Groundhog Daze-Column

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Source: The Expat magazine May 2011, article by Paul Loosley 
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I recall one day, many years ago, fresh off the boat from Blighty, I read in the morning paper that a prominent Malaysian personage had slipped suddenly beyond the veil. I shuffled into the office suitably solemn. With head bowed low I reverently offered my sympathies to all I met. But the response was not at all what I expected; “Yeah! Great isn’t it” seemed to be the uniform reply. Anxious that I may have committed a “fresh-off-the-boat”, cultural faux pas I pressed for details. It was smirkingly explained to me that in consequence of the gentleman’s demise there would now be a bunch of national holidays; the funeral, instatements etc, etc. Two days off at the very least – yahoo! But of course, everyone was still very cut up. Sure, like “winning the lottery” kind of cut up!

So what is it with the Malaysian holiday thing anyway? I mean, don’t ask me for statistics, but at the beginning of this year I swear there was at least a holiday every week. Now you may say I exaggerate for effect; but do I though?

In fits of excellently egalitarian fervor not only does everyone nicely celebrate Eid, Chinese New Year, Dewali, New Year’s and Christmas, there are national and local holidays like Merdeka, city days and state days as well. Holidays to mark birthdays of prominent cultural figures abound and I hesitate to mention the winning of football games, badminton games, landing on the moon, climbing Everest, national Mamak Mee day, et al. (I may have made some of those up.)

And I freely confess I am still trying to figure out what the heck a Wesak is.

After all this time in Malaysia you’d think I would be used to it but still someone at the last minute springs a new and unexpected new one on me. “Did you know next Tuesday is a day off to celebrate the invention of Belacan?”, or “Tomorrow celebrates the discovery of Bukit Maluri”, or “today is the day Admiral Ching Ho first addressed the people of Malacca (which unfortunately was only audible to dogs and bats)?”

And then there are the bridge days. You know; if holidays fall on a Monday and a Friday what’s the point in going to work for the three days between? That would be plain silly. And applying for leave would be equally crackers, so unsurprisingly many unfortunate people contract unbearable toothaches, gout, beri-beri, trench foot and a whole raft of imaginative and implausible ailments, and therefore are most reluctantly obliged to take those intervening days off. And if that doesn’t work, a distressing number of distant relatives may suddenly drop stone dead. Most of them in remote parts of the East Coast. Of course.

Oh Yes! and what about the song and dance regarding St Valentine’s Day; grief, if folks had their way they would have days off for St George’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, St Igor’s Day (Patron Saint of Quality Pipe Work) and any number of odd and obscure semi-mythical “Herberts” that we all have lurking around.


But there is one particularly gratifying upside to Malaysian holidays beyond the obvious. They seem to provoke the nicest TV advertising. In other places the neat TV spots are for beer or biscuits, here it’s for holidays. Again as I stepped off the boat I recall F&N (then making various extremely popular fizzy drinks) ran a raft of very “1 Malaysia” type TV commercials. To celebrate Chinese New Year, Malay and Indian families would come round to a Chinese home and all would laugh and be happy and “Ang Pows” would fly like confetti; unconfined joy and ballistic kids fueled by the consumption of copious amount of “pop” no doubt. And then on Hari Raya, the Chinese and Indian families, in a reciprocal gesture of oneness, would visit the Malay family and on Deepavali… well you get the idea. Unremarkably these spots would win the awards for best TV advertising every year without fail in the RTM sponsored advertising competition. And more recently the holiday commercials for Petronas have become a fixture and have broadly defined Malaysian advertising style. Not unsurprisingly holidays are probably the most unifying aspect of Malaysian culture!

And I must mention the plastic storage bowl that is offered with every sack of rice at holiday time. If someone gave you one of these as a present you’d probably kick them in the nuts and immediately cross them off your Christmas card list. But at holiday time people will clamber over one another in a fever of avarice, biting and scratching, just to get to the tacky yet free holiday gift. And if denied one they may end up shivering in a cold sweat on the floor of the bathroom. But should they succeed in gathering one of these treasures to their bosom they will take it home and confine it to the deepest recesses under the kitchen sink where it will remain forever. Yet, ritualistically, they will do it again next holiday, and the holiday after – Groundhog Day indeed.

So I sit and wait for Malaysian holidays to hit critical mass, when there will be more holidays than work days. When that day comes we will probably have to apply for days on, not days off.

Can’t wait!


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