Throwing goodwill out the window

Hindu Devotees carry milk pots on their heads as they gather at a shrine in Batu Caves during thaipusam.(21/01/2019/ S.S.KANESAN/The Star)

I AM trying to understand the rationale behind Kedah Mentri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor’s decision to cancel the public holiday for Thaipusam in his state this year, claiming it was due to the movement control order.

To put it bluntly, it is simply illogical.

Going by this argument, Sanusi might as well cancel all holidays, including those for Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Christmas and Deepavali, since most of us would be confined to our homes because of the MCO or conditional MCO.

Since all our movements are restricted in some way, there would be no reason for any kind of holiday.

“Since there is no celebration, there is no need to have a public holiday, ” he told a press conference at Wisma Darul Aman on Jan 21. Those were his own words; that was his warped reasoning.

Luckily, Sanusi has no say or authority because Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Christmas and Deepavali are federal gazetted holidays.

He can’t justify himself by saying that Thaipusam in Kedah is not gazetted but merely a cuti peristiwa or occasional holiday. This is as good as saying that Thaipusam is similar to the occasional holiday given when the Kedah football team wins a title.

If Sanusi is sensitive and respectful of the Indian community, a sizeable ethnic group in Kedah, he would realise there are three important dates for Hindus: Deepavali, Thaipusam and Ponggal.

According to 2020 statistics, Indians made up 6.7% of the population in Kedah with bumiputras comprising 79.9%, Chinese 12.4%, and others one per cent.

The state has the largest Indian population besides Johor, Melaka, Negri Sembilan, Perak, Penang, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.

Sanusi has lost plenty of goodwill because of his decision. He has missed the most fundamental point of this issue – the recognition and respect due to Indians in the state and in Malaysia as a whole.

Thaipusam has been an optional or occasional holiday since 2013. It is a holiday in Johor, Kuala Lumpur, Negri Sembilan, Penang, Perak, Selangor and Putrajaya.

In Putrajaya, Hindus make up only one per cent of the population, yet the Federal Government has seen fit to accord Thaipusam the recognition and respect it deserves.

I don’t think Sanusi needs a history lecture on the contributions of the Indian community to Kedah. It will take up too much time as we will have to start from the year 110AD up to the present.

Sanusi may also not be aware that Kedahan Hindus go to Penang to celebrate Thaipusam because of the greater festive mood there.

So, it is important that Hindus be allowed to take time off to celebrate. The previous state governments had no issue declaring it a holiday, whatever “holiday” label they applied to that auspicious day.

Sanusi has not exercised maturity or leadership in his judgement. He could have easily used his discretion to allow Hindus to take unrecorded leave if they are in the civil service, and most private employers would have followed suit.

But this is not the first time that the Mentri Besar has landed in trouble.

Last December, he came under fire for allegedly making racially insensitive remarks over the demolition of a Hindu temple in Kuala Kedah.

In response to widespread criticism, he defended the temple demolition on Dec 1, saying it was a legal issue and not one of racial or religious prejudices, arguing it was built on gazetted land.

Hitting at these critics, Sanusi also said they were speaking “because one is drunk on the toddy of popularity and become race champions in the present”, alleging that they were quick to jump on the matter of temple demolitions but silent on the destruction of structures belonging to Malays.

“Senior politicians such as they might as well not drink one bottle, but get drunk on two or three instead, ” he was reported saying of his MIC and DAP critics.

When a further backlash ensued, Sanusi refused to apologise and instead asked his critics to take up lessons in Bahasa Malaysia.

Rightly or wrongly, perception is everything in politics. It is not about Kedah but the politics of PAS.

It cannot be denied that PAS has become the kingmaker in Malaysian politics as the competition between Umno and Bersatu intensifies. It would appear that in the next general election, PAS will have a strong hand in determining who will be the prime minister and to lead the Federal Government. In fact, it already has that clout in the current landscape.

That is the reality. Unfortunately, there has always been lingering distrust of the Islamist party. When PAS leaders, at the state or federal level, make loose remarks, it results in further erosion of trust in the party.

PAS can afford to be more inclusive. It can start to act like a party for all Malaysians. The history of Islam is full of tales of how non-Muslims were protected.

But when a PAS MP claimed the Bible was distorted and that liquor was banned by the religion without realising that wine is commonly served during Holy Communion, then you wonder how he got his doctorate.

Then there are the gender discriminations in the east coast states of Peninsular Malaysia and the assumption that all social events are linked to “hedonistic” acts, a favourite term of PAS leaders. They simply love that word.

The last thing we need is justification from PAS Supporters Wing (DHPP) information chief Balachandran Gopal Krishnan, saying the decision was a temporary one made because of the Covid-19 pandemic. He said the holiday would be reinstated in coming years.

Calling it a “difficult decision in a difficult situation”, Balachandran said Sanusi would have made the same choice for other religious and cultural celebrations.

That assurance should have come from his boss and not him, and he ended up merely sounding like an apologist.

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