Festivities and politics are intertwined

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EI SUN OH

MALAYSIA is a multiracial, multi-religious and thereby multicultural country. In addition to the Malays, Indians and Chinese in West Malaysia, there are a number of native communities in East Malaysia as well, such as the Ibans in Sarawak and the Kadazans in Sabah. A somewhat pleasant result of these multiplicity of cultures is of course the various festivities which are dear to the hearts of the various communities, often celebrated as public holidays not just by the communities concerned, but often by the entire Malaysian populace.

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It was not so long ago when only the festivals of the major communities of West Malaysia were declared as federal (and thus national) holidays. These include the various Islamic holy days, Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival), Deepavali (also called Diwali, dear to the Indians) and also Christmas, the latter supposedly cutting across the Chinese and Indian communities, the Eurasian community, and also most of the native communities of East Malaysia.

This sort of holiday arrangement, while comprehensive and perhaps covering more festivals than many other countries, was nevertheless frowned upon by many in Sabah and Sarawak, who see their respective home states as co-equal partners (and not merely federal subdivisions as with other West Malaysian states) which together formed Malaysia in 1963. And as such, in our (East Malaysians’) humble opinion, it is only proper that the (rice) harvest festivals (which usually fall in the middle of the year) of the Ibans and Kadazans as the main native communities in these two states should be celebrated as public holidays by the whole country. It took nearly half a century, until after the ruling federal coalition scored badly in the 2008 elections and had to depend on parliamentary seats from East Malaysia to be able to form a government (Malaysia, as previously discussed, has its government formed by the majority party in parliament, or the equivalent of congress), before these harvest festivals (called Kaamatan and Gawai in Sabah and Sarawak, respectively) became national holidays.

And the above commentary actually gives but a glimpse of the somewhat political nature of Malaysia’s holidays. As these holidays are more or less celebrated by not only the concerned community but nearly all races, it goes without saying that there is a perception that the general population will be “imbued” with an aura of goodwill during and after the festive seasons. And such perception often acquires a political dimension as well. Malaysia’s elections, like in most other British Commonwealth countries, can be called almost any time before a particular term (five years) of the incumbent government expires, and they are often called after major festivities or holidays. This is partly why I predict that the next Malaysian general elections will be held approximately a year from now, when the current governmental term is finally due, and when another cycle of festivities would have taken place. From now till then, and inclusive of non-holiday events, there will be the 60thIndependence Day celebration (commemorating West Malaysia’s independence), the Southeast Asian Games, Malaysia Day, the purported visits of the national leaders of the ancestral countries of two major communities (Chinese and Indian), budget day (when appropriations and handouts are to be expected), Deepavali, Christmas, Thaipusam (another Indian holy day), Chinese New Year, Easter, Islamic New Year, and of course the two harvest festivals. It is hoped (at least by the powers that be) that the euphoria generated by these festive events would once again carry the ruling coalition over the threshold to electoral victory.

And the euphoria is mainly expressed in visits to so-called “open houses” during these festivities. It is traditional for people from various communities in Malaysia to prepare many specialty delicacies and literally open the doors of their doors during festive seasons to welcome all and sundry, including those from other communities to come in and share the food and fun with the hosts, sometimes for days on end. These are popularly known as open houses and they play an important role in maintaining the racial and religious harmony in a multicultural country such as Malaysia. Growing up in Sabah, such festive holidays are indeed heavens for youngsters like us, visiting one open house of our friends from other communities after another, thoroughly engorging ourselves with the wonderful food.

But the modern-day version of the Malaysian open house tradition can best be represented by the gigantic affairs hosted by big and small politicians. As size does matter, these open houses are often actually held not in the hosts’ residences, but in major hotel ballrooms or even stadiums. They are supposed to showcase the generosity of the hosts, who are either up for reelection or keen to take part in elections. They would hold these open houses in the particular constituencies they are serving or targeting, and often in the (state and federal) capital cities as well. As such, these open houses are also good barometers of the political winds in Malaysia. Who’s up and down, who’s in and out, can often be observed during these festive seasons.

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