MALAYSIAN NATIONAL HOLIDAYS:
THE CONSTRUCTION OF A COMMON TIME FRAME
央視國際 (2005年02月14日 21:45)
Universiti Malaya, Malaysia
1. The historical and cultural diversity
2. National holidays
3. The ethnic calendars
1. The Historical And Cultural Diversity
Malaysia, with an area of about 329, 750 sq km is a Federation of 14 States headed by a paramount ruler called Yang Dipertuan Agung (Supreme Ruler). Nine of the States are small sultanates each being headed by a ruler called Sultan. Four others States are headed by a Governor and the last being the Federal Territories administered by the federal government. Each State is a semi autonomous entity with its own ruler, council of ministers and governmental functions clearly demarcated by the Federal and State constitutions in what is known as the federal list, state list and concurrent list. The federal monarchy is elected by rotation by the Council of Rulers once in every five years from among the nine sultans.
Traditionally each of the Malaysian states was an independent Sultanate until late 19th century when the European colonial expansion brought the British to the Malay waters and by the design of the commercial group in the port of Singapore since the early 19th century prodded into intervening in the affairs of the Malay States. It culminated in their attempt to create a unitary Malayan Union after the World war II in 1948, but was bitterly opposed by the indigenous Malays. Finally, a Federation of Malay States was established to allow for the separate but limited existence of the original sultanates. Since then, with the creation of Malaysia in 1963 the states of Sabah and Sarawak were incorporated with the consent of the British government. The federal and state factor contribute towards the creation of time frame in the calendar of life among Malaysians nowadays especially in the form of the birthdays of rulers and national independence day. Much of the significant dates are based on Muslim lunar calendar which was the traditional measure of time within all the Malay states.
However, historical development provided the context with which Malaysia came into contact with the Western calendar used by the British administration to order time. At the turn of the 20th century the Gregorian calendar was introduced to regulate working pattern, holidays and the measure of time for all the states. It also admitted the significant says for celebration and cessation of work based on Christian calendar. Since then the new year and Christmas have been observed as national holidays for the nation.
The Population and Housing Census, 2000 gave Malaysia a population of about 23.27 million people with a slight increase into an estimated figure of about 25.99 in 2005. The general population consisted of various ethnic groups of which the indigenous population constitute about 65.1% and the rest non-indigenous largely made up of the people of Chinese descendent (26.%) and Indian descendent (7.7%) and some non-Malaysian mainly temporary workers totalling about 5.9%. The States of Sarawak and Sabah being quite sparsely populated have about 2.3 million and 3.1 million respectively and populated by largely the a variety of indigenous groups of which the Iban and the Kadazan-dusun being the largest respectively. The Chinese descendents of earlier migrants contribute about a quarter of the total population. Ethnic diversity with the majority being the various indigenous groups provided the bases upon which the construction of holidays and the accounting time frame within the totality of Malaysian life.
Historical contacts and the present diversity of population came into significance in the calculation of time and the allocation of rest periods and holidays in the life of the nations. It may be said that history and cultural diversity provided the basic determinants in the decision to account for national holidays in the country. As such the annual state calendar is constructed on the basis of several major factors related largely to cultural events of religious significance and national as well as international connections. To that extents Malaysia is already roped into international time frame besides maintaining the local and other national dates for reckoning the passage of time.
2. The National Calendars
Historically, the Muslim lunar and Gregorian calendars were the main time frame running parallel to each other for much of the ordering of national life. The Federal government adopted the Gregorian calendar to indicate the beginning of a new year which was preceded by the celebration of Christmas by the Christian British administrators. They were the colonial power determining much of the calendar of national administration that the practice has come down to become a tradition in modern Malaysia. With national government in place since 1957, new dates were introduced to lay significance and meaning to the achievement of national life, especially the attainment of independence. Thus the date 31 August has come down to be celebrated annually as the day for national remembrance and freedom.
Known locally as the Merdeka celebration this day has become a thematic expression of various emphasis in national life. The basic problem besetting Malaysia with its highly multi-ethnic population is to ensure national unity. As such every year the Merdeka day has been celebrated with unity as its major theme. A variety of events and activities were presented to emphasize the unity of purpose and aim in national life. At the same time the idea of nationalism and patriotism has come to the fore as a means to unify the feeling and emotion in the face of what has been portrayed as an uncertain world besets with challenges of globalisation.
Nowadays, the celebration has been extended for about a month beginning from mid-August and ends in mid-September to encompass the dates for the admittance and Sabah and Sarawak on the creation of Malaysia. Through out the period several events are enacted and reconstructed to emphasize the struggle for independence under colonial rule. Episodes in history are acted out to represent the significance and meaning of freedom for the nation even under the current circumstance where international politics seems to be seductively moving towards unilateralism and unipolarity. The location of the celebration was rotated from the national capital city to state capitals in order to ensure real national participation from among the citizens in various areas. Events such as cultural and sporting activities, literary and theatrical performances and a massive gathering of the populace on the opening day are presented to start of the month. The highlight is of course on the day declared as independence or merdeka day where the usual parades and presentation by the armed forces are displ;ayed to the general public already gathered at the designated location. During the last couple of years, the grand day parade has been presented at the boulevard of the new capital city in Puterajaya, an administrative centre built by the previous Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It is therefore quite significant that the construction time and place in the form of the national day celebration has inevitably relied heavily on the sense of history and the meaning inserted from the episodes of national struggle for independence as well as the current need for development and participation in the world of unceasingly competitive globalisation. To a certain extent, the celebration created a sense of cohesion among people of multi-ethnic background in Malaysia. Dates and time have been mobilised to perform political roles and fulfilled national aspirations.
This function was further compounded with the introduction of the date for the birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Agung, the paramount ruler of Malaysia, a constitutional monarchy. With the date as a national holiday but with no formal celebration, its significance is spelled out by the royal ceremony to bestow honours and orders to selected citizens who have contributed towards the well-being of the country be they from the public, government officials or the uniformed personnel. Here again we observe a day when significance is accorded in the name of the country and the nation. Perhaps, human capacity to bestow importance and affix symbolic meaning to any event within the calendar or cycle of life is almost an invariable calling to mark their passage in time and space.
The birthdays of the Rulers are also celebrated in all the States in the Federation. Each Ruler has determined a date in the calendar when there would be a public holidays for all citizens of the States. Similar activities of bestowing orders and honours to the citizens who have served the States and the public are undertaken with much pomp and ceremony within the palace or residence of the Rulers and Governors. As a tradition, Malaysian orders and honours have been designed as a hierarchy of achievements the lowest being for the ordinary citizen and the highest for national or state leaders who are commemorated and honoured for their tremendous achievement and contribution. An example being the highest honour bestowed on Dr Mahathir Mohamad with the title ‘Tun’ attached to his personal name.
The rites of passage at personal or societal levels have never been more marked than in modern and urban societies. Every significant point in the life of a person is not only marked by a date or time frame but ritualised into symbolic enactment of their changing status into a more challenging and responsible position in society. This is the ritual of liminality as celebrated by famous anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in his The Rites of Passage. From birth to death the high points of life are celebrated to mark the transition of life. Like wise, the modern society remind its own citizens of the bench marks of life in their historical contexts.
The various ethnic groups in Malaysia not only reminded their members of the coming and customary celebrations of significant days but also demand the State to be with them in support of the celebration as a national holidays. Needless to say, the State has to be more selective in allowing ethnic rest days to be accorded national status. Thus we find, an ethnic ritual is selected as a day of rest for the nation only to the extent that they have a very significant meaning in the context of the cultural life of the ethnic group.
The Malays being Muslim and the majority governing group have their own historical antecedent in determining the current national calendar. Apart from accepting the international Gregorian calendar as being part of the global inter-connectedness, the Muslim lunar calendar plays an important role in determining dates for national holidays and group celebrations. Four events in the life of the nation are determined by the Muslim calendar, viz: the Maal Hijrah on 1st Syawal or the Muslim new year which falls on the 10th February for this year, the Idul Fitri or Hariraya Puasa , the celebration of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan ( the 9th month) which fall on the 1st day of the 10th month of Syawal. This year it will be on the 3rd November 2005. This is followed closely by the celebration of the Idul Adha or Hariraya Haji, the celebration of the pilgrimage in the 12th month Zulhijjah. It is a rukun or pillar of Islam that every Muslim must try to fulfil their religious obligation to do pilgrimage to Makkah, Saudi Arabia once in their life time if they can afford it and circumstances do not present too much hindrances in their journey and in their life situation. For this year it fell on the 21st January 2005. Finally the Prophet’s birthday, the Maulidul Rasul on the 12th Rabiul Awal which falls on the 21 April 2005.
There are of course other international events which generally contributed towards the orderly life of the Malaysian nation as part of the global community. Chief among these are the acceptance of May 1st as Hari Pekerja or Workers Day. While this day was traditionally related to the socialist ideology and was never accepted generally within the Western ideological construct, nonetheless most countries like Malaysia have accepted the need to celebrate the tremendous contribution of workers within society to deserve a day of remembrance in the totality of the nation’s life. It is the time when their contributions are reaffirmed as benefiting the development and the country as a whole.
The religious significance of dates and celebrations are even more clearly marked in the calendars of the various States in Malaysia. A part from the three dates for national holidays within the Islamic calendar mentioned above, other days for minor Islamic rituals are accepted by various States to be their holidays. This includes for instance Hari Hol (Day of remembrance of the dead) by the State of Pahang and Johor, Israk dan Mikraj (the night of Ascension) celebrated in the States of Kedah, Negeri Sembilan and Perlis, 1st day of Ramadhan celebrated in the States of Johor, Kedah and Melaka and Nuzul Qur’an (the day of revelation of the Qur’an) celebrated in Kelantan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Pulau Pinang, Selangor and Trengganu states. These are state holidays based on Islamic calendar.
Other religiously significant days from the calendars of ethnic belief system include the Thaipusam and Deepavali of the Hindus, Good Friday of the Christians celebrated only in Sabah and Sarawak states, Wesak day for the Buddhists, Keamatan Festival of the Kadazandusun of Sabah, Gawai Festival of Sarawak and of course Christmas. Some of these have been elevated into national holidays and have even been celebrated nationally with the general participation of the Ruler and top leadership of the country and supported fully by the government as a general public celebration. The ethnic holidays which have been elevated as the national celebrations include the Muslim Idul Fitri, the Chinese New year, the Hindu Deepavali, the Christian Christmas, the Sabah Keamatan and the Sarawak Gawai. The federal government through the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage organises the celebration in which the country’s Ruler, national and state leaderships, ethnic religious leaders and the public are invited to gather in an evening of celebration where every ethnic group mix freely and enjoy the night as a day of festivity and joy. It has raised the status of the celebration into a secular event where religious activity is kept to the minimum and instead dances and songs are presented for the enjoyment of the patrons. Religious symbolism has been a fairly sensitive issue among adherents of various religions in the country. Secularisation therefore reduces the sense of proselytisation among the people generally and the non-adherents particularly. This has become the official approach towards enhancing interactions among ethnic groups in the hope of creating situations where inter-personal and inter-groups communication may allow unity of races to emerge in the country as a whole. The construction of time and rituals therefore becomes the official basis upon which socio-cultural policies may be implemented and the net result of national unity perhaps can be achieved.
3. The Ethnic Holidays
i. The Chinese - The ethnic religious and cultural rituals are many and numerous. The Chinese group for instance still retained much of their mainland China traditions of not only following the lunar calendar but also the festivals and celebrations that come with it throughout the year. From the 1st day of the New Year, locally known as Gongsi Fatt Choy now renamed in mandarin as Gongxi Fa Chai, it has all the accompanying family and household preparations and celebrations that come with it. Beginning with such activities as spring cleaning, followed by the worship of the kitchen god and other family preparations such as getting new clothing and preparations of cakes especially the nian gao as well as orange fruits. This will be celebrated together in the evening of the new year with family get together in a reunion dinner and young children are given red packet (hongbao or angpao) . The whole family then would stay late to usher in the new year which will be fully celebrated from early in the morning with dragon dance, firecrackers, visit among families and friends including non-Chinese friends. On the fifteen day will be the lantern festivals locally known as chap goh may. A family get together eating the traditional cake tangyuan and another festivities with fire crackers and lover’s night brought the new years festival to an end. Nowadays the fire crackers has been banned because of its unrestrained display which brought fires and accidents in many housing areas.
This new year has been elevated as a national celebration by the State and a date after the actual new year is fixed for its festivities. The food yusheng has been taken as a symbol of the national get together where the Ruler and leaders mixed them together as a symbol of unity as a nation of multi-ethnic composition.
Other festivals and festivities in the Chinese calendar are celebrated throughout the year by the community including the qing ming, the dragon boat festivals, feast of wandering souls, the mid-autumn festivals which again brings the year to a close for the next new year. The framing of time by the lunar calendar therefore, coincided with many several other non-Chinese celebrations ands thus provided a kind of multi-cultural experience in the life of a community and for the rest of the population. To a certain extent this multifarious experience has created a deep-seated tolerance among members society who have to live side-by-side with many cultural behaviours that are alien and strange and even irritating. Yet, multi-cultural life has come to mean a great deal of richness with knowledge and empathy for others.
ii. The Indian – The Indian culture in Malaysia has been largely represented by the Tamil population even though other groups are present as minorities. Like the Chinese, much of the Tamil population were the product of immigration during the late 19th and early 20th century through the operation of colonial economy by the British. In their great need for labour for agriculture and public works within the rubber estates opened up in the early 20th century and other areas Indian labour were recruited to fulfil the need. Since then Tamil culture has been largely brought along with them from religion to festivals and ceremonies.
At least major forms of celebration among the Tamil have regularly practised, the Deepavali or diwali and the Thaipusam. While the deepavali has been accorded national status and recognised as a public holiday and national celebration, the thaipusam has had a limited recognition, being given as a public holiday in many States. Nevertheless, its celebration has taken by the public with great interest and affected much of the surrounding temple where the major ceremony is usually undertaken.
The Deepavali is a ‘festival of light’, an idea of renaissance and enlightenment from darkness to brightness, from evil to goodness and from ignorance to enlightenment. The northern Indian would relate the celebration (diwali) with the return of Lord Rama from victory in defeating the demon-king Rawana of Sri Lanka. He was greeted with lights set by the people when reaching his capital in Ayodhya during the new moon. The southern Indian howver celebrated this day a victory for Lord Krishna over the demon Narakasura. Nonetheless, the theme remains the same i.e. the victory of good over evil. As such in the Indian household much preparation is undertaken during the deepavali, prayers are made in the temple and houses requesting the gods for prosperity, wealth and good health. Houses are lighted up, crackers fired and generally family members celebrated with friends and neighbours through the distribution of sweet cakes. Since deepavali has an element of ‘publicness’ where neighbours are incorporated in the festivities, it has taken a new meaning in the context of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic relationships. Thus the official recognition for this celebration into a national holiday and festivity where the Ruler and the national and state leaders as well as ethnic leaders are invited together to celebrate in a common location designated by the Ministry of Culture which organises it. The location has been rotated from one state to another, the last being the northern State of Perak.
The thaipusam remains a religious celebration of the Hindu and over the years an impressive crowd has been attracted to watch the precession of golden chariot which carry the idol of Lord Subramaniyam from its usual location in the centre of the Malaysian capital city, Kuala Lumpur to a sacred cave called Batu Cave where adherents gather in full numbers to fulfil their vows. They express their devotion to the deity by carrying milk in a pot and pouring it over the idol. Ardent devotees wood also carry the kavadi over their shoulders, a wooden construction of spears and flowers and perhaps pierce their back, chest, cheeks, lips and other parts of the body with spears or needles believed to be the weapon of Lord Murugan. The final stage of the celebration will be devoted to breaking a coconut each among believers and the result would be a whole road strewn with broken mature coconuts. The idol would be carried back to the original temple for safe keeping until the next thaipusam.
Several other celebrations are found among the Tamil and Indian as a whole in Malaysia. This include the pongal which celebrate the harvest festival even though no Indian plant rice in the country. I t has become a tradition among the community to celebrate the event brought in from their country of origin. Much of these remain localised and undertaken within the household and the community.
iii. The Iban – The Iban is the majority group in the eastern State of Sarawak. They were a tribal group until the coming of Christianity in the late 19th century and since them a large number had been converted into the religion. However, traditional life based on agriculture and hill padi planting remains the mainstay of their existence and survival. Based on the cycle of hill padi planting much of their ceremonies and celebrations are conducted. At every step of the preparation and finally harvesting, a series of rituals and ceremonies have to be undertaken to request from the Spirit, the timing of the start of agricultural cycle and harvesting. Each of the ritual is known by various name but generally describes as a kind of gawai.
The rice cycle begins with the search for a suitable land for hill padi planting. This would call for the ritual bird omen specialist (tuai hurung), the head man (tuai rumah) and some of the elders to go into the jungle in search of specific birds and listen to their calls. Hearing the calls of certain birds would foretell the suitability of the land and a meeting would eventually be called among members of the longhouse community to decide on the next move. A gawai ritual may be held to start the season especially when there is already the Pleiades arising in the horizon before dawn. Land would demarcated among community members by the headman and rituals undertaken to stake the area with omen sticks.
Farm clearing would only begin with another ritual call manggol, a dream positively indicating the efficacy of the land selected. This is followed by a series of pantang or taboos which every members of the family must observe. Clearing would be undertaken and further omens are observed for the luck it would bring in the coming harvest. After the undergrowth have been cleared the tall trees are felled and eventually comes the time for burning the farm. A ritual is again conducted to request for continuous hot day to enable good firing. An auspicious day would be one with a high degree of heat for at least four days. After clearing by fire then comes the time for dibbling and sowing or nugal and this cooperatively done among close neighbours. A series of taboos follow the nugal and sowing period, a ritual is conducted where a pig is slaughtered to inspect its liver for good omen of harvest.
On completion of sowing another ritual is conducted to terminate the activity which is now followed by the rites of growth, requesting rain and good ripening. The rice harvest is a meticulous rite to preserve the rice spirit (semangat) and not to offend it in order to ensure good planting and harvest the next year. Specially selected seed of rice are harvested and taken back to the store in the longhouse carefully placed on top of the living room. Finally a gawai is held in the community to celebrate the harvest and this may coincide with a long standing gawai festival called the gawai kenyalang. It is an elaborate festival involving all members of a longhouse community and their close neighbours. Nowadays it even calls for the presents of community leaders, the State leaders and other VIPs.
Thus, the State government eventually decided to accord a gawai day for the Iban tribal group to commemorate their harvest festival as being the most significant of the in their life cycle and communal life. Since harvest time coincide with the height of the hottest season in June, the gawai as a public holiday is celebrated on the 1st June of every year. This also has been recognised as a national holiday and celebration by the Federal Government to be participated by the Ruler and the national and State as well as communal leaders. The location however remains in the State of Sarawak.
iv. The Kadazandusun – The Kadazandusun is the major group in the State of Sabah, on the Borneo Island. Like the Iban it was also tribal and rural until the coming of Christianity and Islam among them that brought into the mainstream population. A large number of them remain traditional with animism as the major religious conception. There is however a conception of god as the supreme power in the life of man and the bobohizan is their ritual specialist connecting the human and the spirit world. Mush of life revolves around the conception of spirits which are related to the world of man through the practise of ‘adat’, the comprehensive self-image of their culture, laws and customs. It is adat that regulates human-spirit relation through the medium of the bobohizan. Any transgression of the adat would bring about an imbalance in the relation and the transgressor must pay with fine or sugit. There are various levels fines and transgression that only the bobohizan and village headman and customary law council would be able to decide. As such life is regulated by the operation of the adat laws.
In so far as the major ceremonies and celebration is concerned, the Keamatan festival has been elevated as a national holiday for the state as well the country as a whole. The keamatan was traditionally a harvest festival when the community completed their harvest some time in May and household and villages would undertake to celebrate the event in prayers and thanksgiving to the spirit for good harvest. The bobohizan would say prayers and supplication to the spirit and let a small set of food to be sacrificed to the spirit.
There are other rituals and ceremonies in the total life cycle of the Kadazandusun community but they remain localised and limited within the family and community of the village. The same is true of their adat or customary law which is administered formally by the indigenous customary court with limited jusrisdiction. Nevertheless they are part of the national judiciary system with its formal hierarchy of officers.
With the elevation of the ritual into a national festivity and celebration the traditional religious and ritualistic elements have been tremendously reduced to become more or less secular when festival take the form of modern presentations withy karaoke, dances and even beauty contest. Nonetheless, the national status it is already accorded provided a significant meaning for the traditionally localised and limited ritual of harvest. It has more then anything else recognised the national position of the tribal group in the context of a more general and wider nationhood. To that extent the keamatan festival of the Kadazandusun and the gawai festivals of the Iban have incorporated the two tribal groups into the mainstream of national life and therefore making the national time frame a more inclusive construction of time.
The need to be included in the international and national cycle of life dictates that nation states must to a certain extent accept the incorporation of alien calendarical and time construction. While much of the so-called international time frame are the making of Western world through their more dominant position in world affairs needless to say close and intimate contact among nations have inevitably placed them within similar time frame and calendarical construction. It is only natural and logical that such a situation exist side by side with what is general practised as national calendar for human cultural contact have never been solely exclusivistic nor was it totally inclusivistic.
It is however a truism that national identity and pride also play a large role in determining the final acceptance of a calendarical system within a nation-state. Pluralism within the population composition mean also that other traibal and ethnic groups within the nation state must be incorporated into the mainstream of life so that not only is national unity achieved but also group alienation avoided for everyone has a stake in a country where they have emotional attachment and, even more so, when they have historical rootedness and interest in the continued existence of a country. It is within this frame work of thinking that much of the Malaysian national time frame and holidays have taken into account the multifarious and multifaceted cultural life of the population constituting the people of the country. This has given life a richness of pluralism and its exiting eventfulness throughout the year.