photo blog_head_zpsonl8fonu.jpg
Meesa gonna kill you!

Get email updates of new posts:        (Delivered by FeedBurner)

Monday, January 07, 2013

Halal food and Integration in Singapore

"A child becomes an adult when he realizes that he has a right not only to be right but also to be wrong." - Thomas Szasz

***

Defensive or offensive dining? Halal dining practices among Malay Muslim Singaporeans and their effects on integration

"The certification of halal food, although aimed at facilitating the integration of Muslims in Singapore within mainstream society, affects socialisation in some cases. Indeed, while Nasir and Pereira (2008) have focussed on Singaporean Malay Muslims’ views, this article adds an important variable: the viewpoints of non-Muslims...

A strong emphasis on race as social identity nonetheless facilitates the perpetuation of racial stereotypes, because ‘creating a category requires that it be filled with content’...

A majority of those who shared similar views to those expressed by Lee Kuan Yew had formed them through their experiences of interacting with Malays during dinner occasions, home parties, work meetings or sharing tables in food courts...

Among the 6000 food establishments, 2600 hold a Halal Certificate...

Despite the fact that Adeline has made an effort to inform herself about halal food and procedures, the Malay mother still feels that Adeline cannot be trusted... This is only one of several examples with very similar dynamics. There is a particular concern among many Malay mothers that their children may be exposed to nonhalal food or that their food may be otherwise contaminated, mainly by pork residues on objects or utensils. Many of these Malay parents, in my study, came from the ‘working class’, yet similar opinions may be found among some educated professionals...

Other examples of ‘dining strategies’ which I have witnessed include bringing one’s own food to parties and dinners despite efforts to provide halal or nonpork and alcohol-free products by the host; abstaining from food altogether; refusing, even in the case of the same gender, to shake hands for fear of contamination; refusing to drink from glasses at the homes of non-Muslims or requiring plastic disposable utensils... McKinley (2003) has analysed the frequent decision of Malay Muslims in Malaysia to reject non-Malay Muslims’ social invitations as part of a power struggle in which non-Muslims are forced into an unequal host-guest relationship and where non-Muslims will be always guests (limited powers) rather than hosts...

One of the Chinese respondents emphasised that despite the school promoting mutual understanding among students of different faiths, including having teachers explain the religious requirements of Malay Muslims to non-Muslim students, sometimes the Chinese and Indian students felt frustrated by such requirements or perceived them to be ‘illogical’ or sectarian. Grace reported an anecdote from her high school days:

We were on a school trip and we had to do everything by ourselves, like washing our clothes and cooking our food. We were mixed—Chinese, Malay and Indians. I recall how frustrated we felt when the Malay students insisted that we had to buy new forks and spoons which had to be used only by them. Some pointed out that the utensils could have been washed carefully, but the Malay students insisted that washing does not clean the contamination of non-halal food. Yet Indians have requirements too, but they never really complain and they seemed more accommodating to us. Also, because of their special diet, often the Malay girls used to eat together in a group isolated from the others; this was not really welcomed by the other members of the group. We felt that there was no need to eat separately, but we tolerated it. These kinds of things make you wonder how they can be part of any group other than their own. (Grace, 24, university student, Chinese)

In the context of food courts, some Malay Muslims may adopt other strategies, such as opting to order food from halal stalls as take-away if the food court is not an exclusively halal environment, sitting on the other side of the table if eating with a group of non-Muslims and directly or indirectly trying to convince the non-Muslim members of the group to select halal food. Certainly not all Malay Muslims adopt all, or even some of these ‘defensive dining’ strategies, and there are certainly levels of flexibility—however, in Singapore, they are employed by a relevant number.

Although I tend to agree with Nasir and Pereira’s observation (Nasir & Pereira 2008) that both working class and more highly educated Malay Muslims adopt defensive dining, I have noticed that those with a higher income and educational background try actively to avoid non-Muslims misreading their defensive dining as a criticism of non-Muslims or, even worse, as a racist act: ‘I do my best to avoid that my Chinese colleagues can think that I dislike them when my intention is only to respect my religion and protect myself from sins’ (Muhammad, 32 years old, engineer)... On the one hand, less educated Malay Muslims ascribe the risk of contamination to the non-Muslims themselves, in particular to the Chinese majority. In this case, it is the Chinese person, with his or her non-Muslim behaviour, who is considered to be the cause of contamination. When I asked why the ‘person’ and not just ‘the food’ was contaminating, I was reminded that ‘people are made of what they eat’. On the other hand, secular educated Malay Muslims seem, as we have seen earlier, to mainly address the religious obligation and to be careful that others perceive the rejection as exclusively aimed towards food. The impurity in this case is ‘metaphysical’, i.e. because of the ‘Islamic’ context of one’s life, rather the ‘ontological’, i.e. because of the impurity of a particular group...

Although at first glance, the racial relationship may appear smooth, a certain level of tension is undeniable and is often expressed through racial comments and jokes. This tension is particularly visible among youth and young children where, as Lai has observed, ‘ethnic expletives and derogative language are frequently used. Common ethnic swear words used by Malay youths on Chinese youths are Cina kui (Chinese devil), syaitan (Satan), Cina babi (Chinese pig), babi syaitan (Satanic pig)’...

Halal food represents something more than a religious obligation. It is transformed into an ‘act’ of identity, a marker which allows not only a fully controlled space, but also an emotional one. Indeed, while the state has provided regulations and limitations on other religious matters such as the tudung (Islamic scarf), halal food remains the only sphere in which the Malay Muslims are fully in control and the state—as well as other ethnic groups—are required to accommodate the minority’s requests...

During my research, I also noticed that some Chinese Singaporean respondents compared and contrasted the two main minorities, Malays and Indians, emphasising how they perceived the latter as more ‘accommodating’ than the former...

‘Defensive dining’ strategies foster and reinforce existing stereotypes among the non-Muslim population, particularly among the Chinese majority. Integration is a dual process and individual actions, or nonactions, of a group are not enough by themselves to achieve such a social state. My research suggests that some non-Muslim Singaporeans may misunderstand the practice of defensive dining as antisocial at best or, at worst, ‘offensive’...

An interesting aspect of my research is that several of my respondents highlighted that religious harmony refers to the ‘religion’ itself and not to the members of the religion or ethnic group: ‘we are not allowed to make fun of others’ religion, I mean, even jokes are not tolerated so easily in Singapore. You cannot say that ‘Islam’ is the religion of the devil or Christianity a stupid religion and so on. But of course, nobody will say anything if one of us says that—just to give you an example—Malays are lazy or Chinese Singaporeans are greedy, or that Muslims are too strict’ (Joseph, 22 years, university student, Chinese Singaporean)...

In their studies, Wyer et al. (1998) found that under conditions in which deploying stereotypes and bias may provoke strong social disapproval or, as in the case of Singapore, where they are legislatively discouraged, people may try to suppress them. However, the study revealed a strong rebound effect. In other words, people tend to experience an increase in stereotype use following attempts to suppress such usage (see also Zhang & Hunt 2008). This rebound effect may help to explain the widespread diffusion of stereotypes about members of the various religions and ethnic groups existing in Singapore, particularly Malay Muslims. Indeed, as many of my respondents reported during interviews and conversations, because of the fear induced by the Singaporean legislation designed to protect religious harmony, great care is taken by a majority of Singaporeans to avoid stereotypes or negative representations of religions. Yet I can plausibly suggest that such efforts may, in some cases, result in a strong rebound effect so that religious stereotypes, as we have seen, affect community members instead of their religions...

Younger generations in particular are becoming so used to the green halal logo, and to some local practices (as described by Nasir and Pereira’s defensive dining), that they are not able, for instance, to implement strategies used by Muslims living in western countries which are still within the realm of Islamic orthodoxy. In other words, their capacity to discern what may or may not be halal has decreased to the extent that, in some cases, the only reliable means of discerning what is ‘halal’ is the halal logo on products or the halal certificate at food stalls and restaurants. This lack of knowledge magnifies the fear of contamination and creates confusion regarding where the limits of halal permissibility lie. Hence, as we have seen, there are cases in which some Malay Muslim mothers refuse to let their children play at the homes of their non-Muslim friends...

Different perceptions and interpretations of the same practice do not facilitate integration and communication. Surely, more understanding would be possible if the non-Muslim majority were fully aware of the reasons behind such defensive dining practices. Yet, at the same time, a full and widespread awareness and knowledge of Islamic halal requirements among the general Singaporean Malay Muslim community might increase flexibility in choices of food and premises beyond the commercially driven halal logos."


In other words, Malays should be "less strict on Islamic observances and say, ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you’"

Addendum:
Keywords: LKY, Lee Kuan Yew
blog comments powered by Disqus
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Latest posts (which you might not see on this page)

powered by Blogger | WordPress by Newwpthemes