Easter and why it's not a holiday anymore - by Abdullah Ahmad

13 April 1997

In British Malaya, which became Malaysia in 1963 (we became independent in 1957), Good Friday, Easter Monday and one or two other Christian religious festivals were nationwide holidays besides Christmas and Boxing day.

The number of Christians was hardly even 1% of the population, however, Christian and British holidays filled most of the holidays each year because virtually all members of the ruling class were Anglicans.They worshipped at St. Mary's Church on the Northern end of Dataran Merdeka across the short Jalan Gombak.

Occupying the previous ruler's palace or bungalow was and is a common universal practice to symbolise a transfer of power; another sign is the days the new ruler declares as public holidays. Public holidays in Malaysia today more or less accurately reflect the racial composition of its population.

While attending the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) between 1948-1954, we always had Good Friday, Easter Monday, besides the King's birthday, and, from 1952 up to Merdeka, the Queen's birthday, and Empire Day among other Christian or British festive days as public holidays as did the whole country. Our weekends were Friday and Sunday.

I recall we were not told about the significance of each of the Christian religious days except for Christmas and even that I discovered its meaning through reading Charles Dicken's Christmas Carol. It was forbidden by tradition and agreement between the British and the Malay leaders for British teachers to attempt to teach comparative religious studies let alone Christian divinity.The British, I must say, followed the rule scrupulously.

The Brits were more interested in higher stakes, namely that the young Malay elites remained passive, polite, pliant, wogs (Western oriented gentleman) or unassertive anglophiles and more importantly apolitical rather than making them Christians.That was the major difference (and a wise decision) with the Americans and before them the Spaniards in the Philippines, the French in Indo-China (now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) and the Dutch in the East Indies, now Indonesia.

The American-European colonialist, besides ruling and colonising them also converted the local to Christianity.

When I was a reporter with the Straits Times (then British-owned and British-led; several reporters were White), I picked up a bit of knowledge about Christianity because I was also occasionally told cover Christian festivals and meetings.

That was how I learned about Good Friday, Easter Monday, Start of Lent, Ash Wednesday and Ascension Day.

As Good Friday stuck most in my memory I shall try to recall what it is all about (since I was compelled to honour the holiday for 19 years until Merdeka). Good Friday is the Friday before Easter which celebrates Jesus Christ's death.Then why is it "good?". "Good" in this context means "holy", in a similar way Christmas is sometimes called "Good-tide" meaning "holy tide".

It was "good" because Jesus had to die before the central moment in Christian history, the Resurrection, could happen, and for that reason it was good, hence "Good Friday". In any event I was told by a Catholic friend "Good Friday" is known as "Friday of the Passion and Death of our Lord (Jesus)". It was 40 years ago when I first covered a Good Friday procession. Since then I have followed with interest Christian traditions other than Christmas.