SINGAPORE: Half an hour to go before the ceremony, Hilda Bondoc and Norma Cachola sat quietly among a group of happily chatting women. There was discernible tension in the air, evidenced by Ms Cachola’s tightly folded arms and Ms Bondoc’s repeated dabbing of sweat off her face.
When I approached to greet the two ladies in their 30s, they managed only terse smiles.
The two Filipinas had turned up at about 10am to meet their friends, dressed meticulously in baju kurung and tudung. Every Sunday, they would gather here at Darul Arqam, near the Malay cultural hub of Geylang Serai. The nondescript, three-storey white building is home to the Muslim Converts’ Association (MCAS), which provides free Islamic classes in various languages, including Tagalog. Ms Bondoc and Ms Cachola are students of the beginners’ course on Islam.
I checked the time - just five minutes more before the clock struck 11am. It was almost time. The pair broke away from the group to wait on a bench outside the function room. “Nervous?” I asked. “A bit,” Ms Bondoc replied, while Ms Cachola gave another nervous smile.
Ms Bondoc has been a domestic worker in Singapore for seven years, and Ms Cachola, nine. The cause of their jitters this sweltering Sunday morning: They would be renouncing their faiths and officially declaring themselves Muslims in a conversion ceremony.
I had asked for permission to witness the rather intimate affair. It almost felt like watching a marriage solemnisation take place - with a registration officer guiding the pair and their two witnesses to endorse official documents in the presence of friends and family, and the recitation of the Shahadah - Declaration of Faith - in Arabic. Both women repeated it a few times to get it right.
For the past seven years, the number of Muslim conversions administered in Singapore has stayed fairly consistent at between 600 and 700 a year. More than half of these involve foreigners, some of whom travelled to Singapore just to get converted. The reason for this, according to MCAS deputy manager Iskandar Yuen Abdullah, is Singapore’s unique system.
“The process that we have in place is a very holistic approach. We offer the understanding of Islam, we offer them social network opportunities, and then we have a learning path from foundation courses to the advanced,” he said.
“They also receive an official card at the end of the conversion to show that they're Muslim, so that there will be no disputes or arguments down the road. It’s unique (to Singapore),” he added.
DEALING WITH "UNEASY" BOSSES
Mr Iskander revealed that Filipinos form a large share of the foreigners who convert here. MCAS began to notice a growing number of Filipino domestic workers visiting Darul Arqam a couple of years ago. To help these newbies grasp the teachings of Islam, they convinced Dr Siti Maryam, an experienced educator in Islamic studies, to conduct classes in Tagalog.
Dr Maryam was born in the 1970s into a Muslim family in Catabato City in southern Philippines, where most of the population is Muslim. As we spoke about her "girls", the trained lawyer, who is without child, oozed motherly warmth. “The Filipinos can speak English, but there are certain things that are better to learn in our own vernacular," she said.
The OFWs - overseas Filipino workers - are a tight-knit bunch and they look after and influence one another. That, Dr Maryam said, is perhaps why there is growing interest in Islam among them. “A simple thing that I can do is to share the knowledge I have, because sometimes it’s very negative in the media," she said. "(The religion) is given a very different colour.”
Besides being a teacher, Dr Maryam sometimes plays the role of a counsellor. Many of her students get into problems with employers who feel uneasy with their interest in Islam. Some bosses even threaten to terminate their contracts and send them home.
“Don’t be hurt by that,” she would tell the women. “Make them understand that Islam is not bad, Islam is inclusive.” It may take a few months or up to year, but, she said, employers usually come around so long as the helper continues to “do her job nicely”.
“There is no perfect society,” Dr Maryam offered when asked about the social stigma that sometimes accompanies conversion to Islam. “Negativity breeds negativity. To lessen the stigma, prove (through your actions) that you’re not bad.”
FAINTING ON THE JOB
One major hurdle that all new converts have to overcome is their first Ramadan. Ms Bondoc and Ms Cachola would not be fasting this year, as there were only a few days left to Ramadan. But their friend, Nur Amira Monzon, remembered that first time 11 years ago.
A domestic helper for an Australian family, she spends her days off volunteering as a guide at Darul Arqam. Ramadan is a busy period for the centre, with a constant stream of people coming in to offer zakat, or donations.
Ms Monzonhas a smile for anyone who meets her gaze or asks for help. With large eyes that sparkle when she speaks, she looks younger than her 39 years. Imagine my surprise when the single mother told me she has a 17-year-old daughter back in the Philippines. When I asked if she wouldn’t rather rest on her days off, she said: “I'm very happy to help people here. This is my second home.”
She converted to Islam in November 2004 and experienced her first Ramadan the following year. The Chinese family she was working for then had three young children; looking after them was demanding work. On the third day of Ramadan, she felt tired and weak; her brain felt "like there was nothing". At about 3pm, she fainted. Her employer sent her to the hospital.
“You have to wake up early to suhoor, but I didn't do that,” Ms Monzon said. Suhoor refers to the pre-sunrise meal that Muslims consume before starting the day's fast. “You have to adjust yourself to that and it was a bit difficult for me - I had no appetite.” The doctor told her to stop fasting as her body was in shock.
"SO MUCH LOVE" FROM STRANGERS
Of course, not every convert goes through such a dramatic moment during their first Ramadan, especially if they have prepared themselves well. There is a wealth of information online about the kind of food to eat so that the body adjusts quickly to the rigour of fasting at least 12 hours a day.
That was exactly what Shane Hew did - he Googled. The 27-year-old bachelor may be slim but he is a self-confessed big eater. And ever since he embraced Islam in January, he has become even more aware of what and how much he eats. To ready himself for his first Ramadan, he followed instructions he found online.
The Uber driver's Ramadan breakfast menu looked like recommendations from a women’s health magazine. Suhoor consisted mainly of oatmeal, banana and yoghurt, but no coffee - which dehydrates. The meal plan worked well for the Chinese Singaporean. His stomach only started growling at about 4pm or 5pm. When the hunger pangs hit, he told himself he had “just a few more hours" to go.
Being a chauffeur-on-demand allowed Mr Hew - who took on the Muslim name Ehsan - the flexibility to break fast at a different mosque each day. He enjoyed the time spent with what he called his “food companions” - strangers he sat with for iftar (the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan). “During this whole breaking fast at the mosque, I get to experience so much love from different people,” he said.
He recounted the first day when he queued up for food. "There was a Bangladeshi who was very loving and treated me as if I was his young brother - scooping rice for me and just stuffing me with food. And there was an Indian father with his kid who kept staring at me. The man asked why I converted to Muslim, then said, ‘May God bless you with peace in life.’"
“You definitely cannot see this anywhere else. It makes me feel like I actually belong. There is no awkwardness. That’s the beauty of it,” said Mr Hew.
Hunger and thirst aside, another aspect of Ramadan may prove challenging for new converts.
“The fasting part was my greatest worry at the start, but then I realised during Ramadan we have to perform the nightly prayers,” said Ms Li Jinghan, who underwent conversion just before Ramadan last year. “That was difficult,” she recalled.
The bubbly 26-year-old Chinese Singaporean met her Malay Muslim husband Muhammah Aizat Khalis in 2012 while both were studying at university. “Before we even agreed to be together, he made it very clear that for us to even get to the stage of marriage, I would have to convert. But he didn't pressure me, he was just saying, make the effort to learn, and then we'll see how it goes.”
After dating for three years, with the blessings of both their families, the couple decided to marry. That was when Ms Li converted, taking on Jihan as her Muslim name.
“I converted about two weeks before Ramadan, so I was just getting used to praying. It was really painful to do the five prayers (a day), and then now (during Ramadan) I have to go to the mosque for extra prayers. After we break fast, we'd be at the mosque at about 8pm and we’d pray until 9pm or 10pm. It was really exhausting,” Ms Li said.
Sometimes, she would break down and cry. Noticing her struggle, her in-laws asked her to take it easy, but Ms Li felt obliged. “I feel bad if I don't try,” she said.
This year, things got a lot easier. “It's been a whole year of praying, my legs got used to it. In March I actually went for the pilgrimage and we prayed a lot. That was when I realised, okay, so last year wasn't so bad,” she said, chuckling.
BEING A BLESSING TO OTHERS
Inspired by her own initial struggles in practising Islam, she recently quit her job at the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) to focus on building an online platform for converts worldwide.
“I realised a lot of Muslims are being marginalised in their own society, they can't declare their faith like I do in Singapore. And they might not be able to find the products they need easily, be it prayer items, or modest clothing, or even Islamic books to know more about their religion. I'm just hoping I can bring ease and convenience to the lives of Muslims worldwide.” Ms Li said.
She has the full support of her husband, an immigration and customs officer. “She kept thinking about it every night - even after she got home from AVA she would work until 2am, 3am just to pursue her dream,” said Mr Aizat, 28.
I asked Ms Li what Ramadan meant to her. She said: “I've seen the way (religion) shaped my husband's worldview and how he treats his parents. He's very filial, he loves his siblings a lot, he's very kind and generous, and I thought all of that came from the guidance of Islam.
"When I understood that, all I want to be is a blessing to others. That's what I aim to be, as a Muslim.”