Of Zoom Calls, Social Distancing and Empty Markets: A Journey of Raya Celebrations during COVID-19

September 2, 2020

This blog, authored with the support of Yayasan Sukarelawan Siswa (YSS), is part of UNDP Malaysia's Kisah series, which explores COVID-19 impacts through the dual lens of conversation partners at the front lines, and through UNDP’s programmes and priorities. ('Kisah' is a Malay word that means ‘story’ and ‘to care, to take interest’.) To participate in Kisah, or to find out more, email the UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia at acclab.my@undp.org.  

Weak signals and community listening

In a post-COVID-19 world where there is much uncertainty about the future, the UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia is keeping an eye out for weak signals (something that is not too prominent, but can have significant impact down the line). One of the methods we are experimenting with is “community listening”—a form of ethnography that richly captures lived experience and individual/community sentiment. While not directly related to policy inquiry, the observation of physical and social distancing prompts thought around critical issues like social cohesion and community building in Malaysia. Festivals, celebrations and similar events are regular avenues for bringing communities together, maintaining camaraderie and promoting peace. We should, therefore, find ways to support development of novel ways of bringing people together, while being mindful of limitations in access to digital technology.

The pandemic has altered almost every aspect of our lives—from how we work to how we interact with other people in society. One such occasion for Muslims in the country is the celebration of Hari Raya, or Eid al-Fitr, in May this year. Despite the pandemic, people have found novel ways of celebrating the festival with their loved ones. The Malaysian government extended the Movement Control Order (MCO) on 10 May until 9 June, however with some easing of restrictions. It allowed small gatherings of up to 20 people for festive celebrations of Hari Raya, but cross-state travel was still off the table. For a lot of people, this time of the year means getting together with their family and friends and going all out on festivities. But this time, it was different for all of them. Raya bazaars would usually be set up everywhere, selling cookies and clothes. The streets would be filled with people making preparations for the festival. But this year, the story was different. 

Busy Raya markets in 2019 contrast with empty Raya markets in 2020. Photo credit: Syazana (Left); Free Malaysia Today (Right).

We partnered with YSS to understand how this has affected the Raya celebrations for youth. We spoke to a few YSS alumni to understand how their experience has been, and here we share some of their stories to help us better understand the impact of the pandemic on celebrations. 


Muhamad Aiman Hamzah bin Muhamad Nassir, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)

Photo credit: Muhamad Aiman Hamzah bin Muhamad Nassir

Muhamad Aiman Hamzah, a senior-year management student from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), lived away from his family and was unable to join them in Muar, Johor, due to inter-state travel restrictions during the MCO. “It is not fun to celebrate Eid in town. It feels different and isolated.” He says he misses all the rituals associated with the festival, from the pre-Raya house-cleaning, to making cookies, to the walk he and his family would take after prayers at the mosque. One of the most important rituals, of seeking forgiveness from each other, felt different to him. “I usually kneel before my parents and seek for forgiveness. I still sought forgiveness from them this time… but it was only on the computer screen”. He was still thankful for the technological advancements that allowed him to speak to his loved ones for hours together, on Raya. He says Raya this year was not very exciting for him, but hopes the situation gets better and that no one gets to celebrate another Raya away from their family. 

Nurul Atiqah binti Abd Samad, Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) Labuan Campus

The story of Raya was a little different for Nurul Atiqah. She stayed with her parents to celebrate the festival whereas her siblings couldn’t join in this year. Though she misses them a lot, she has found different ways of making this Raya memorable for her. Usually, her family orders lots of kuih raya (traditional cakes and sweets) for the celebration, but this year, she tried to make kuih raya by herself. Along the way, she uncovered a hidden talent! Every year, her family would congregate at the mosque for prayers, but this year she says, “My father insisted three of us (me, my mother and my father) perform our own Aidilfitri prayer at home and cherish the small, quiet, and private moments we’re given.” She says this year has certainly been different and difficult, “but that shouldn’t stop me and my family from enjoying all of our long-cherished traditions, granted with a bit of a twist, to keep our spirits strong as we face the COVID-19 crisis together.”

(Left) Raya this year, during the COVID-19 crisis. (Middle and Right) Raya celebration in previous years with siblings, nephews and nieces. Photo credit: Nurul Atiqah binti Abd Samad


Mohd Ghazlan bin Mohd Kassim, Lincoln University College

Photo credit: Mohd Ghazlan bin Mohd Kassim

The experience of Mohd Ghazlan was a unique one. He usually lives away from family because of school. But this year, just before Raya, he was admitted to the hospital due to an illness, and post recovery, was sent back to his hometown to be with his family. He says there are usually two things that excite him about Raya: the food and people visiting him during the festival. He says he had both, “but in a cooler way.” Though he had a modest Raya celebration with good food and his family, he feels there will always be something he misses: “For an extrovert like me, meeting and being able to interact with people brings so much happiness… It is not happening anymore at least until the RMCO (Recovery Movement Control Order) is lifted.” But he feels Raya was still a time to spread positivity and love— “If you haven’t reached out to your loved ones, do it now! Give them a phone call and let them know that we are fighting this pandemic together.”

Damia’ Khalysa binti Mohammad Nasaruddin, MARA-Japan Industrial Institute

Every year, Damia’ Khalysa celebrates the festival with her grandparents and her extended family, including her cousins and siblings. When asked if she liked the previous year’s Raya better than this year’s, she says, “Having to compare how I celebrated Hari Raya this year to the years before, I really preferred the ones before… the most obvious difference is when I woke up on the first day of Hari Raya.. I didn’t get to perform Hari Raya prayers in the mosque, I didn’t get to see more and more cars coming and parking in front of my grandparent’s house… I didn’t get to see the excitement of my cousins and siblings showing off their firecrackers and a lot more. It saddens me because these are the little things that made my Raya more valuable each year.” Despite this, she is happy she got to spend more time with her family, and Hari Raya was still fun, and she was grateful for everything she had.

(Left) Raya with her father in 2020. (Right) Raya with her extended family and grandparents in previous years. Photo credit: Damia’ Khalysa binti Mohammad Nasaruddin


Physically distanced but socially (digitally) near

From these stories, it is evident that the physical distancing requirements did not completely curtail the social experience of Raya. These students are thankful for the advancements in technology that have enabled them to celebrate the festival despite the distance. We believe that these stories and sentiments are true not only for these students, but also most Malaysians who celebrated the festival.



The author would like to thank Yin Wei Chong, Head of Solutions Mapping and Su-Jin Lim, Area-Based Programme Coordinator, for input and comments. The author would also like to thank Fazirah Naser, Senior Executive, Centre of Volunteer Excellence and Efforts, YSS and Millan Anak Stephen, Corporate Communication Executive, YSS for their inputs and comments. 

About this blog’s conversation partner

Yayasan Sukarelawan Siswa (YSS) / Student Volunteers Foundation is an entity wholly owned by the Government of Malaysia through the Ministry of Higher Education, Malaysia. It was launched in 2012 and was established with the aim to inculcate the spirit of volunteerism and camaraderie among the students of tertiary education and also to produce global students volunteer icons. YSS trained selected student volunteers from the large pool of 1.3 million students of higher learning in Malaysia through high impactful students’ volunteer missions which are domestically and internationally held throughout the year. YSS focuses on capacity building of student volunteers and maintain lifelong learning and engagements. 

This blog contains information and perspectives of the individual authors and does not indicate any formal endorsement by UNDP Malaysia or the conversation partner’s organisation, nor does it indicate provision of any technical support in their implementation. UNDP Malaysia is not responsible for content provided in any of the external sites linked to this article. This is purely for informational purposes only.