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:
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.
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’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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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