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As most readers would know, the world’s Muslim community has just begun the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan.

How important is Ramadan in Southeast Asia?

There are multiple ways to consider this question, however this post will look at it from just two perspectives.

One is to consider the number of people observing Ramadan (“observing” being apt term given the start is based on sighting the crescent moon). I can’t compete with the diligent and talented research folk and graphic artists at the Pew Research Centre, so I will defer to their great product here (click on the Asia Pacific tab at right if it doesn’t open directly, and note the interactivity by country and the chronological slide facility above the graph). Clearly that is a large number of people. With around 200 million Indonesian Muslims, Islam rivals Buddhism as the demographically dominant religion of Southeast Asia, with Ramadan therefore arguably the most significant spiritual event in the region.

A second perspective is to consider the effect Ramadan has on these Muslim populations. The spiritual costs and benefits are of course impossible to measure statistically, but there are more earthly measures with three particularly worthy of consideration.

The most obvious feature of Ramadan is the commitment to fasting, raising the question of whether fasting is healthy. At best, the evidence is mixed, with most studies finding few major health problems, although irritability, headaches, lack of sleep deprivation and general weakness are common. The more serious consequences seem to appear later, with evidence that exposure to Ramadan for pregnant Indonesian Muslims potentially affects the adult body size of the offspring, with reduced body weight and height compared to both non-Muslim and peers conceived/carried outside Ramadan.

Ramadan also has an economic impact. Not only does Ramadan decrease stock market volatility and increase stock returns compared the rest of the year, it also increases profits for online traders and increases subjective well-being among Muslims. The economic news is not all good though, with extended Ramadan fasting having a negative effect on output growth in Muslim countries. In Indonesia and Malaysia the estimated monthly GDP reduction is US$2.265 billion and US$762 million respectively due to the average of an hour a day reduced work time in both countries during Ramadan.*

>>Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Ramadan significantly affects consumer behaviour, with a sharp spike in disposable income just before Ramadan (in Indonesia at least) through payment of annual employee wage bonuses.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, these cashed up Indonesian workers are quickly exposed to increased advertising seeking this income, with Indonesian’s daily television viewing time surging during Ramadan due possibly to increased leisure time along with greater interest in religious programming.

Not that television is the only source of consumer temptation. Indonesians appear increasingly interested in going online after their pre-dawn prayers rather than returning to sleep, with a 400% increase above “normal” internet traffic at that time, but they also increase their online browsing at lunchtime by 12% (possibly as a substitute for eating). During Ramadan Indonesia’s online browsing also plummets by around 19% during the 4pm-7pm window as people travel home earlier to break the fast with family and friends.

What do Indonesians buy online during Ramadan? Unsurprisingly, traditional and conservative clothing sales skyrocket. Another category that performs extremely well is sports clothing (especially shoes), which may seem odd until you appreciate that the first steps towards an enhanced life include a visible commitment to and foundation for improved health and wellbeing through exercise.

These figures are modest however compared to the rise in other offline purchases in Indonesia, such as biscuits (used as gifts and welcome nibbles), with sales increasing by over 1000%. Purchases of convenience foods such as tinned foods and chicken nuggets also increase markedly. A charitable suggestion is that these foods allow quick consumption at the end of the fast, while another interpretation is that many wealthier families are bereft of food preparation skills with their domestic helpers absent.

These increased Ramadan expenses are not uniform across the classes though, with figures from 2010 suggesting that Indonesia’s lower income groups increased their spending by 30%, almost double that of the middle class (at 16%) and over twice that of upper income homes (with a 13% increase).<<

To me however, a statistic that ties together all the measures of fasting, economic indicators (which is really a measure of group psychology) and consumerism comes from Malaysia. With just a tenth of Indonesia’s Muslim population, Malaysians wasted over a quarter of a million tonnes of food during Ramadan last year, enough to feed the entire population of Vietnam for two months.

If this figure was extrapolated to Indonesia’s Muslim population (and I would welcome anyone arguing that possible level of waste is entirely inconceivable) with frugality this wasted Ramadan food would feed the entire population of Southeast Asia for nearly three months.

Ramadan really is a significant event in Southeast Asia.

* Note that this lost hour is calculated as an average. As a perceptive Indonesian friend noted, this hour is specified for those in formal employment. For those in informal employment this time may be less or non-existent, but in making allowance for the increased prayer time and loss of productivity through hunger and thirst in the tropical heat I suspect it is about right.

Note- Sincere apologies for the unorthodox approach to referencing, however the facts cited between the chevrons >> and << were drawn from the sources here and here, with their rephrasing into the narrative making conventional referencing very difficult.

Update – Some feedback I received on this piece included that it gravitated towards the overly negative.

I will leave you to judge that, but my feeling is that, as academically inclined analysis, the piece would be diminished if it wasn’t infused with a critical edge.

A specific criticism was that I only mentioned the negative health effects of fasting and didn’t write about the positive psychological impacts (such as controlling anger, being patient, letting the soul be clean of any hate/frustration etc). I concede the point, but highlight that all religions demand sacrifice and suffering with followers led to believe that they will be rewarded when they are dead. Perhaps if fasting was beneficial and enjoyable people would do it more, but the evidence is that it is mostly/slightly harmful, and probably feels that way for most people, which is why it is embraced as a cost of Ramadan purity.

In any event, the problem for me is that I’m interested in evidence and those positive psychological impacts are, if true, almost impossible to measure. Another perceived issue was the failure to mention the positive social impact as charitable giving increases. Yes, that positive impact is possibly true, but again it is extremely difficult to measure and thus judge and comment on.