We appreciate the perspectives shared by many Singaporeans on Thaipusam.
As many have noted, Thaipusam was a public holiday until 1968. The prospect of the British withdrawal and the need to compete for a living in global markets, necessitated many changes, including reducing the total number of public holidays.
The decision on which public holidays to give up was reached only after careful consultation with various groups. Muslims chose to give up Prophet Muhamed’s Birthday as well as an extra day for Hari Raya Puasa. Christians chose to give up the Saturday after Good Friday and Easter Monday. The Hindus had to choose between Thaipusam and Deepavali, and chose the latter.
These were difficult decisions for the leaders of each faith. The Buddhists, who comprised the largest faith and had only one public holiday to begin with, Vesak Day, were not asked to offer cuts. Some groups continued to mark their significant religious occasions, such as Vesakhi for the Sikhs and Lao-Tzu’s Birthday for the Taoists, without these being public holidays.
The 11 public holidays that we now enjoy is neither high nor low when compared to other countries. New Zealanders, Canadians and the French enjoy the same number. Malaysia and Indonesia enjoy a few more days than we do, but we have a few more than developed countries like the United Kingdom and Germany.
But beyond numbers and economics, our calendar of public holidays is a reflection of our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. There is much value and meaning attached to each of our festivals, including Thaipusam, both among that particular group and Singaporeans generally. But any move to reinstate any one festival as a public holiday will immediately invite competing claims, and necessitate considerable renegotiation with all communities. Balancing the wishes of each community will not be a simple matter. Neither can we simply re-allocate public holidays by ethnic group, as amongst both Chinese and Indians we have citizens of different faiths.
We will ensure that all Singaporeans can practise their faiths freely, but we cannot make all important festivals of all faiths public holidays. We will encourage all employers to make it possible for Singaporeans of all faiths to observe their respective religious festivals.
We have learnt to live harmoniously with each other, with everyone making some compromises for the greater good. This has served us well for five decades and remains the best way for Singapore.
Workplace Safety and Strategy Division (Director)