Excited about holding a knife for the first time in his life, Suhaimi helped his father, the chief slaughterer of the sheep livestock at Masjid Omar Salmah mosque back then, to skin the dead sheep before it was cut up by the butcher.
“I wasn’t afraid about the knife being sharp or coming into contact with a dead animal, it was quite a fantastic experience,” laughs the 50-year-old architect. “Growing up during that period of time, these were all part and parcel of life and we as young boys all wanted to be a part of it.”
Since then, the korban ritual has been an annual family affair at every Hari Raya Haji, with elder brother Yusuf and younger brother Saifuddin also taking up responsibilities in the slaughter pen during their childhood. Later, Saifuddin would take up slaughtering duties when their father could not perform the ritual due to his old age.
Korban subsequently became a three-generation family practice when Yusuf’s eldest son Danial joined the adults a few years ago. Now 23 years old, he is one of the main slaughterers for the mosque. Suhaimi’s son Danish, 19, also assists with the skinning of the sheep.
“It is important for us to involve our children in the korban practice when they are young because from there they get to learn the important values of the ritual and the celebration of Hari Raya Haji,” says Suhaimi, who now oversees the korban ritual as the mosque’s vice-chairman.
“We want them to learn the significance of this practice, and more importantly to do good for the community and society.”
It commemorates the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismail in obedience to God.
Individuals can purchase an animal, usually a sheep, to be sacrificed. The meat is then divided into three equal portions: for themselves, for family and friends, and for the poor and needy. Non-muslims are also welcome to receive a share of the sacrificial meat.
The charitable act of donating the meat to the less fortunate is the chief virtue of korban, as meat is often the most expensive food item that the poor cannot afford.
This year, 3,700 sheep were flown in from Australia for the ritual, of which 140 were delivered to Masjid Omar Salmah.
The 44-year-old mosque’s kampung-style architecture – a one-storey building with a zinc roof – along with its location just opposite the National Equestrian Centre near Caldecott Hill, gives off a pleasantly rustic vibe that is instantly welcoming to visitors.
When I arrived at the mosque on Friday afternoon, there was a surreal air of calm and quiet around the tentage set up as the slaughter pen. Even though there were supposedly around 50 sheep inside at that time, there was little to suggest the presence of animals, save for a whiff of droppings.
For what was supposed to be a slaughtering session going on behind the screens surrounding the tent, it certainly was tranquil. It is believed that the animals brought in for korban already know their sacrificial purpose, hence they do not resist or show signs of distress.
What’s most important, however, is the treatment of the animals inside the tent to ensure that they are comfortable throughout. This is reiterated by Yahya Mohamed, chairman of Masjid Omar Salmah.
To prevent contamination of the meat, the slaughter pen is segregated into four different chambers – holding, slaughter, skinning and butchering. The animals are also shielded from the other chambers so that they will not feel distressed. Hygiene is also why no one except for the individuals who purchased sheep to be slaughtered are allowed to enter the area during the ritual.
In the past, all mosques in Singapore were able to perform korban rituals. But a new ruling by the Australian government in 2012, known as the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS), mandates that Australian livestock exporters must prove the points of slaughter have been audited, and only qualified personnel can perform the practice.
ESCAS was established after a video of Australian cattle subjected to inhumane treatment in Indonesian abattoirs went viral.
Since then, only a number of mosques in Singapore are permitted to conduct korban each year.
AVA inspectors also visit the mosques permitted to perform korban rituals (25 this year) throughout the day to ensure that the standards are upheld and that the living conditions of the livestock are up to scratch, says Mr Yahya.
In recent years, heat stress has been the primary cause of death of imported livestock. 121 sheep from Ireland died mid-flight last year, while 174 sheep from Australia died en route in 2014.
Understandably, animal rights groups are concerned about the treatment of animals for korban. Some have even questioned the necessity of slaughtering and even condemned the act.
In 2015, this petition was submitted to huge furore due to its perceived insensitivity and intolerance towards other religions and cultures.
Mr Yahya explains that the scepticism and even criticism about the korban ritual stems from a general misconception about slaughtering and how the animals are treated.
“Slaughtering animals for food is a natural process of elimination to control the population numbers of these animals – it is not inhumane. Others may also say there are more ‘humane’ ways of killing the animal. But it has been scientifically proven that when we cut the windpipe the animal does not feel any pain but the heart continues to pump and purge the toxins from the body, so the meat is not contaminated.”
“I think the younger generation do not feel so strongly about the need to perform a sacrificial ritual to show our love for Allah, this was probably more relevant in the older times,” says Tiff, a 27-year-old project manager.
“Today we see korban as just a show of compassion, though it’s definitely not as simplified as we see it.”
She adds, “Just like the discussion on how the litter and smoke from the burning of joss papers can be reduced during the Hungry Ghost Festival, I think there is potential for korban to evolve with the times. If MUIS one day says that there is no need to sacrifice a goat, we can just buy meat from the supermarket and distribute it, I think that would be fine too.”
Mr Yahya acknowledges that young people today have other priorities and different ways of thinking, so they may not participate directly in korban but still engage in other charitable causes.
“I think that many young people today see the meaning of korban as beyond the once-a-year sacrifice of a goat or sheep. It can be done throughout the year in any form of giving, whether it’s monetary donations or buying groceries for the poor. It’s still the same spirit of sharing that the korban teaches.”
He reveals that of the 140 sheep slaughtered at his mosque this year, only about 20 per cent were purchased by young followers below the age of 40.
Still, Mr Yahya firmly believes that as they grow older and become less preoccupied with modern-day priorities and distractions, they will eventually revert to traditions passed down by their parents, thus repeating the cycle.
Due to the stringent regulations and freight costs, korban in Singapore is not cheap, which can be off-putting to some (a sheep is priced at $485 this year). In fact, many more Singaporeans have taken the cheaper route of taking part in korban overseas, where the animals are slaughtered in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia by qualified representatives. The meat would then be distributed to the needy and poor there.
But does he do it out of an obligation to the family?
“No, I really feel passionate about korban,” he replies. “I do it not just because I need to, but because I want to. I will feel that it is very wasted if the tradition ends with my parents.”
For Mr Suhaimi, keeping the tradition alive is especially paramount this year.
His father died last year at the age of 82, leaving the responsibility of continuing the family custom on him and his two brothers. Like all the followers who are involved in organising events and celebrations at the mosque, Mr Suhaimi and his brothers are volunteers and do so purely out of devotion to their religion and the community. They are not paid a single cent.
Tears well in his eyes as he recounts his father’s most important piece of advice: “Always do good for the community.”
The reality of performing this year’s korban without his father, who was also the former chairman of the mosque, has not quite sunk in yet. His mother, never missed Hari Raya Haji at the mosque, stayed at home this year to avoid being reminded of her family’s loss.
“Korban will be something that brings our family together to remember my father, and I must preserve his legacy,” Mr Suhaimi tells me, his voice trembling a little, “Performing the korban is our mission, and every year we remind our children why we must do it. So even with access to the Internet and other distractions, we must always instill the fundamentals of our religion and inculcate the values in our kids.”
“We’ll do our best to look after this mosque, and I really look forward to the day we can have three generations working in the slaughter pen again, to renew the cycle,” he adds.