Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Singapore’s Karung Guni Men and the Case of the Missing Sehri Drummer

The month of Ramadan is almost as much a part of Singapore's culture as in any Muslim country.
Food courts fill up at iftar time with expectant faithful waiting patiently for the signal to break their fast. Smokers congregate outside buildings to savour their first puff of the day. Traditional Malay garb is more frequently visible as many get dressed for evening get-togethers.
Ramly burgers being prepared at Singapore's Geylang Serai Ramadan night market
Respectable people have an excuse to visit Geylang and view it all decked up for the Hari Raya celebrations. (Geylang is often exclusively associated with Singapore's historical red light district.)
For Muslims, fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a mandatory activity for practising Muslims.
Some exceptions from fasting are permitted, generally pertaining to travellers, the elderly and the sick. The exemptions are not a blanket waiver. The deviation from the path must be 'paid for' through other ways, e.g. alms.
Going through an entire day without food or drink is not a casual act. It requires planning and preparation, not least because ending up in a hospital due to dehydration is not the preferred religious outcome!
The practise of an early morning meal or sehri before sunrise is conventional (and practical) wisdom. During sehri, people planning to fast load up on all sorts of healthy (and unhealthy) foods in order to help them last the entire day without food and water.
To help believers practice their faith, many Islamic societies have hung on to traditions from the days that preceded alarm clocks and electricity.
Among the many uses of the traditional dhol is as an alarm clock during the fasting month of Ramadan
For example, modern day Pakistanis are used to hearing the loud noise of a traditional dhol drummer walking through their neighbourhoods at (say) 3.30 AM reminding residents of their duty to fast. The drummer 'moonlights' at his drumming job and receives the gratitude of his neighbourhood not just in prayers but also often in cash.
It is a reasonable guess that maybe 20% or so of the residents in my neighbourhood are Muslim. I believe a high percentage of them fast daily.
I wonder if Pakistanis will be more welcome in Singapore if we start beating drums during Ramadan! I figure if some Pakistani immigrant in New York can take it upon himself to act as a timepiece for his New York neighbourhood at 3.30 AM then why not me in Singapore?
After all, Singapore is a tolerant society. It encourages us to cherish cultural idiosyncrasies.
Nonetheless, I have a sneaking suspicion that many of my neighbours will not welcome the idea of me zealously banging on a drum so early each morning.
Political correctness, even in a race based polity, has its limits.
Only Singapore's many karung guni men may appreciate my efforts. People may complain less of the small horn they blow to announce their daily arrival.

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