WESAK PUBLIC HOLIDAY – By LIM TEONG AIK
The Wesak Full Moon Day is a special holy festival day for all Buddhists. It is the Buddhists’ greatest Blessed Day and the holiest of all holy days in many ways. On that day in 623 B.C. the Buddha was born as Prince Siddhattha (Siddhartha) in Lumbini Park, Nepal on the borders of India. On that day (Wesak Day) 35 years later (588 B.C.) He attained full enlightenment (i.e. became Buddha) under the sacrod tree now known as “Sri Maha Bodhi” or “Bodhi Tree”. It was also on that very day (Wesak Day) 2506 years ago (543 B.C.) that Ho attained Parinibbana (Parinirvana). Hence the Full Moon Day has assumed considerable significance in the eyes of all Buddhists and is reverently observed and celebrated in many parts of tho Buddhist world.
The highest standards of morality and virtue in the world have their origin in Buddhism, whose Founder taught His followers the Right Path. It is therefore the duty of each and every Buddhist to observe this Day as the greatest Holy Day, as an appropriate mark of respect for the Great Teacher.
On this Blessed Day all Buddhists in Malaya as in other parts of the world, make it a point to perform in religious activities in one-way or another.
The Great Day was celebrated with pomp and ceremony by Great Kings like Asoka in India and Gamani in Ceylon. It is needless to say that Ceylon, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia also celebrate this Great Day on a scale that is almost identical. In those countries two Public Holidays are declared annually; all places of worship are in full festive order, and lay residences appear resplendent with decorations and Illuminations. It is hoped the day is not far off when Malaya will be able to emulate those countries.
The idea of appealing to the Gow:rnment for a Public Holiday on Wesak Full Moon Day in Malaya originated from the Ven. K. Gunaratana, Maha Nayaka Thero of the Federation of Malaya who holds the position of Head Monk of the Mahindarama Buddhist Temple at Kampar Road, Penang. (It was in the year 1926, when he first arrived at Penang on the 20th of July).
Discussions regarding the idea went on until Malaya fell to the Japanese at the end of 1941. Towards the end of the Japanese occupation, (December, 1944) Hirano San, the Japanese Director of Education, Penang, who had been a Buddhist monk in Japan before the outbreak of the Pacific War, proposed the setting up of a Pan-Malayan Buddhist Federation with headquarters in Penang. Membership was to be open to Buddhists of all nationalities and the Japanese Government was to be requested to declare the Wesak Full Moon Day in 1945 a Public Holiday. The first meeting was convened at the Education Office in the old Government Building at Downing Street on Thursday, 11th January 1945 at 3 p.m. but on account of the bombing by aircraft of the Allied Powers on that day the meeting could not be held.
After the Reoccupation of Penang by the British, to be exact early in 1946, some leading Buddhists in Selangor suggested that the Penang Buddhist Association should set the ball rolling in asking the Government for a Public Holiday in Malaya on Wesak Full Moon Day. Unfortunately, however the Committee of the Association was not prepared to take. the lead, although it was ready to give support to the idea.
Thereafter, opinions of leading Buddhists including monks were sought. The Chinese Buddhists wanted to celebrate the occasion on the 8th Day of the Chinese 4th Moon, but the Southern Buddhists (Singhalese, Siamese and Burmese) insisted on the orthodox day i.e. the Wesak Full Moon Day. The late Hon’ble Dr. Ong Chong Keng was requested to sound the late Sir Edward Gent, the then Governor of the Malayan Union, during his visit to the Penang Buddhist Association on Thursday, 12th September 1946. In the event of Sir Edward being favourably dispersed towards the idea, he was to see Mr. Malcolm McDonald, the Governor General. Unfortunately, on the 12th of September, Sir Edward, due to indisposition, could not turn up but Mr. Malcolm McDonald was present together with Mr. S. N. King, the then Resident Commissioner of Penang.
The matter was not mentioned to the Governor-General, as it was felt that the proper person to be first consulted was Sir Edward. A few weeks later the late Dr. Ong managed to broach the subject with Sir Edward at Kuala Lumpur. The latter was quite willing to do everything he could to help the Chinese and Southern Buddhists if they could come to an agreement over the date. Towards the end of 1948 the twin brothers, Messrs. Khoo Soo Jin and Khoo Soo Ghee, together with a few eminent Buddhists from all over the country succeeded in getting the Chinese Buddhists to agree on having the Wesak Full Moon Day recognised as the appropriate day. This matter was fully discussed in January 1949 at a committee meeting of the Penang Buddhist Associalion which decided to give unanimous support to Wesak Full Moon Day being regarded as the proper day.
A mass meeting was held at the Penang Buddhist Association on 1st March 1949 at 3 p.m. with Mr. Khoo Soo Jin in the Chair. The meeting was held under the auspices of 31 Buddhist temples and/or organisation and Buddhists of all races and nationalities in
the Settlement of Penang.
It was attended by more than 500 persons among whom were many prominent citizens of Penang. Practically all the priests and nuns in Penang and Province Wellesley were present. The Ven. Kim Seng, Head Priest of the Cheng Hoon Temple of Malacca (Malaya’s oldest Chinese temple) also attended the meeting with representatives of all the newspapers in the country to cover the proceedings. Mr. Khoo Soo Jin opened the meeting by making a short speech. Nai Chai Suwannathat, the then Penang Consul of Thailand made a lengthy speech in English which was interpreted into Chinese by Mr. Lim Teong Aik. The following resolution were unanimously passed:
1. To adopt Wesak Full Moon Day as the Buddha’s Birthday,
2. To request the Government to grant a Public Holiday on that occasion,
3. To form “The Wesak Holiday Committee, Penang” to carry out item 2.
At the meeting, messages from Buddhist organisations all over Malaya were read. The Committee was formed and comprised fifteen persons with Mr. Khoo Soo Jin, J.P. as Chairman. Mr. Lim Teong Aik was appointed Hon. Secretary, Mr. Leong Kim Yew, Hon.
Chinese Correspondent. The other members were Mr. Lim Eow Thoon, M.C.H.,J.P., Municipal Commissioner, Penang, Mr. Ong Joe Sun, J.P., Municipal Commissioner, Penang, Dr. Cheah Cheng Poh, J.P., Mr. Khoo Kay Eons, A. Comm. A., Mr. Yeoh Cheang Aun, Mr. Boey Eng Eng, Nai Deng Sararaks and Nai Wan Charasvirochana (representing the Siamese Community), Messrs. W. A. Ariyadasa and M. B. Jinadasa (representing the Singhalese Community), Maung Swee Nee and Maung Swee Dong (representing the Burmese Community). The meeting also unanimously elected the following who were present at the meeting: The Hon’ble Dr. Lee Tiang Keng, J.P. to be the Committee’s representative at the Federal Executive and Legislative Councils and Mr. M. Saravanamuttu as the Adviser.
A Memorial drafted by Mr. M. Saravanamuttu received the signatures of the officials of Buddhist Temples and organisations and leading citizens throughout the country.
On Tuesday, 22nd March, 1949 a delegation of the Committee, comprising Messrs. Khoo Soo Jin, M. Saravanamuttu, Yeoh Cheang Aun, Khoo Kay Eong and Mr. Lira Teong Aik met the Hon’ble Date E. E. C. Thuraisingham, the Hon’ble Mr. Yong Shook Lin, J.P., both of Kuala Lumpur at the E. 6, O. Hotel, Penang at 8 p.m. and made arrangements for the presentation of the Memorial to H.E. the High Commissioner of the Federation of Malaya.
On Friday, 25th March 1949, the Memorial was presented to Sir Alec Newboult, the Chief Secretary of the Federation by the Hon’ble Mr. Yong Shook Lin and the Hon’ble Date E. E. C. Thuraisingham. On Monday, 4th April 1949, the Hon’ble Mr. Yong Shook Lin and the Hon’ble Date Mr. E. E. C. Thuraisingham called on H.E. Sir Henry Gurney, K.C.M.G. the High Commissioner in and for the Fedcration of Malaya to discuss the matter with him.
His Excellency was graciously sympathetic and expressed the opinion that the request for a public holiday was a very reasonable one. He further stated that he would transmit the memorial with his blessing to the Settlement Governments of Penang and Malacca. The Committee was requested to take the matter up with each State or Settlement separately as public holidays were, legally under the control of each State and Settlement.
So contact was at once made with all the State Secretaries. Further, wherever possible, a prominent Buddhist in each State was requested to see the Government of that State concerned to speak on our behalf. In this connection the following names are significant:–
Penang: The Hon’ble Dr. Lee Tiang Kens, J.P.
Malacca: The Hon’ble Mr. Ee Yew Kim and Mr. Yeo Joay Tee, J.P.
Kedah: The Hon’ble Mr. Tan Eng Soo, J.P. and the Hon’ble Mr. Lee Ewe Boon, O.B.E.
Perak: The Hon’ble Mr. Cheah Ghim Lens, O.B.E., J.P.
Selangor: 7he Hon’ble Date E. E. C, Thuraisingham.
Perlis: The Hon’ble Mr. Choong Swee Thye, J.P.
For their staunch support and great assistance all Buddhists in the country owe a great debt of gratitude. Resulting from their efforts two Setllements, two States were given full public holidays in 1949. They were Penang, Malacca, Kedah and Perak. Penang, Malacca and Kedah have been given public holidays continuously since 1949, but Perak granted the holiday only in 1949. In Selangor, Kelantan, Perlis, Trengganu
and Negri Sembilan the Buddhist employees of the Governments have been given a holiday. Perlis got its first Wesak Public Holiday in May 1961.
In Singapore a publication called the Vesak (Wesak) Day Memorial based on that of the Penang Wesak Holiday Committee appeared towards the end of 1949. It was supported by the Buddhist temples, organisations and numerous prominent Buddhist supporters in the Colony of Singapore. When it was presented to His Excellency Sir
Franklin Gimson it failed to gain official blessing.
Immediately after the formation of the new Government of Singapore, the Buddhist Community approached the Chief Minister, Mr. David Marshall, and on the 15th June 1955, the holiday was granted. This was after the Wesak celebrations of that year had been held. So Singapore got its first Wesak Holiday in 1956, a memorable year in
the History of Buddhism as it happened to be Buddha Jayanti Year i.e. the year
when Buddhists throughout the world celebrated the 2500th Anniversary of the
Buddhist Era. Many Buddhist organisations and individuals sent letters of thanks to the Chief Minister, Mr. David Marshall. In reply to one of these, he wrote:
“I am indeed happy to have been able to assist a large body of loyal, peaceable and worthy citizens in achieving their legitimate claim. I am particularly happy that on the 2500th Anniversary of the founding of a noble culture which has been one of the greatest civilising influences of humanity, Buddhists in Singapore will be able to enjoy a proper recognition, and full holiday.”
(Sd.) David Marshall.
Ever since its formation every effort has been made by the Wesak Holiday Committee and other Buddhist organizations to appeal to the Federation Government for a National Holiday. Before “Merdeka”, Mr. Yeap Choong Kong, a Member of the Legislative made a lenqthy and eloquent speech in the Federal Legislative Council pleading for a Federation-wide holiday. The Hon’ble Date Toh Eng Hoe, J.P., C.B.E., etc. strongly supported the plea, Mr. Tony Beamish of Radio Malaya commented
Mr. Yeap’s speech most favourably.
On Monday, 16th August 1954 a deputation comprising Mr. Khoo Soo Jim J.P., Dr. Ooi Kheng Seng, Mr. Lim Tat Tean, Mr. Rajaram and Mr. Lin Teong Aik called on Date Oon, Member for the Interior, in his office at Kuala Lumpur to appeal for a public holiday on Wesak Day. He promised to look into the matter.
In May, 1960 the Hon’ble Date (Dr.) Cheah Teen Lek, President of the Kedah Buddhist Association and the then President of the Malayan Chinese Association, Federation of Malaya made a dramatic appeal at the meeting of the Senate at Kuala Lumpur. In 1961 Senator Cheah Seng Khim, J.P. Chairman of the Wesak Celebrations Committee, Penang again brought up the matter at a meeting of the Senate at Kuala Lumpur.
The Malayan Buddhist Association, formed in 1959, has left no stone unturned in finding ways and means of obtaining a National holiday, Meeting after meeting was held and long were the discussions. Finally a memorial was drawn up. A re-print of this can be found in this Souvenir.
On 14th November, 1961 a delegation of Malacca Buddhists comprising Date Tan Cheng Swee, J.P., Rev. Kim Song, Rev. Kim Beng and Mr. Sim Moh Oo, J.P., J.M.N. left for Kuala Lumpur to seek advice, and assistance from the Hon’ble Mr. Tan Siew Sin. the Finance Minister of the Federation of Malaya. A copy of the Memorial drawn up by the Malayan Buddhist Association was shown to him. He was very pleased and sympathetic and suggested that as many signatures as possible should be obtained from all Buddhist temples and/or organisations, prominent Buddhists and supporters for presentation to the Hon’ble Dato (Dr.) Ismail bin Dato Abdul Rahman, P.M.N., Minister of Interior, Federation of Malaya.
On Tuesday, 2nd January 1962, a delegation comprising Rev. Kim Seng, Messrs. Ooi Seong Phoe and Lira Teong Aik left for Taiping, Ipoh and other towns to collect the signatures for the Memorial. On Wednesday, 3rd January 1962 while the party was in Ipoh, Radio Malaya made the delightful announcement that the Federation Government had declared Wesak Full Moon Day a Federation-wide holiday with effect from 1962. So the delegation, with profound sense of relief in the realization that the object they had been so eagerly pursuing was finally achieved, returned home.