SINGAPORE: On some days during the holy month of Ramadan, public relations officer Badrun Nisa Abdul Razak, 32, would usually head to her uncle's place to break fast with about 30 members of her extended family.
Aunts, uncles and cousins with their spouses and children would gather over generous plates of bee hoon biryani, roti john and roti jala, catching up and taking turns to play with the young ones.
The elders would sit at the table and the rest would sit on the floor, sometimes playing games until the prayer call rings out to signal it is time to dig in.
"We've always been a close-knit family," Ms Badrun told CNA. "My parents are very close to their siblings, and they've always emphasised the importance of fostering close relationships with our extended family members."
These large gatherings, involving family members from about 15 different households, would take place three to four times during the month. Ms Badrun said they are a way for working adults to bond and spend more time with each other.
But with Singapore's "circuit breaker" measures prohibiting large gatherings and meetings between family members from different households unless necessary, Ramadan this year – which runs from Apr 23 to May 23 – just won't be the same.
Mosques, which hold more significance during a month when worship is extra important, have been closed until further notice. The annual bazaars and Geylang light-up, which add festive cheer ahead of Hari Raya Puasa, have been suspended too.
"It will be very different and a little sad," Ms Badrun said of the upcoming Ramadan. "But you know, we need to be responsible citizens. So, we just make it work with these limitations."
Ms Badrun's family plans to gather over Zoom after breaking fast instead, although she said not being physically together changes things.
"We'll all be in each others' homes and connected via a webcam," she said. "So, you can't touch, take photos and be close to (each other)."
Other Ramadan activities will also transition to virtual spaces. Mosques will shift the usual events online, while e-bazaars and Facebook marketplaces selling Hari Raya food and items have sprung up.
"With the disruption to traditionally observed communal activities of community gatherings and congregational tarawih prayers at the mosques, the community is encouraged to continue observing Ramadan meaningfully at home," the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) said in a statement on Tuesday.
MOSQUES EMBRACE TECHNOLOGY
During Ramadan, the Al-Istighfar mosque in Pasir Ris can attract about 1,000 congregants each day, said its chairman Azman Mohd Ariffin, 57.
Congregants would break fast together, participate in the daily evening and supplementary tarawih prayers, and listen to religious lectures.
As with preparation for any big event, Mr Azman and his team started planning for these activities months earlier, since last September. They had gathered volunteers, sourced for caterers and reached out to imams.
But MUIS' announcement on Mar 24 that it would close mosques until further notice to curb the spread of COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works.
"Initially, a few volunteers asked why mosques must close, but we explained to them that this was done in good faith," Mr Azman said, stating that everybody was sad. "As a good practising Muslim, saving lives is more important."
While Mr Azman said he looks forward to praying in congregation and meeting friends at the mosque during Ramadan, there are benefits of praying at home.
"Everyone is saying whatever it is, we should go to the mosque during Ramadan; it’s like a calling," he added. "But on the flipside, there will be more time for me to spend with my family and focus on praying with my family."
Mr Azman said his mosque would make lectures and prayer guides for Ramadan available online, while the needy would still get free meals for break fast delivered to their home with the usual safe distancing measures applied.
Planning for this has been less hectic – they're already engaging imams to pre-record prayer guides for airing on each day of Ramadan – but Mr Azman said it's tougher to get things done virtually.
"The difficult part is we cannot meet to plan, so we use Zoom," he said. "It’s a different set of challenges, but it’s good that we are forced to embrace technology."
Technology also allows the mosque to reach out to groups of people it might have previously overlooked, Mr Azman said. This includes millennials and those who might have been too busy to visit the mosque during Ramadan.
"Usually we focus on those who go to the mosques," he explained. "The plus point is there are now avenues to tap on those who can't. They can still be part of the mosque fraternity."
Nevertheless, Mr Azman hopes mosques could gradually re-open for the last two weeks of Ramadan. The circuit breaker measures are slated to end on May 4, but the Government has warned it could be extended if the virus is not controlled.
"There will be a lot of differences (this Ramadan), but it’s about how we will cope with the differences," he added. "It’s a bonus if mosques re-open, if not we can pray at home and strengthen family bonds."
BAZAARS GO ONLINE
For 29-year-old Alfi Muswaadi Appathi, an auditor at an aviation firm, this strengthening of bonds also involves an almost weekly trip with family and friends to the annual Ramadan bazaar in Geylang.
They would go last-minute shopping for Hari Raya essentials and outfits, try novelty snacks to break fast, and bask in the festive atmosphere of Hari Raya songs booming from every stall.
"It’s a nostalgic feeling," he said, noting that he would still visit the bazaar despite knowing how crowded and stuffy it would be. "We have visited it since we were young, a habit cultivated over generations."
Mr Alfi said he had just become a dad and was looking forward to visiting this year's bazaar with his wife and son. But on Mar 18, the People's Association said it would be cancelled to avoid large crowds during the pandemic.
"It is a sad reality," he said. "Ramadan and Hari Raya will not be the same, but it is the safest move and I respect it. It is for the greater good of the nation."
Still, some organisers are trying to re-create bazaars online to keep the cheer going.
According to lifestyle portal Have Halal Will Travel, two online flea markets and an online bazaar will take place in April and May. The Bazaar Ramadhan Singapore 2020 Facebook group already has more than 35,000 members.
Mr Alfi said he might check these out and get Hari Raya food and outfits delivered instead. "Contactless delivery is a huge thing now," he said.
While Mr Alfi acknowledged the restrictions will make this year's Ramadan "quiet", he is still looking forward to it and setting new religious goals.
"This just gives us Muslims more focus on our spiritual practices in Ramadan, bringing ourselves closer to our creator and the religion without all the entertainment and distractions," he added.
"It was supposed to be this way anyway."