The sanctity that is the Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar has been threatened and it's worrying.
For Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan is a time of self-reflection. It's also about giving back while undergoing the widely known practice of fasting from dusk until dawn.
Alongside this holy month, Muslims would converge on Ramadan bazaars for delicious street food to break fast with, while doing a little bit of shopping in preparation for the Eid al-Fitr celebrations that comes after Ramadan.
The thing we will be highlighting today is the street food in particular.
The Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar Controversy
When one walks into a Ramadan bazaar, you would expect the food sold to be Halal right? That no longer seems to be the case for Singapore's largest bazaar in Geylang Serai.
Over the weekend, the good people over at Halal Food Blog and Halal Food Hunt conducted their own investigations - they approached every food vendor to find out if the stalls were either Halal certified or owned by a Muslim boss - two ways to identify if an establishment is safe for Muslims to dine from.
And their findings are worrying at best - a great number of stalls fail to satisfy either one of the conditions.
They have a list of food stalls confirmed to be either Halal or Muslim-owned, as well as another for those that weren't (the list has since been removed).
The Situation On The Ground
As someone who practically lives in Geylang Serai, I am well aware of the changing food trends that shifts yearly in the Ramadan bazaar. In recent years, the presence of non-halal certified food stalls has definitely been growing.
Back then, they were limited to a minority that everyone just "closed one eye" to. This year however, the situation has been turned on its head.
You don't have to venture that deep into the bazaar to see what the food blogs were talking about.
Starting with the main tent along Engku Aman Road, go a little further in and it feels like little Thailand. Rolled ice cream, mango sticky rice, and Thai milk tea everywhere you turn.
What I noticed instantly is how present the Instagram generation is - the 20-something "influencer" types on a quest for unicorn-coloured everything.
And that's precisely where the queues are. Just look at the stalls offering scotch eggs, rainbow bagels, and other "Instagram-worthy" food.
An Ominous Sign
I'm all for diversity and having our multi-racial Singaporean community participate in the festivities of a particular ethnic community. With that said, it would be better if they actually got to experience the cuisine of said race.
Take a walk down the Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar and it feels like another Artbox.
I would also fault social media for distorting what food is picture worthy and what's not, especially among the younger demographic.
If you are a real foodie, a freshly barbecued Ayam Percik can look as good, or even better, than a Unicorn anything on your feeds.
The moment the organisers allowed it to come to this, you know something is terribly wrong with how the Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar is perceived now.
Granted, theres's a temporary exhibit showcasing the history of Geylang Serai and Hari Raya, but that's the only extent to educating the public.
Just text and images on walls and pedestals.
There's this missed opportunity to extend the experience into the bazaar itself.
After all, are we that deprived of Malay artisans and cuisine that we have to resort to Korean fried chicken and melon sundaes to fill up the spaces?
Keeping Up With The Times?
"While being a platform for commemorating Ramadan, the annual Hari Raya Light-Up also provides an opportunity for local and international visitors alike to explore the precinct and understand more about the Malay culture in Singapore," - Dr Teo Cheng Swee, chairman of Hari Raya Light-Up 2017 organising committee.
It seems to me that people will be learning more about Thailand and food trends in the US than about the Malay culture in Singapore.
Someone somewhere seems to have this idea that light decorations inspired by Malay elements and Malay cultural performances over the weekends is all that's required.
Let's be realistic. If you are not celebrating Hari Raya, you would just be coming for the food. But in that, the draw that brings you here would no longer be about Ramadan.
It's All About The Dollars
We can also put the blame on Malay vendors who in recent years, have been moving towards "Instagrammable foods", so much so that the organisers felt it necessary to have more of them.
A simple Google search of "Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar" would yield the local foodie sites listing the bazaar's most Instagrammable foods.
There are many Malay-Muslim establishments re-imagining their cuisine, or infusing its flavours into well-known dishes, so there's definitely no shortage of ingenuity.
But a deterring factor for them might be the prohibitive rental costs at the bazaar.
We haven't even talked about other random stalls like those selling cars and motorcycles, even insurance. But with the rents spiralling up every year, it has turned into a case of who has the money.
Having lived through more than two decades of the bazaar, I have seen recurring vendors suddenly disappearing the year after, and the cycle repeats itself today.
It's truly unfortunate that the bazaar has come to this.
The tentages that come once a year for 30 days, where the Muslim community can freely buy food from, is now a thing of the past.
It's called a Ramadan bazaar for a reason, guess the organisers gravely missed the point.
For now though MUIS urges Muslims going to the bazaar to practice self-discretion when buying the food there. If you have doubts on its Halal status, don't eat it.