KUWAIT: Malaysian Ambassador to Kuwait Muhammad Ali Selamat speaks to Kuwait Times.

By Ben Garcia

KUWAIT: Various ambassadors in Kuwait were interviewed by Kuwait Times to learn more about their local traditions and culture during Ramadan. We also asked about the current coronavirus situation in their respective countries and how they are handling and reacting to this pandemic. The following are excerpts from Kuwait Times’ interview with Malaysian Ambassador to Kuwait Muhammad Ali Selamat.

Kuwait Times: How is coronavirus being handled in your country right now?
Muhammad Ali Selamat: We have enacted a law that guides us on how we are going to react or act in the time of a pandemic. We have two agencies dealing with this pandemic – the Ministry of Health and the National Security Council. Meetings are being held daily, and we are holding regular press conferences to inform the public on the current status of the pandemic and the actions being taken to address the crisis. All the measures and strategies dealing with the pandemic are centralized to avoid confusion and chaos.

The Ministry of Health is in charge of patients and people who have contracted the virus and creates public awareness on what to do. The National Security Council tasks all other agencies to deal with other concerns related to the pandemic. Until now, we have registered 330,000 cases; 15,000 are active cases, recoveries are 95 percent of total cases and the death rate is very minimal at 0.5 percent, only around 1,300.

We take this pandemic very seriously. We restricted travel – only those who have approval can travel. We only allow Malaysians to enter, mostly students and businesspeople. They have to show travel approval before they can enter our territory. Right now, tourists are banned. In other areas, they are requiring PCR tests before they are allowed to enter. The regulations are being reviewed every two weeks – if cases show a downward trend, we will ease control, meaning maybe we could allow more activities depending on the local situations.

Schools opened just last month for face-to-face classes. Some universities and colleges are implementing a hybrid system of studies on a case-by-case basis. Students must be in laboratories, as this cannot be done virtually. Primary, elementary and high school students are allowed to attend school. Before we were holding classes online, but we reopened schools in March.

Kuwait Times: Many countries around the world have seen surges in the number of cases. What about your country?
Muhammad Ali: We have experienced three waves – the first was in January and February of 2020, when we contracted the virus from a Chinese tourist and from a religious group from South Korea that at that time was gathering in Kuala Lumpur. That was the first wave with only a few thousand cases. The second wave was in August and September of 2020. Many of those who brought in the virus were migrants, like those from the Philippines and Thailand. We had local elections in September, so transmissions were really high.

The third wave began in December and January until February, because we opened domestic tourism. People went on holidays, so transmission also surged. But in March we eased controls because cases declined. So we can say that we are managing the virus relatively well.

We introduced several economic packages to help our business and people to emerge from the crisis. We have launched three economic packages and stimulus amounting to $82 billion. The packages are aimed at empowering our people to regain strength and restart again. Yes, we have people who are out of jobs, since many of our businesses were affected. The latest count is around 750,000 people. I am afraid the number will grow because we are still under the pandemic.

A big contributor to the GDP is the tourism sector. We are badly affected by the fact that people were not able to travel because of restrictions. But I am sure we will return to the pre-pandemic stage. Our projection at this time is that our economy will recover. IMF forecast Malaysia to recover positively and grow by 6.5 percent, thanks to the real estate, manufacturing and food industries.

We are trying to come up with a new mechanism to open the tourism industry, and we started with local or domestic tourism. We started bilateral negotiations for a ‘travel bubble’ with regards to international tourism with neighboring countries such as Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei. We shall start with them before we can offer our tourism destinations again to other countries.

We are opening up slowly but cautiously. We do not want another surge because of this. We are now talking about vaccine passports in the future to ensure the health and safety of our people and travelers. We are still slowly and carefully doing our part to restart the economy.

Kuwait Times: How many Malaysians are currently in Kuwait?
Muhammad Ali: Before the pandemic we had around 400 people from Malaysia, but after the pandemic, we only have 300.

Kuwait Times: Were any Malaysians in Kuwait infected with the virus?
Muhammad Ali: Yes, around seven people working in private companies and three students. No deaths were reported.

Ramadan celebrations
Kuwait Times: How is Ramadan observed and celebrated in your country?
Muhammad Ali: Ramadan in Malaysia is heavily influenced by Islamic teachings. We were indoctrinated by Arab traders in 15th century, so our culture is influenced by them. Ramadan in Malaysia is almost similar to religious traditions and teachings in the Arab world. But we also blend it with Malay and Nusantara cultures. Fasting during Ramadan is a religious ritual, so it is similar when it comes to rituals. It may only vary in the food we eat and clothes we wear. These are significantly different, but the rituals of Ramadan are the same.

In the place where I was born, we have a tradition that every morning before daybreak, some people roam around to wake us up to pray and eat before fasting begins. Now with the radio and new technology, this tradition has been fading quickly. In our culture, we also visit our parents before Ramadan, or at least a few days before Ramadan, to seek forgiveness and blessings, so we are ready before the holy month comes. Now that we have this pandemic, calls or video calls are made.

In school, we teach our children as early as seven years old how to fast. We normally tell them to fast at least half a day. We promise them gifts, so that at the end of the fasting period, they will get rewards. Gradually, when they become teenagers, we encourage them to do the whole month of fasting. In Malaysia, when you have a menstrual period, you are considered an adult, so you are required to fast. Also when a boy is circumcised, normally at the age of 12, we consider them as adults, so they also have to complete the whole fasting period.

Kuwait Times: What are your traditions from day one to 20 of Ramadan and the rituals during the last 10 days and Eid Al-Fitr?
Muhammad Ali: In our country, it’s more about prayers and reading the Holy Quran. We also encourage people to give more charity. We also go to the mosque frequently to get closer to Allah. We base our actions on the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In our traditions, we prepare rice porridge to be distributed to needy people. The message is clear – to be united and encourage giving.

With regards to the last 10 days, normally people will visit mosques and stay there for a longer period to pray and learn the Holy Quran. Sometimes, they also take leave of absence from work during the last 10 days to spend time in the mosque to increase their faith in Allah and do more good deeds, since they are anticipating the rewards promised to them by Allah.

The last 10 days are festive until Eid. People working in Kuala Lumpur normally return to their villages to celebrate with their relatives, so you will see cars leaving and trying to return to their provinces. Shops are full, because people buy new things during Ramadan – new clothes, new furniture, almost everything. Holidays in Malaysia normally last two days, but some people will spend more days, maybe even one week, celebrating.