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Feb 11, 2008

Firms grumble over too many holidays


With Thaipusam now joining the list, employers say the costs are getting too high

IT IS Chinese New Year and Malaysia's capital has been deserted in the last few days, as citizens enjoy one of the many holidays observed by a nation with an array of races and religions.

But the non-stop stream of festivals, which began last October when Muslims celebrated the end of the fasting month, is being met with grumbles from business and industry which say the nation cannot afford all the merry-making.

After Malaysia's majority Malays celebrated Hari Raya Puasa, it was the Hindus' turn with the Deepavali festival of lights, then Christmas, followed by traditional New Year and now Chinese New Year.

'I can't get anything done!' laments lawyer Karen Lynn Johnson, who is frantically preparing for her upcoming nuptials. 'Every supplier I call comes back to me with the same reply: Wait until after Chinese New Year.'

Malaysia's Chinese community dominates the business sector and the long holiday weekend saw a lull at construction sites, shopping malls and restaurants as city-dwellers flooded the highways to return to their home towns.

'For business people, it is never in their interests as it affects sales and trading,' said Mr M. Vivekananda of the Malaysian Employers' Federation.

'Our stand has always been that public holidays should not inhibit business activities. The markets should be kept open.'

Business people complain that sales figures drop, trading on the bourse is halted and manufacturers which need to keep their factories open have to pay hefty overtime and triple holiday rates.

'Not only is it expensive, it disrupts the production of goods and sometimes deadlines cannot be met because there is not enough manpower,' Mr Vivekananda said.

Malaysia has 17 national holidays. In addition, each state has its own set of holidays.

Residents of states with sultans like Selangor and Johor enjoy an additional holiday to celebrate his birthday; Sabah and Sarawak close for a Good Friday holiday; and Terengganu and Perak are among seven states that celebrate Nuzul Quran (Revelation of the Quran Day).

As if that were not enough, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi last month declared the Hindu festival of Thaipusam a public holiday just a few days beforehand, sending people scrambling to shift functions and events.

There are no figures on the costs involved, but in February last year exports shrank 14.41 per cent to RM41.1 billion (S$18 billion) compared with the previous month due to 'shorter working days and festivities', according to government data.

'On the stock market, millions of ringgit in business transactions are lost and we miss the opportunity to make money,' said businessman Michael Chiam.

Singapore has 11 public holidays, in line with the norm in many developed nations like the United States and Britain, which both have 10.

But Malaysian political economist Charles Santiago looks at the holiday issue in a different light. 'Private businesses feel there are too many holidays...but rested workers can also provide better productivity and benefit the economy in the long term,' he said.


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