Then and Now, The Public Holidays of Singapore

There are some public feedback recently about reinstating Thaipusam as a public holiday. Why was Thaipusam removed as a public holiday in the first place? Here’s look at the changes in Singapore’s public holidays in the past few decades.

The public holidays for the Chinese, Malay and Indians in Singapore, since the 19th century, were the Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Puasa and Thaipusam. In the 1920s, both the local Muslim and Hindu communities petitioned to the British colonial government to add Hari Raya Haji and Deepavali to the list of annual holidays in Singapore. The Legislative Council eventually approved the amendment to the Holiday Ordnance after years of discussions. Hari Raya Haji was declared as a holiday in 1928, whereas Deepavali was added to the holiday list a year later.

Singapore’s Public Holidays during the British Colonial Era

During the British colonial times, there were a total of 16 public holidays, excluding the bank holidays, in Singapore. In 1950, there were calls to add the Sikh, Buddhist and Muslim festivals of Vaisahki (also known as the Punjabi New Year), Vesak and the Birthday of Prophet Mohamed to the annual public holidays’ list, but it was rejected by the Legislative Council. The colony’s 16 public holidays in 1953 were:

singapore public holidays 1953

Some of the holidays were common to those that were celebrated in the United Kingdom, such as the Bank holidays, Queen’s Birthday and Whit Monday.

The Bank holidays were first proposed by British politician and banker Sir John Lubbock in 1871 as designated holidays with pay. During the Bank holidays, the banks and other businesses would be closed, but the government offices would remain opened. The Queen’s Birthday, on the other hand, was not the monarch’s actual birthday and was usually marked in the late May or early June to coincide with the better weather for celebration in the United Kingdom.

queen's birthday parade at padang 1955

Singapore’s Public Holidays during Self-Government

3 June 1959 was marked as Singapore’s National Day when Singapore officially gained full self-government from the British. The Queen’s Birthday was removed, but the bank holidays, although not official public holidays, were retained. The 1961 public holidays of Singapore were fixed as:

singapore public holidays 1961

Singapore’s Public Holidays during the Merger

When Singapore became part of Malaysia between 6 September 1963 and 9 August 1965, the declared public holidays for the state (in 1965) were:

singapore public holidays 1965

As a state, there were 4 official public holidays for Singapore, and an additional 11 federal holidays.

In 1965, the Chinese New Year coincided with Hari Raya Puasa. This double celebration of festivals for the Chinese and Malay would be repeated in 1996, 1997 and 1998. But in the mid-1960s, especially after two major racial riots in 1964 that rocked Singapore, it was a rare opportunity for the society to come together in celebrating both festivals and emphasizing the importance of peace and harmony among various communities.

hari raya puasa eve at geylang serai 1961

firecrackers during chinese new year 1968

Singapore’s Public Holidays after Independence

After independence, Singapore’s list of public holidays underwent another change. The Birthday of Yang di-Pertuan Agong was no longer valid and the Malaysia Day was replaced by Singapore’s own National Day on 9 August. This time, the National Day represented the full independence of Singapore rather than self-government.

The Parliament of Singapore also passed the Holidays Bill in December 1966 to officially abolish the bank holidays. In the following year, Singapore’s public holidays, totalled 16, were chosen as:

singapore public holidays 1967

Thaipusam Removed as Public Holiday

Thaipusam, the Hindu festival where many men carried kavadi and walked for long distances from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple at Serangoon Road to Tank Road’s Sri Thandayuthapani Temple, had been celebrated in Singapore since the late 19th century.

There were some controversies about the festival, however. In 1957, the Veeramma Kaliamman Temple’s trustee G.M.K. Sabai called for the abolition of Thaipusam as a public holiday. His call was supported by several influential Hindu leaders, who argued that “Thaipusam was a sectional festival important only to the devotees of Lord Subramania, most of whom were Chettiars.” They suggested that the holiday could be replaced by Puthandu, the Tamil New Year, which usually fell in mid-April.

thaipusam 1960s

In 1968, the Parliament of Singapore passed the Holidays (Amendment) Bill, which sought to reduce the number of annual public holidays in Singapore in order to improve productivity. It was a time of uncertainty, as the new-born nation of Singapore faced probable economy upheavals and high unemployment rates that followed the withdrawal of the British armed forces. After discussions with various religious communities, the religious festivals that continued to be accompanied with public holidays were Hari Raya Haji, Hari Raya Puasa, Deepavali, Good Friday, Christmas Day and Vesak Day. The holidays of Thaipusam and the Birthday of Prophet Mohamed were removed.

For years, the local Hindus petitioned for the reinstatement of their religious holiday. In 1970, the University of Singapore’s Indian Cultural Society sent a delegation to the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Social Affairs to explore the possibility of reinstating Thaipusam as a public holiday, but without success.

singapore public holidays 1973

Since its first recession in 1985, Singapore had experienced and survived several global economic crises. Today, it ranks among the highest in the Global Competitiveness Index and GDP (gross domestic product) per capita in the world. The times of uncertainty that Singapore once faced as a new nation no longer existed, and the targetted economic progress and high productivity had been achieved. After almost half a century, perhaps it is time to reinstate Thaipusam as one of Singapore’s official public holidays.

Published: 21 February 2015

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One Response to Then and Now, The Public Holidays of Singapore

  1. http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/more-singapore-stories/story/august-7-declared-holiday-part-singapores-50th-birthday-

    Aug 7 declared a holiday as part of Singapore’s 50th birthday celebrations

    Published on Mar 14, 2015

    SINGAPORE – Singaporeans can mark an extra long weekend this year, as the President has declared August 7 a public holiday to celebrate SG50.

    This will make for an extended Jubilee weekend over four days – from Aug 7 to 10 – so Singaporeans can participate in commemorating the nation’s 50 years of independence.

    Over the long weekend, special programmes have also been prepared for Singaporeans around the island. Museums and heritage galleries will remain open during this period, along with special programmes at the Marina Bay Area, Singapore Botanic Gardens and the Singapore Sports Hub.

    There will also be special concessions of up to 50 per cent at attractions such as the Jurong Bird Park and the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay, as well as free admission to the National Orchid Garden, Science Centre, and ActiveSG swimming pools and gyms islandwide.

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