A Ramadan Reflection

By Penny Burtt
Group CEO, Asialink

As the annual Eid festival is marked across the Muslim world, Asialink Group CEO Penny Burtt says all of us can benefit from reflecting on the hardship faced by near neighbours.

Across the Muslim world over the next two days more than 1.8 billion followers will celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and the most important festival in the religion’s calendar, Eid al Fitr or, as Malay speakers say, Idul Fitri.

Traditionally, this is a time to be with family. Hundreds of millions of people across the Middle East and Asia who gravitated to cities from small towns and farming villages during urban development booms strive to return home. Australia’s own diverse Muslim communities will gather together to feast, visit family and celebrate the end of the fast.

Eid prompts a great global exodus as people hop on any mode of transport they can find — laden with gifts to reflect their prosperous city life — to beat a path to parents and siblings, and sometimes wives and children, left behind.

This year, it will be different. The COVID crisis has made movement individually and collectively dangerous.

In Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population, with 240 million devotees, the government has imposed strict mobility controls between 6 and 17 May in the hope of stopping or slowing this annual movement of people from the cities to the countryside, known locally as mudik. Only those with special exemptions are permitted to use roads and board rail, bus and air services.

This is a hard time for individuals and families many of whom have experienced great hardship in the past year, including in our closest Asian neighbour. It is an appropriate time for us too to reflect on the difficulties faced by many countries in our immediate region.

Officially, Indonesia recorded 1.7 million COVID infections and more than 45,000 deaths up to this month.   It has left millions of people suffering ill-health and bereavement. Travel bans will compound the stresses. The pull of home is powerful at this time of year – people have been known to go to extraordinary lengths to make it back to family. The Jakarta Post this week told a touching story of a young man who hitched across Java on the back of a smelly food truck to see his widowed mother last Ramadan.

Moreover, many of those trapped in the cities must contend with loss of income. The economy contracted by 1.9 percent in 2020 — a better result than expected — but the recovery is forecast to be gradual and below the rate needed to make a dent in unemployment.

The impact on poverty will depend greatly on the effectiveness of targeted government social assistance, but even with state intervention a recent UNICEF study estimated 500,000 children will fall below the poverty line for at least some period during 2019-2021.

It is often said the fasting month brings out generosity in believers, even as the dozen long, hot hours without food and water between fajr (dawn) and maghrib (sunset) can test one’s resolve and temperament. Abstinence also is accompanied by reflection and recognition of one’s shortcomings both spiritual and temporal.

Over the past year, Australia has demonstrated a willingness to aid its neighbours as we faced our own stresses. But we have not always promoted those efforts very well either in recipient countries or at home and, in any case, we could do more to assist.

There is a view that Australia should take care of itself first before it seeks to help others. This would be a mistake.

We are a prosperous and relatively large country. We have so far come through the entwined health and economic crises reasonably well. We ought to be able to multi-task. As Gareth Evans colourfully put it, if you can’t ride two horses you shouldn’t be in the circus.

Thus, while we experience duress ourselves, helping our near neighbours demonstrates compassion and strength. And even if the calculus is a hard-headed one — in a world of increased uncertainty, of near strategic challenges, where we are compelled to spend billions more on defence — a relatively modest investment in aid and diplomacy might well produce a disproportionately large reward.

We also have to look beyond our current circumstances to the world where COVID is possibly endemic.  We have been relatively cocooned for more than a year. At some stage, we must emerge from this state and find a way to re-engage with other countries, especially those in our immediate region.

We need to be planning now for when and how to re-engage so that businesspeople, scholars, students, tourists and migrants can move across borders in a way that recognises, yet manages, risk.

It is likely to be a very long haul be we can return to a world that resembles 2019 – if ever. The post-pandemic, if not post COVID, world its likely to pose fresh challenges that we should prepare to meet now by seeking greater engagement and solidarity with our region, not less.

It is usual practice in Islam to acknowledge mistakes and faults at this time of year. At the time of the feast to mark the end of Ramadan, one of the uplifting traditions is to ask forgiveness of family and close associates. The phrase used in Indonesia is mohon maaf lahir dan batin.

An event like a once in a century pandemic is bound to involve a few missteps. Countries and governments everywhere have made them. The goal should be to learn from them and ensure we emerge as resilient domestic and international communities. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs and faith, the spirit of reflection this Eid is important for us all.

Penny Burtt is the Group CEO of Asialink, University of Melbourne.