With the pandemic projected to last until a vaccine is discovered, perhaps it is necessary to give some thought to how COVID-19 may have changed our lives in a deeper, more profound way.
One possible focus is the practice and concept of weddings – events regarded as an important step towards marriage and family, the foundation institutions at the core of many nations in Southeast Asia. It appears that the pandemic has not only affected the business and traditional aspects of weddings in Malaysia and Indonesia, but also raises some questions about the force of modernisation in our lives.
Although the impacts on wedding industry have been articulated, there remains a sentiment that the industry receives little attention, especially if compared to tourism and hospitality sectors. There is a legitimate reason for this concern. Wedding industry in Malaysia was valued at RM7 billion or US$1.6 billion a year, whereas the industry’s value in Indonesia last year was estimated to be Rp56 trillion or US$3.9 billion. Evidently, there is a lot of interest vested in the wedding industry of these two countries.
Impressive numbers should not blind us, however, from the fact that many micro- and small-enterprises are part and parcel of this big industry, which means many of these enterprises face an elevated risk from the economic hardship brought about by the pandemic.
For example, an Indonesian wedding photographer was recently forced to sell his photography assets to help sustaining his livelihood. There are similar stories in Malaysia, where wedding-related services suffer from the sudden disappearance of revenue, layoffs or even outright closure.
Besides, enterprises may face further hammering when the incoming economic crisis sets in, thus affecting the demand in the industry. Micro-enterprises with little to no safety net will be especially vulnerable, which means the change in their livelihood would be tectonic to say the least. In a worst-case scenario, re-obtaining their sold assets would be the least concern of many of these enterprises.
This gloomy prospect has spurred the individuals and associations in the industry to demand for clear guidelines and standard-operating procedures (SOPs) for mass gatherings from the government. Although wedding ceremonies in a variety of forms do take place during the pandemic, it is large-scale receptions that have actually pulled in the flow of cash into the enterprises’ pocket. The ongoing pandemic, unfortunately, leaves no room for a large number of individuals to interact.
Wedding-related incidences certainly presents a degree of deterrence. In Malaysia, a friend’s entire family was infected following a member’s return from a wedding reception, while an unlawfully held ceremony in Seri Kembangan during the Movement Control Order (MCO) saw the temple’s officials and the couple penalised. Indonesia has its own cases, as we hear reports of a police chief removed from his position in Kembangan after organising a lavish wedding in late March and a 50-day-old baby who contracted the virus from a wedding in Cirebon.
Even as both countries move to relax their respective movement restriction policies, consumers at large may still view big receptions with apprehension. The longer this paranoia remains, however, the more the industry will be affected. Furthermore, governments must ensure not only that strict SOPs are in place, but also that people will abide by the “new normal” imperatives, which has not been properly gauged. This three-way tug-of-war may continue for as long as the pandemic remains, thus affecting the way weddings are conducted in the short- to medium-term at the very least.
Alas, to some creative couples, love wins. Virtual weddings emerge as an alternative option although interest remains low and not all religious weddings could accommodate this technical innovation. Those that prefer events in real life have opted for a variety of avenues, such as dressing up in rain coat or adopting the concept of “drive thru”. The similarity from all these examples? No large crowd.
This shift goes against the tradition in some Southeast Asian cultures where weddings are almost synonymous with a huge celebration and a large crowd. Curiously, the “new normal” standard applied to weddings – with less people and activities involved – could alienate the meaning of many matrimonial rituals and customs which make up the identity of the societies they belong to.
To begin with, the shrinking number of guests in a reception impacts a wedding’s functions. Normally, a big wedding signifies not only its festivities or the cost incurred, but also the socio-economic status of the host which likely means a couple’s parents or family. The venue, format and size of Chinese weddings in Malaysia often reflect this, as does the imperative for many Indonesian parents to invite various relatives, friends and acquaintances to their children’s big day. Weddings with over 1000 guests in attendance are no longer an alien phenomenon.
Moving a wedding to a virtual platform or adjusting its size, however, greatly reduces the space for attendees to build a positive perception on the hosts. This cultural function of a big wedding therefore diminishes, probably altering a degree of social perception among the society for as long as the “new normal” on weddings persists.
Disruption to the social function of a wedding may also alter a community’s social ties. A wedding reception is an avenue for the couple to socialise their marriage to the population while also repudiating any bad rumour from taking root. Furthermore, a reception remains an extraordinary event for not only people in the same circles to interact, but also distant relatives, friends from the past and also long-lost neighbours, among others. The significance of social interaction in the same physical space cannot be overstated in this technological era. In both Malaysia and Indonesia, a guest’s attendance also creates an expectation on the host to attend a future event hosted by the guest, in a sort of “returning the favour” dynamic. All of these cannot be properly accommodated by virtual or smaller weddings.
Cultural practices involving a large crowd are also affected. Kompang and dance performance in Malay and Indian weddings respectively may disappear for a while but are guaranteed a return due to their popularity. On the other hand, endangered practices such as gotong royong or rewang, where hosts and neighbours labour together to prepare for wedding ceremony and reception, might further lose its draw in this unhealthy climate. In this regard, an extended pandemic may hasten the vanishing of such traditions which are already losing its appeal among the younger population. As traditions disappear, so would their meaning.
If these practices carry religious or spiritual values, the questions become more interesting. Practices such as ngeyeuk seuruh (Sundanese), kompang (Malay) or honking cars (Chinese) aim at showering prayers at or repelling negative influences from the couple. These activities may not be the most practical in pandemic-era weddings, as they involve complex processions and a sizeable number of individuals too. We may never be able to quantify how the removal of these religious/spiritual activities could affect a marriage life in metaphysical term, but there are other observable effects.
For example, how would this affect the perception towards the sanctity of the wedding? Would it trigger the question in some people that the couple’s marriage life is not blessed? Would the couple undertake any actions to compensate for the perceived lack of holiness in their wedding? Weddings during the pandemic may be efficient, but the simplification of wedding procession dampens the overall experience, which may instil a sense of unease among some.
Indeed, the pandemic has compelled couples to revisit some of the expectations attached to huge and complex wedding traditions. Perhaps it has also taught us to assume a more moderate approach to weddings and question the necessity of organising lavish events, although those in the industry might not agree.
At its core, the action by some to move their weddings to the virtual world actually instigates the curiosity of the modernisation vs tradition debate, which has afflicted the concept and practice of weddings for some time. It has been argued previously that complicated wedding traditions are not fully practiced these days because the society demands for practical options. Moreover, the combined forces of mass media and the commercialisation of weddings have also been said to contribute to the declining interest in upholding a traditional wedding procession. The effect to wedding traditions may be further amplified as people opt for virtual or more efficient weddings in this pandemic era.
On top of that, it raises question to the ubiquity of technology in our lives. As services such as Zoom and Google Meet facilitating education, work and now weddings in this pandemic, our private and public lives are integrated further into the digital platform on an unprecedented scale. Does this intrusion of technology necessitate the redefining of humans as social animals? Has video-conferencing trend created a freshly unique culture that lead to political, economic and social consequences? These are just some of the questions that the sociologist in us need to investigate deeper.
Ultimately, this entire discussion should be read within the wider the discourse of the pandemic’s effects in our lives. The wedding industry is severely impacted and may see a long-lasting effect as long as the pandemic is here. Culture takes a hit too. Traditional weddings may reflect the harmonisation of humans with God, fellow humans and the nature, but even this philosophy is not enough to enable traditional weddings to manifest in this pandemic. Health imperatives simply overtake the interest to preserve culture and technology has facilitated a compromise, for better or worse.
In the long run, problems could emanate if those in the industry continue to feel marginalised. Some quarters may also emerge to challenge the forced abandonment of traditional ways of doing things, such as exemplified by incidences in Indonesia where families reject the burial of corpses with COVID-19 procedure. But that is a discussion for another opportunity.
This article first appeared in The Star on 23 June 2020.