In the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, Fr Gerard Theraviam with the Paschal Candle at the St John’s Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur. Standing far left is Archbishop Wojciech Zaluski, the Apostolic Nuncio for Malaysia, East Timor and the Apostolic Delegate to Brunei Darussalam

By Joseph Masilamany

Apr 4 2024

KUCHING – An opposition politician in the largely Christian state of Sarawak on Borneo Island is calling on the government of the day to declare Easter Monday a public holiday in the state.

Sarawak is the state with the highest percentage of Christians in Malaysia and the only state with a Christian majority. According to the 2020 census, Christians make up 50.1% of the population of Sarawak. Protestants, mostly Anglicans, make up the majority, followed by more than 441,300 Catholics.

Voon Lee Shan, Sarawak politician is calling for a public holiday for the East Malaysian state on Easter Monday

President of Parti Bumi Kenyalang, Voon Lee Shan, said that the government of the day must be reminded that the celebration of Easter is the most significant and sacred day for Christians, as it was the day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He said: “Without the Resurrection of Jesus the Christian faith would have been in vain. Without this day, the death of Jesus would have been rendered meaningless, hence no true salvation and the new risen life leading to the promise of eternal life.

“With Jesus’ Resurrection, the Church of Acts came into being and many other churches were formed as the apostles received the Great Commission from Jesus after the resurrection before He ascended into heaven. The disciples obeyed the resurrected Jesus and went forth to spread the good news by the power of the Holy Spirit,” Voon pontificated.

He said Christians everywhere view Easter as a joyous occasion. In Christianity, it is among the oldest feast celebrations.

Voon was prompted to make this impassioned plea for a public holiday on Easter Monday, as neighbouring Indonesia which is the most populated Muslim country in the world has declared Easter an official public holiday, beginning this year.

Sarawak, located in Borneo, the third largest island in the world shares borders with Kalimantan Indonesia in the south, the Christian state of Sabah in the east as well as Muslim Brunei in the north-east.

Good Friday is a public holiday in Indonesia, Sarawak and Sabah but not in West Malaysia, whereas Easter Monday is a public holiday for schools in both Sarawak and Sabah.    

However, Voon reiterated that Sarawakian Christians need Easter to be officially a public holiday to remind Christians of their faith. Many who work far away from their parish church could not seek leave to travel and attend church services throughout the Easter Triduum.

“It is also a time that Christians who live far from home to be able to plan to return to their home parish and be with their families for the Easter celebrations,” Voon added.

In the north of Peninsular Malaysia, Fr Michael Cheah stoops down to wash the feet of his parishioners at the Church of St Michael in Alor Star

Holy Week Celebrations in West Malaysia

Meanwhile, Holy Week events which began with Palm Sunday last week continued fervently in all churches and Catholic communities in Malaysia, consisting of nine dioceses spanning throughout West Malaysia as well as Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island.  

Over at the Malacca-Johor Diocese in the southern region of West Malaysia, all roads led to the historic City of Malacca, where the first seeds of Catholicism were sown by Portuguese missionaries in the 15th century.

Portuguese Square, a settlement that is home to about a thousand descendants of the first Portuguese, is one of several vestiges that testify to the successful Portuguese mission to the Malay Archipelago and is the “go-to” place for Catholics from all over Malaysia, Macau, Goa, Singapore, Australia and Thailand.   

The unique attractions of Holy Week celebrations include time-honoured Lenten processions, poignant ceremonies and colourful rituals unseen anywhere else in the world, which are showcased in honour of the “holiest week” in the Catholic calendar for the world to see.

One attraction among the many is the long procession hosted by St Peter’s Church, where a mammoth wooden cross borne by several devotees is paraded around the church and nearby streets.

For the Straits-born Peranakan Catholic community (Chinese) and the Peranakan Indian from the Chitty community here – this solemn cavalcade during Palm Sunday is the most poignant element of the celebrations.  

They call it in their own colloquial Malay “Datuk Pikul Balak”. These three words mean” “The Lord is Carrying His Timber!”. And in their own words, Good Friday is referred to as “Datuk Sudah Mati”. It means the “Lord is Dead”.

Every year during Palm Sunday and Good Friday, these devotees place “bunga rampei” (shredded flower petals, pandan leaves and perfumes) at the foot of the statue of Christ.

All these celebrations have stood the test of time – reminding the Eurasian Catholic descendants of a glorious past when their Portuguese forefathers occupied the city from 1511 to 1641.