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A picture postcard depicting a three day Thaipusam celebration in Singapore, January 1927. © National Archives, Singapore

Can we have our holidays back now?

By Ariffin Sha

There has been heightened public discourse on the reinstatement of Thaipusam as a Public Holiday in Singapore. An online petition to make Thaipusam a holiday has gathered more than 10,000 signatures within 24 hours. There has even been an event organized at Hong Lim Park on 14 February to stand in solidarity with Indians and demand for Thaipusam to be gazetted as a religious public holiday under the Holidays Act.

There have been a handful of arguments which support this. One argument which is central to the aim of the petitioners is the disparity between the number of holidays for the major races of Singapore as outlined in the picture below.

The key argument for the Petition
The key argument for the Petition

It is indeed a very convincing argument. If the strong show of support from Non-Indians for Thaipusam to be made a public holiday isn't a hallmark of our much-vaunted Racial Harmony, then I don't know what is.

The question then arises - How do we go about making Thaipusam a religious holiday?

If we want to convince the Government to gazette Thaipusam as a public holiday again, we will need to look back at why it abolished as one in the first place.

A picture postcard depicting a three day Thaipusam celebration in Singapore, January 1927. © National Archives, Singapore
A picture postcard depicting a three day Thaipusam celebration in Singapore, January 1927. © National Archives, Singapore

Thaipusam was a public holiday until 1968 where it was abolished under the Holidays (Amendment) Bill. The Bill aimed to reduce the number of public holidays in Singapore down to 11 per annum. In line with the aim of the Bill, the Government sought the views of the various religious communities in our society on the proposed reduction of public holidays. The Hindus, for example, were given the choice of having Deepavali or Thaipusam a public holiday, and they have chosen the former.

In the words of E.W Barker, the main object of the Bill was to contribute more to the "national well-being."

The result of this Bill will bring us back to the less playful conditions which existed before we started to add on to our holidays as we had to please more and more religious and cultural groups in Singapore and Malaysia. I am sure I have the support of hon. Members. In common with all the measures that have been introduced in this House at this present sitting, the main object of this Bill is to contribute more towards the national well-being.

However, then Member for Anson, Mr P. Govindaswamy, proposed that the Government reconsidered the deletion of Thaipusam from the list of Holidays.

 Mr. P Govindaswamy, PAP Member of Parliament for Anson from 1963 to 1978. He was Chairman of the Hindu Advisory Board in 1970
Mr. P Govindaswamy, PAP Member of Parliament for Anson from 1963 to 1978. He was Chairman of the Hindu Advisory Board in 1970

 Thaipusam has been celebrated in Singapore since the later part of the nineteenth century and it has become an important religious celebration not only for the Hindus but also for the whole population. The kavadi procession is an attraction to everyone in Singapore, young and old. Moreover, it is a tourist attraction, as we all must have seen tourists following the procession and busily taking pictures. It will be a great disappointment both to the local people and to the tourists if the number of kavadi processions is reduced because Thaipusam is not a public holiday and, therefore, workers will not be able to take part in the processions. I therefore propose that Government, in order to encourage the tourist trade, should reconsider the deletion of this very popular public holiday.

Sir, whenever the Government reconsiders the question of public holidays, I hope Deepavali Holiday will not be abolished.

However, it is important to note that Mr Govindaswamy was of the opinion that the proposed holidays are reasonably distributed racially and religiously.

In response to this proposal, Mr E. W. Barker, the then Minister for Law and National Development, said that "Like the Member himself, I myself would prefer Thaipusam to be a holiday!"

He then went on to add,

Mr Speaker, Sir, suffice it to say that like other Members of the House, I myself would prefer more and more holidays. But as I pointed out earlier in my opening speech, in view of the British withdrawal - I hope perhaps with no severe unemployment or economic problems following in its wake - this is one of the measures we are taking to ask our people to work harder - which means you, me and everybody else.

I ask Members to bear with me. If our island prospers, I am sure the Government will ask me to come back here and on that day it will be my pleasure to move amendments to increase the number of holidays. But let us first show that we can work hard and that we deserve more holidays.

In other words, Mr Barker said that the Government would increase the number of Holidays if the nation prospers. These words were uttered in Parliament House on 1 August 1968.

From 1968 till present day, in the words of of our first Prime Minister himself, we have gone from 'Third World to First.'

A comparision of our  GDP in 1968 and now.
From 1968 till 2013, our GDP has increased almost 300 times.

Any reasonable and fair-minded person would be able to see that saying our Singapore has simply 'prospered' from 1968 till now would be a gross understatement. We as a nation, have definitely proven beyond any reasonable doubt, that we can work hard and that we do indeed deserve more holidays.

As Mr Barker said, when that time comes, there will be amendments to increase the number of holidays. But to date, we have not even heard the Government speak of increasing the number of holidays, let alone bills which aim to do so.

The time which Mr Barker spoke about is long overdue. The Nation has definitely prospered.

So, with reference to the words of Mr Barker, let us ask our Government, can we have our holidays back now?