I’d never been in a mosque before. When I arrived for the DMZ Dinner held at Al-Nahdhah Mosque, I hesitated because I did not know if I was allowed to enter the prayer area. Where do I put my shoes? Do I need to remove my socks?
After circling the compound twice like a thief, I finally found a low-profile side entrance to sneak in unnoticed. Inside the mosque’s Harmony Centre, I glanced stealthily at everyone’s feet before removing my socks and stuffing them in my back pocket.
Later in the evening, I told this story to my dinner facilitator Nazeera and she laughed aloud.
“You ARE allowed to enter even the Prayer area. Just so long as you don’t make a big fuss or disturb anyone during prayer.”
“In fact, if anyone wants a mosque tour, just give me a call,” she offered. “Even if you’re a Muslim!’
Encounters and experiences like these are the reasons why The Thought Collective, with the support of the Singapore Kindness Movement, organises DMZ dinners every year. According to the website, the DMZ Dinner is a ‘friendly ceasefire where you can lay down your arms, leave your trench and eat with someone from the other side’.
It was thus rather ironic that the seven of us, five non-Muslims and two Muslims, were seated at a round table, perhaps intentionally since a round table doesn’t have an ‘other side’.
Over a dinner of curry, nyonya vegetables and army-style cambro cordial, we tackled this year’s thorny theme – the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Singapore. Nazeera kicked things off by asking us to share our experiences growing up in Singapore.
I talked about my experience growing up in a bubble. During my teens, I attended a 95-percent Chinese SAP school. The only Muslim friend I had in my secondary schooldays was my Malay English Literature teacher.
My predicament was actually far from unusual. Seated next to me was a Christian NSF who had gone to a mission school. Opposite him was Chelsea, a Yale-NUS student who also came from a SAP school. Both of them confessed that their own upbringing was just as monoracial and mono-religious as my own.
The Muslims at my table, Nasser and Nazeera, had rather different experiences. Nasser, a Social Studies teacher, found our experiences rather perplexing. In his own secondary school days, he had many friends from various backgrounds and they were comfortable enough to throw racist jokes at one another.
I had never considered this important difference. Thanks to a numerical advantage, it seems all too easy for the Chinese non-Muslims to socialise among themselves and to never leave their own bubble. On the other hand, such hermit crab behaviour was not an option for those in the minority.
Or was it perhaps the age difference? The older adults at the table all seemed to have enjoyed more diversity in their childhood.
From there, we moved on to other questions like Islamophobia. (What is Islamophobia really? Isn’t it quite dangerous to call out Islamophobia haphazardly?) Our conversation also veered towards Facebook and Twitter. Contentious social media platforms which we felt to be rather unconducive for fruitful discussions about Islamophobia.
“Why is the only news always bad news?” asked Nazeera. “There are villages in Palestine where Jews and Palestinians have been living and cooking together in harmony for decades, but all we ever hear about is the violence.”
Before we could reach any satisfying conclusions, the clock was striking nine and event host Shiao-Yin brought the six tables together to share our views on the present state of inter-faith relations.
When asked how many are enthusiastic or hopeful for the state of Muslim/non-Muslim relationships in Singapore, almost everyone raised their hands. Yet, a significant number also expressed their anxiety about race relations in Singapore.
One dinner participant offered a compelling explanation: “Trump has been a sobering lesson. We must take this as an opportunity to make sure America 2016 doesn’t happen in Singapore.”
His response was greeted with nods from my table but you can’t have a DMZ without detractors. A self-professed liberal speaker expressed his cynicism on the possibility of change: “I don’t feel hopeful because with every election, the G(overnment) crushes any ambitions I have for genuine change.”
The statement was met with a feisty rejoinder: “Why are we waiting for a saviour? We should not be looking to the G to do things for us, everyone must play their part.”
On that note and with a round of applause, the event drew to a close. Facilitator Nazeera and I agreed that the whole thing felt a little short. Still, we had a great many conversations that would not be raised outside of these walls.
People began filtering out and the conversation turned towards more prosaic subjects. At my table, we discussed the relative advantages of Uber versus Grab. We teased Chelsea about the lack of exams in ‘slack’ Yale-NUS. Nasser shared his experiences teaching social studies and importance of building good rapport with your class.
Off-topic? I don’t think so. In the age where online hatred can carry you to the White House, even the most mundane conversations matter.
After all, we questioned: “Why are we making friends for the sake of ‘racial harmony’? Surely the only reason to make friends is because you want to.”