PERSPECTIVE: About a week before the start of Ramadan this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the relaxation of various Covid-19 safe management measures in the country. Mask-wearing outdoors is now optional, and up to 10 persons can gather or visit a household.
Many Ramadan activities, suspended in previous years, including the famous Geylang Ramadan Bazaar, can now resume, albeit at a smaller scale.
Mothership speaks to some Muslims in Singapore to find out how they feel about this year's Ramadan, and what they have learnt from the previous years when Covid-19 restrictions were tighter.
On the evening of Apr. 2, 2022, Muslims in Singapore welcomed the holiest month in Islam— Ramadan.
Ramadan is much more than just fasting from dawn to dusk.
In Singapore, the month of Ramadan would typically fill the air with buzz and energy.
You'd see families dining out and breaking fast together.
You'd see friends gathering at the Geylang Ramadan Bazaar.
You'd see Muslim men and women making their way to mosques to perform the Tarawih (night Ramadan prayer).
But things changed in 2020.
As Singapore entered the circuit breaker period, Muslims in the country had no choice but to observe Ramadan from the confines of their own homes.
Families and friends weren't allowed to dine out together. There were no bazaars, and congregational prayers were extremely limited.
The following year saw some improvements, but there were still a number of restrictions in place.
During Ramadan last year, the maximum number of people per group for social gatherings was eight, before it was reduced back to five.
Fortunately this year, things are more relaxed.
Breaking fast with family, friends, and colleagues
For 26-year-old Siti Nur Diyanah, the easing of restrictions this Ramadan meant that her entire family, who live in different households, can finally dine in at an F&B establishment to break their fast together.
Muslims are encouraged to break their fast together with their families, friends, or the community, as it is considered to produce more spiritual and social benefits.
"My older sister is married and she has kids. And my grandparents are still around, but they live on their own. So altogether, there are 10 of us [in the family]. In the previous years, we could not dine out together as a family because we always exceeded the [group limit] rule.
It was quite sad lah because before Covid happened, it was like tradition for my whole family to go out and break our fast together at a food outlet."
After a two-year hiatus, Diyanah and her family finally went to a restaurant to break their fast together on the fourth day of Ramadan this year.
"It sounds very dramatic lah but I was really quite emotional to see everyone at the same table. My grandparents were very happy too. It's been so long since we could do that together. I can't explain how grateful I am."
For 18-year-old Muhammad Hafiz, he said that he's "most grateful" to be able to gather in larger groups this Ramadan.
"Last year, my friends and I wanted to break fast together but some friends had to be left behind because there were too many of us. I mean, I understand it was necessary because of Covid, but it would have been nice to have everyone in the group together.
Breaking fast with friends is always very fun. It's not like any other meet-ups that we have. Can't really explain it. So ya, I'm most grateful for the new rules now. My friends and I have already made plans. We hope to meet and get together next weekend."
Nadiah, 36, shared the same sentiment, expressing her joy and gratitude at being able to break her fast with more family members and friends.
However, there's another group of people that Nadia, who works as a human resource manager in a local company, holds dear— her colleagues.
"I've been with my company for nearly five years now. I have a lot of Muslim colleagues. And in the past—which is before Covid— we would all agree to stay behind after work hours and order in food so that we can break our fast together in the office. After that, we would pray together. There's a room in my office where my Muslim colleagues and I pray. It's very nice lah, the feeling and the mood in the office.
In Ramadan 2020, because of the circuit breaker, we were all working from home. And then last year, we gradually returned to office but only in groups, so it still wasn't the same. So I'm so glad I can spend more time with my Muslim colleagues this Ramadan and we're already discussing where to order from for our Iftar (break fast)."
Attending more prayer sessions
This Ramadan, a total of 66 mosques in Singapore are able to conduct the Tarawih prayers, slightly more as compared to Ramadan in 2021.
Additionally, as safe distancing is no longer compulsory for mask-on settings, the Muslim community is able to pray closer to one another.
The practice of congregants praying in close proximity to one another is an obligation in Islam.
However, the obligation was superseded by Covid regulations for the past two years.For Diyanah, this meant a lot for her.
"For Muslims, we only get to perform the Tarawih during Ramadan so it's very special for us. In 2020, my family would pray at home because of circuit breaker. Last year, only my dad and grandfather were able to book slots for Tarawih."
In 2021, only selected mosques had designated zones for Muslim women to pray. This year, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) said that dedicated spaces for Muslim women are made available at all mosques.
"This year, praise be to God, I was able to go to Masjid En-Naeem on the first day of Ramadan, together with my mum. Again, I know I sound dramatic lah, but it's just very special for me, being able to pray Tarawih at the mosque with my Muslim brothers and sisters. Again, I can't explain how grateful I am."
42-year-old Saifullah felt the same too.
"It's a different feeling when I pray at the mosque with everyone, as compared to when I pray at home. It's a different feeling ah, a different experience. Being with other people in the mosque is very fulfilling."
Saifullah also explained that things are a tad simpler this year as there's only one booking window with more slots for those who intend to go to the mosque for Tarawih prayers.
In 2021, slots were limited, and there were three separate booking windows.
"I remember having a difficult time booking a slot for my Tarawih prayers.
And also, I remember last year, some mosques were forced to close temporarily because they detected Covid cases. This year, so far things have been better. I hope everything will be okay throughout this Ramadan."
Ramadan Geylang Bazaar
The Muslim community in Singapore was also greeted with good news last month as it was announced that the physical Ramadan bazaars would return after two years.
Fadilah, 23, has visited the Geylang Bazaar twice now with two different groups of friends.
"When I found out that the bazaar was returning this year, I immediately texted my friends. I was so so so happy. The past two years, there was like a void lah because we didn't have the bazaar during Ramadan. It's like a tradition, you know? Ramadan won't be complete if you don't go to the bazaar with friends and family and experience the atmosphere there."
Although the bazaar is different from pre-Covid times, Fadilah said that she was still glad the bazaar is back.
Hafiz, who visited both bazaars at Wisma Geylang Serai and Kampong Gelam, shared a different view.
"I mean, I'm glad that the bazaars are back because I miss it. But I also feel that it's just not the same as compared to before Covid. There are fewer stalls, and the food is more expensive. I wish we can have our old bazaars back, but I'm not mad at the ones we have right now lah. I understand that more regulations are needed."
Meanwhile, Saifullah, who has three children, said that he is looking forward to bringing his children to the bazaars.
"I haven't been to the bazaars yet but I want to go and bring my children maybe this weekend or next. I heard from some friends that it's not the same but I don't really care lah. I like the atmosphere and I want my children to have a nice time also, to see the beautiful lights and eat all the pasar malam food."
Looking forward to Hari Raya
Saifullah added that he is also excited to visit the non-food stalls at the bazaars.
"For the past two years, my wife and I didn't really buy much decorations for the house because not many people would come during [Hari Raya] visiting. But this year, we are going to buy nice decorations and a few baju kurung to celebrate."
Fadilah also shared her excitement for Hari Raya.
"Usually in Ramadan, you would feel the Hari Raya spirit already because people are out buying clothes and kueh and decorations for their homes. I remember in 2020 and 2021, people weren't really looking forward to Raya because of the restrictions and all. It was very quiet and low-key.
But now, there's definitely more excitement and more people are looking forward to celebrating Hari Raya."
Ramadan during lockdown and tighter restrictions had its blessings too
Ultimately, the people Mothership spoke to were feeling more positive and excited this Ramadan as compared to the previous years.
But this doesn't mean that they did not enjoy Ramadan in 2020 and 2021.
As Nadiah explained:
"With the relaxed measures, of course I'm very grateful because it will make this Ramadan livelier. But the past two Ramadan had their own blessings also.
In 2020, I was able to spend more time at home with my family. I was able to eat more home-cooked meals, which can be quite difficult when I'm working in the office.
And having gone through Ramadan in 2020 and 2021, it also taught me to be more appreciative. It made me realise that I took a lot of things for granted— having friends, having a job, having nice colleagues, and all that. So now that we have more freedom, I will always remind myself to be grateful to God and to cherish these precious moments."
Diyanah, on the other hand, said that if Singapore had to tighten the Covid-19 restrictions again, she wouldn't really mind it.
"When we had more restrictions, especially during circuit breaker in 2020, I was able to spend more time reading the Quran during Ramadan. I also had more time to reflect on myself and my life, which is very important for Muslims to do during Ramadan.
Having more relaxed restrictions is definitely a positive thing, and I'm very happy that more members of the Muslim community in Singapore can dine out again and go to bazaars and pray together at the mosque.
But I'm even more thankful that we went through the Ramadan we had in the previous years because it taught me a lot and made me a better person. So even when things are more relaxed now, I'm able to step back and remind myself about the important things I should focus during Ramadan, which is to improve myself as a person and strengthen my relationship with God."
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Top images by Mandy How & via MUIS/Facebook.