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On faith, identity, and other people's expectations

This is the second piece produced from the first round of the Kaya Toast Mini-Mentorship Initiative. And yes, I'm planning to open this initiative up for a second round, so watch this space!

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An introduction to our writer

Unlike the illustrious Hannah Montana, Nez did not have the best of both worlds. Nez was born to a religious Malay-Muslim family, but she didn't feel comfortable identifying as either. As she attended a Methodist school with most of her peers being Chinese,  she found herself caught between societal expectations of being a Malay-Muslim individual and her own struggles with creating her own identity. After staring into her mind’s eye, she finally found the language and courage to tell her journey of compromise and clarity.

On faith, identity, and other people's expectations

By Nez

From the moment we’re born, we’re laden with expectations. For example, being a Malay in Singapore immediately means that you're assumed to also be a Muslim, and expected to conduct yourself in particular ways — to only eat halal food, dress modestly, refuse alcohol. Our racial identity is tied to our religion. This is often treated as an unquestioned fact, but for those of us with more conflicted feelings about our faith, grappling with our identities amid all these social expectations is an ongoing struggle.

A Muslim upbringing grounded me in Malay culture. Malay practices and traditions are heavily influenced by Islamic beliefs. Malay food is synonymous with being halal; from a young age, I was told that I can’t eat pork and should only use utensils from the halal stall. When I saw Malay people wearing tudungs eating at a restaurant, this meant that the food was safe to eat.

There’s a strong sense of community among Malay-Muslims. Nothing exemplifies this better than fasting and celebrating Hari Raya. During Ramadhan, we’re comforted by the fact that our fellow Muslims are fasting with us. On the morning of Hari Raya, we gather at the mosque to share a prayer and our first breakfast in a month. There’ll be banter about how difficult fasting was, or boasting about how many ra’akats (series of movements performed during prayer) we did during tarawih (special prayers performed during Ramadhan). This annual celebration shared amongst friends, family and fellow Muslims makes you feel like you belong somewhere.

My parents emphasised that being a good daughter means being a good Muslim, and vice versa. Islam was taught to me by religious teachers who spoke predominantly Malay, and I met other Malay children my age in their classes. There weren’t a lot of Malay children in my neighbourhood, so those classes allowed me to meet more people who look and talk like me, which was important in those formative years.

If I left my religion, I’d lose the community that has been built upon it. Where would I go?

An unreligious awakening

I never openly questioned my faith or upbringing until my late teens, but I always knew that my faith wasn’t as strong as my family or my peers. For many years, I wondered what “having faith” meant: is it some inexplicable connection you have with a higher being, or is it something that you earn after putting in the work?

I’ve never felt that inexplicable connection with Islam, nor felt the calming effects of prayer. Some people say that when you pray, you will find peace and a connection with God. I guess for me, God never came to the phone. More often than not, I’d pray just to get my mother to stop nagging. I began to relate the religious practice with punishment and appeasement.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Islam. My disinclination towards Islam can partly be attributed to how it was taught to me and what I came to subconsciously associate it with. I think the way certain people relay the teachings of the Quran can be improved.

My grandma used to say that, if I defied Islam, I would be condemned to hell and burn for all eternity. But if I did good things, I would earn pahala (blessings). When I die, my sins and blessings would be weighed against each other on a scale. Wherever the scale tilted would determine if I’m sent to heaven directly, or first condemned to pay penance in hell. I remember going to religious class and having the Ustazah (religious teacher) hit my hand with a ruler whenever I couldn’t read the Arabic lines properly.

It’s not uncommon for Muslims to grow sceptical of the religion when defiance and doubt is met with chastisement. Occasionally, their stories appear in the media; Rahim*, who spoke to, said he no longer finds comfort in religion, partly because of the judgment of others when one doesn’t pray. In an interview on LUCK-IT, Norsham Mohd said she was only met with negativity when she approached her religious tutor with questions.

I explored different religions to find my faith but ended up with more questions. How can each belief have different rules for the afterlife? I soon decided that wherever you go hereafter depends on what you believe in now. If I don’t believe in hell, how can I be condemned to it? I realised that I don’t have to be part of any organised religion; I can decide on my own beliefs, and what I have faith in.

Belonging and conformity

Despite coming to such a conclusion, questioning my faith in Islam made me feel ashamed for a very long time. It felt as though I was rejecting my family and community. Not believing in Islam meant I wasn’t a good Muslim, which in turn meant I wasn’t a good Malay person and daughter. When I conform to the religion, I get a sense of belonging. But if I share the doubts I have, this belonging gets revoked.

In secondary school, I had a group of friends who were devout Muslims. We visited each other for Hari Raya and prayed together in school. But as I started to question my faith, I felt a gulf form between us. It felt taboo to talk about not believing in the religion. Despite our best efforts to reach an understanding, I didn’t feel like they understood me. To me, this experience was a trial run for what would happen if I left the religion.

There were other indications that my lack of conformity to the “good” Malay-Muslim standard would not be well-received. The dynamic comedy duo, MunahHirzi, who have amassed a sizeable following on social media, have been criticised for the way they behave and dress. Known for their tongue-in-cheek comedy about Singapore society and politics, the two were given their own TV series on a local network in 2012. However, a group of conservative Muslims petitioned against the show, arguing that Munah and Hirzi do not reflect Malay-Muslim values and accusing them of anti-Islam behaviour.

This was despite the fact that neither of them have denounced the faith. In fact, Hirzi has been very open about his faith in Islam, and encourages individuals to embrace their religion and identity on their own terms. Hirzi has been very open with his support for the LGBTQ+ community. Unfortunately, his appointment as a Pink Dot Ambassador has led to his extended family shunning him. My takeaway from this incident is that it isn’t enough to openly state that you are a Muslim; you must also conform to certain norms. Seeing all this, I realised that we can’t necessarily rely on the community to understand and embrace us, if/when we deviate from mainstream expectations. If that was the reaction that Hirzi got, would I meet a similar fate if I talk about leaving Islam?

As a minority, I already struggle with finding a sense of belonging. When Norsham Mohd left the religion, her family stopped including her in their outings or inviting to their houses. She was perceived as someone who betrayed their faith. Her experience aligns with my reason for not leaving Islam; I think of the hurt, embarrassment, and shame it’d cause my parents. I worry that I’ll lose their respect and acceptance if I publicly renounced the faith. And there could be other knock-on effects. My father’s clientele is mostly from the Malay-Muslim community. If word gets out that I’ve decided to leave the faith, this would send shockwaves through our familial and social ties.

Fitting in

Due to my limited Malay proficiency and lack of belief in my religion, I’ve never been secure about my racial identity. This insecurity is exacerbated every time I deviate from the expectations people have of me. It surfaces with even the most innocuous things: every time I mention that I don’t eat spicy food, it’s met with surprise and a bombardment of questions about how I handle Malay food. A Muslim person is often expected to dress conservatively; whenever I try to leave the house in a sleeveless shirt or a short dress, my mother asks me to change. Because my ability to express myself through clothing is limited, I decided to get tattoos on parts of my body that I need to cover up. I’ll never wear a sleeveless or low-cut shirt because it may reveal the blasphemous ink on my skin. It’s a win-win!

Dealing with perceptions and expectations within the Malay-Muslim community is only one aspect; other people make assumptions too. In junior college, I was the only Malay girl in my batch in a Christian school. This was the time when I was more brazen with my religious deviations. I wanted to fit in with my peers. I originally tried to keep to my religion when with my Chinese friends. Dietary restrictions always got in the way. When they wanted to eat out, options were limited because there weren’t many halal restaurants around. It was nice of them to accommodate, but I felt uncomfortable and would always insist on going where they went. At first, I stuck to vegetarian dishes. Slowly, I allowed myself fish, then chicken, and finally the standard dropped to “if I don’t know it’s pork, it's fine”. My rationale was: Muslims follow dietary restrictions to express their faith, but if I don’t have faith in the religion I should be free to consume whatever I like.

Yet my divergence from the Malay-Muslim “norm” was not enough to shield me from racism and microaggressions. As the only minority in race and gender, I was often asked to be a spokesperson for both groups in class, which made me uncomfortable. My values were similar to my peers. I never thought of how different I was from the people around me until it was brought up.

Once, a classmate lost his wallet. He jokingly asked me if I took it. I said no. Then he said, “I asked you first because you’re a ‘yalam’.” It was presented as a joke but made me feel even more displaced. The boy eventually found the wallet in his back pocket.

Despite my efforts to fit in, I knew that I’d never be like them. I would always be seen as the Malay girl, chained to stereotypes and expectations. When I tried to explain my predicament to my Christian friends, they found it hard to understand and quite unironically asked me to pray with them.

The way I balance, precariously, between managing my personal growth and the religious expectations of my family, is to hide and lead a dual life. I swing between putting up a charade of being religious, and being someone who acts without religious constraints. I’m always looking over my shoulder as I engage in haram (sinful) activities. I carry the shame and fear of being found out and disowned.

While it’s sweet that some of my acquaintances try to look out for me based on what they know about the Malay-Muslim culture, it can be difficult to explain why I don’t follow religious rites. It’s emotionally taxing, and is often met with more questions. I have to constantly come up with different ways to explain myself. It may help for us to avoid leaning on assumptions we have of people from certain groups, and simply ask them “are you comfortable with this?” if the situation calls for it.

Renouncing Islam also isn’t as casual as stopping one’s visits to a temple or no long attending church services. It is slightly easier than getting out of a gym membership. One has to first make a statutory declaration, signed by a Commissioner for Oaths, then bring that to the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, usually referred to as MUIS) to fill forms and be interviewed. Only then will one be struck off MUIS’ database of Muslims in Singapore.

MUIS has emphasised that leaving the religion is a personal decision and is not unlawful. There are even non-religious communities in Singapore such as the Humanist Society and Council of Ex-Muslims Singapore (CEMS) that raise awareness and serve as a support system. But there’s still fear and doubt when I think of leaving. The fear is rooted in potential social stigma, moral condemnation and ostracism by family and the community. Openly declaring or discussing the idea of leaving the religion feels disrespectful to the culture I grew up in. Furthermore, if you aren’t financially independent it may be difficult to break away from your family.

Being a Muslim in Singapore also comes with legal implications. Here, Syariah law — governing family, inheritance, and marriage matters for Muslims — co-exists with the civil law that governs non-Muslims. All who profess Islam are bound by Muslim law based on birth right, or the moment they accept the religion. Syariah law cannot be relinquished as long as the individual remains Muslim. Because I haven’t gone through the official process of renouncing the religion, I’m still considered a Muslim under Syariah law, regardless of how I actually feel about the religion.

Muslim marriages here are governed by Syariah law, while non-Muslim marriages are covered by the Women’s Charter. Technically, under section 3(4) of the Women’s Charter, civil law doesn’t exclude marriages in which one party is a Muslim, but a marriage between a Muslim and non-Muslim may complicate other legal matters, such as inheritance. Non-Muslim spouses and children will not be able to inherit the deceased Muslim’s property unless it has been specifically willed to them.

My partner, a free-thinking Chinese man, and I often discuss this sensitive terrain. My family expects him to convert to Islam and his family understands the commitment. But converting isn’t that easy. He’ll have to go through a course on Islam, and once officially converted, he’ll be obliged to follow Syariah law as well. He understands that this issue of whether or not to convert isn’t so much about legalities, but about my family’s feelings and expectations. Still, it makes me uneasy; if I don’t even believe in the religion myself, it wouldn’t be fair to drag my partner into what feels like a “long con” just to appease my family.

I always fantasise about the conversation that I might have with my parents about all these doubts and my lack of faith. I imagine, wistfully, that while they’d be disappointed at first, they’ll come to understand that faith is an individual journey and accept how I feel.

Unfortunately, any mention about defying the religion is met with a stern reminder to pray.

Thank you for reading, and thank you Nez for sharing such a personal piece.