Monday, December 27, 2010

Should countries give official recognition to minority religious holidays? The Malaysian example

So I'm in Malaysia right now, it's Christmas Day, a public holiday, and virtually all the shops are still open. No problem there, it's just a contrast to the way in which the commercial sphere almost completely shuts down in Australia every Christmas. More interesting to me is the fact that Malaysia even makes a somewhat big deal out of Christmas at all, enough to make it a public holiday at least. Only 9% of Malaysians are Christian, with the majority (60%) being Muslim. It strikes me that I do not know of any Western countries that have enshrined the holy days of minority religions as public holidays. Even France, with a Muslim population approaching 10% (probably the largest non-Christian group in any Western country) has Christian holidays but not Muslim ones.

Now I'm not saying that they should. But once a religious or cultural minority reaches a certain proportional level of the population, it is only logical that there will be a strong push for their holidays will be acknowledged, with recognition as a public holiday. What is that threshold? Probably more than 10%, for sure. Consider that Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, is an official public holiday in Caribbean countries like Trinidad & Tobago and Suriname, where the ethnic Indian communities are around 40% of the population.

Is it feasible, or desirable, to envision a future where say, Chinese New Year became an official holiday in Australia, or Diwali an official holiday in New Zealand? What about the UK taking a day off to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr?

It's probably important to acknowledge that Christmas in many societies has lost much of its religious significance, and is celebrated more as a secular day of togetherness and gift-giving, rather than one of the holiest days of the Christian faith.

Now to Malaysia. It is hardly the most shining example of a harmonious multicultural utopia, but it is an interesting example given its culturally and spiritually diverse population. Its public holidays reflect that, and it may be an example of what will happen as Western societies shift a little further from their European Christian roots.

Chinese New Year - 2 days
Prophet Muhammad's Birthday (Muslim)
Deepawali/Diwali (Indian)
Vesak Day (Buddhist)
Eid al-Adha (Muslim) - 2 days

Maal Hijrah (Muslim new year)

In addition, there are some cultural public holidays particular to some states only, including the birthdays of local Sultans. For example, the Hindu festival of Thaipusam is only celebrated in 7 states, presumably those with significant Indian communities. Good Friday is only a public holiday in the states of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo, where the indigenous groups are strongly Christian. There are also numerous secular public holidays which are not specific to any religious or cultural group, such as Labour Day, New Years Day and Malaysia Day.

Muslim - 60%
Buddhist - 19%
Christian - 9%
Hindu - 6%
Other Chinese religion - 2%

Malay and other Bumiputera - 65%
Chinese - 26%
Indian - 7%

So that's one example of how a country caters to its various cultural groups. The number of culturally based public holidays is roughly proportional to the demographics of the population. Of course, such a model isn't going to be appropriate in every country. Aside from it's particular demographics, several factors should be added for context. Firstly, Malaysian society is not really locked in to the traditional Western notions of a 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday working culture, with many shops typically open til 9 or 10 at night for much of the week. Secondly, Malaysia has a LOT of public holidays, which is probably related to the first point. And finally, tying in both factors, Malaysian public holidays rarely shut down the entire commercial sector as happens in some countries.

But nonetheless, it is one possible glimpse into the direction Western societies might go in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Xmas being a holiday is a carry over from the British colonial days.
    And it is very very unpopular to take away public holidays.