Does Malaysia have too many public holidays compared to Singapore?

Malaysia usually has a knack for "surprise public holidays".

A tourist in front of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre Twin Towers
Some in Malaysia think that surprise holidays are "unhealthy" for business and that Malaysia already enjoys too many work-free days. (Photo: Getty Images)

by Qishin Tariq

EVERYONE loves a public holiday or a long weekend break.

But a recent double whammy of long weekends in Malaysia with a "surprise public holiday" thrown in has had many wondering if too much of a good thing could maybe be a bad thing.

Malaysians had originally been set to enjoy two long weekends over April and May 2023, thanks to the Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Labour Day public holidays. In addition to these, there was also Vesak, which fell this year on Thursday, 4 May.

However, in a move that was intended to circumvent the commotion of 2022 (when it was announced on the night of 1 May that Hari Raya would be celebrated the very next day) and uncertainty about when the first day of Aidilfitri would actually be this year, the government declared an extra public holiday.

In essence, this meant a four-day weekend, which ran from Friday, 21 April, to Monday, 24 April.

Yet, while the regular Malaysians were no doubt thrilled, there were also brickbats, with the main complaints being that surprise holidays are "unhealthy" for business and that Malaysia already enjoys too many work-free days.

How many holidays are there in Malaysia?

To be clear, the Malaysian government had originally planned to observe 14 Federal public holidays in 2023. That is just three more than Singapore, which gazetted 11 public holidays this year.

However, in Malaysia, the overall number can vary from state to state.

For instance, Kelantan and Terengganu mark the second day of Hari Raya Haji as a Federal holiday, while Deepavali is a working day in Sarawak. Additionally, Malaysia's states, some of which observe Friday-Saturday weekends, also have various other state-level holidays for events like Good Friday, Kaamatan, Gawai Dayak and Thaipusam.

Being a city-state, Singapore does not experience these variances.

And then, of course, there are the surprise, unplanned public holidays; populist moves which are sometimes announced following the end of sporting events (like after Malaysia topped the medal table at the 2017 South East Asian Games) and recently, in the run-up to and following general elections.

To address this habit of surprise holidays, Malaysia's stock exchange recently amended its Business Rules and Listing Requirements to ensure that Bursa Malaysia and its subsidiaries would continue operating.

Nevertheless, the debate remains whether all these public holidays — which some have said cost the private sector hundreds of millions — affect Malaysia's productivity and if there should be fewer days off.

Too many, too few or just right?

According to Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) president Mohd Effendy Abdul Ghani, the impression that Malaysia has an overabundance of holidays is sometimes due to celebrations coinciding.

"This year Hari Raya Aidilfitri was close to Vesak (on the Gregorian calendar), but the timing of these holidays actually defers as they follow their own calendar systems. Sometimes you end up having them back to back by sheer coincidence," he said.

Importantly, and in actual practice, Mohd Effendy says, Malaysian workers respect each others' race and religion, and are open to working shifts to enable colleagues to take time off for cultural festivities.

Furthermore, employers have the option of giving workers extra annual leave days in place of public holidays and/or paying higher public holiday overtime rates. This way, he notes, there would be few problems of productivity loss.

"If you incentivise workers fairly, some will agree to work over the holiday," Mohd Effendy said, adding that this is particularly needed to bolster the workforce in the service industry and essential services over holiday periods.

He points out, too, that the increase in companies practising work from home (WFH) in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic means remote work can be allowed during holiday periods, specifically when workers have to balik kampung (head to their hometowns) for the festivities.

"This way, they can spend a few more days out of town and still work, rather than rush back and be stressed by the traffic heading back," he said.

HELP University's Dr Victor Goh Weng Yew, however, cautions about employers insisting on WFH to deal with public holidays.

"It's fine if, for example, in their kampung (hometowns), they go to a coffee shop to answer emails. But as an IO (industrial and organisational) psychologist, I really wouldn't recommend people doubling up their home/life space as their workspace," he said.

Interestingly, too, on the subject of long weekends, Goh, who heads the university's Department of Psychology, notes that the usual two-day weekend is no longer enough for an individual to truly recuperate or regain their strength, especially for two working adult households or those without domestic help.

He said from, a psychological perspective, being constantly "on-call" to do something, whether work or family obligations, leads to ego-depletion and burnout.

Significantly, too, a compressed work week, where people work for four days and rest for three, has been found to be better for mental health.

The answer to whether Malaysia ought to have fewer days off, thus, is not so straightforward.

But perhaps what needs to be looked at more seriously, and especially on the back of one of the most successful, large-scale work trials, is whether Malaysia, Singapore and other countries in the region ought to make three-day weekends the norm rather than the exception.

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