Performers clad in holiday-themed outfits dance in a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur in this file photo, the Sabah state has declared Christmas Eve as a new holiday. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)
The Muslim chief minister of Sabah in Malaysia has ramped up the celebratory mood among Christians in the state by adding Dec. 24 or Christmas Eve as a new public holiday.
The neighboring state of Sarawak is also thinking of declaring Christmas Eve a holiday, local reports said.
"The additional public holiday will enable those celebrating Christmas to return home earlier," Sabha Cheif Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal said when launching the five-day Kota Kinabalu Christmas Carnival in the state capital on Dec. 11.
The state is the first in Malaysia to add the Christian celebration to the list of two-day public holidays accorded to significant festivals in the country after Eid al-Fitr and Chinese New Year.
For many Christians in Malaysia, Christmas celebrations can be a minefield. Decades of Islamization and the steady rise of Islamic conservatism in the South-East Asian nation has led to anti-Christian rhetoric forcing restraint when observing such religious events.
The social situation remains different in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Both have a large number of Christians, making Christmas an event to celebrate with family and friends.
Announcing the extra holiday to cheers from thousands at the carnival, Shafie said the state cabinet had endorsed the decision, and it would be observed annually starting this year.
"This is a testament that we respect all cultures and religions, and [that we] want the harmony in Sabah to continue.
"Harmony is the key to the development and progress of our country. As such, we need to maintain unity for our beloved Sabah state," national news agency Bernama quoted him as saying.
The move by the Sabah government surprised many as it comes at a time when anti-non-Muslim rhetoric has swelled in Peninsular Malaysia, which observers note is widening communal divisions.
Rising religious tensions have been linked to the stunning defeat of the previous federal government, which was led by disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak and who is now on trial for corruption.
Observers have noted that some Islamists in the country are preaching hate and accusing the current government of promoting liberalism, an anathema to conservative Muslims.
A Christmas function in Sabah last year was the target of the Islamist Pas, or Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).
PAS activists accused the state government of promoting Christian evangelization by allowing the event that was also attended by Muslims.