap might fit me, says Shahril.

A smile suddenly animates Shahril's face because the skull cap fits well. He plans to browse the stores for Baju Melayu after this.

Young women flock to the henna painting stalls for an edgy Raya look. We want to look pretty for Hari Raya, they say.

Faizal Ahmad is looking for Baju Melayu and hopes he will find something suitable today.

Artificial flowers are always in season and this year's colours are white, pink and peach. People usually buy these flowers on the eve of Hari Raya.

A familiar scene at a zakat or alms giving counter set up at strategic places during Ramadan. The "compulsory giving of a set proportion of one's wealth to charity" is the Third Pillar of Islam.