The real “Malaysia, Truly Asia”

Published in
March 27, 2006

When we Malaysians think of Malaysia, we often think of the fabulous food, incredibly cheap and trendy shopping, and beautiful beaches with almost year-round gorgeous beach-bumming weather – all characteristics of a tourist haven.

But if we’re so darn tootin’, why aren’t tourists flocking to our shores?

For that matter, why aren’t we Malaysians exploring our own country more?

Sadly enough, I can attest to the fact that I’ve only been to four states, including my home state, Selangor/Wilayah Persekutuan. And despite being awed when I hear about the richness of Borneo’s rainforests and the fact that the first Survivor was filmed at Pulau Tiga, I’ve never been to East Malaysia and would honestly much rather hop a jet to New York City, Barcelona or Hong Kong.

You would probably respond, “What an awful, unpatriotic thing to say!”

But how many of us can claim to have visited all of Malaysia, a country which can probably be traversed in less than a day?

Tourism is big business in Malaysia, with major social implications as well – fears of driving away tourists almost single-handedly reined in the notorious bikini ban in Terengganu, and almost any tourist with a fancy accent will attest to Malaysian hospitality.

However, in 2004, 15.7 million tourists came to Malaysia, compared to 21.8 million tourists to Hong Kong in the same year.

While it is not a big difference, the disparity is most prominently displayed when we look at how much money our tourism industry made in 2004. Malaysia made RM29,651 million, compared to Hong Kong’s 2004 receipts from tourism – RM43,772.57 million, or 91,849.99 million HKD. That’s almost twice the Malaysian amount!

I would argue that Malaysia and Hong Kong have comparable charms and marketing campaigns, both focusing on food, festivals, shopping and cosmopolitan communities. Why then would Hong Kong do so much better than Malaysia in the tourism stakes, especially when food and shopping are cheaper in Malaysia? Surely not all of the difference can be accounted for by saying people spend more money in Hong Kong because stuff there is more expensive?

One reason, perhaps, could be the lack of artistic venues; we can most certainly be proud of our mak yong and wayang kulit (except when PAS is denouncing these cultural activities).

But what about bringing in other shows to enrich our culture?

You may recall the banning of The Vagina Monologues because of offended sensibilities, or to take a less arty-farty example, that of movies such as Daredevil, Bruce Almighty, and even – for goodness’ sake! – Babe, Pig in the City.

Despite recent noble efforts to bring Broadway musicals to the Istana Budaya stage, are we likely to see such Tony Award-winning efforts as Avenue Q, (addresses issues like sex, drinking, and surfing the web for porn) or Sweet Charity (shows burlesque dancers in a positive light and talks about religion)?

Also, how much do we hear about ecotourism campaigns, whether they are targeted at the international or domestic markets? We’ve all seen those “Malaysia – Truly Asia” ads, but how many of them specifically extol the beauty and diversity of our rainforests? We may be missing a lucrative and growing market here!

Of course, it doesn’t help when the haze sparks a national crisis and it makes the headlines worldwide, or that massive traffic jams are paired with a horrendous public transportation system (Taken a bus lately? Anyone?).

Before I start sounding like Chicken Little, it’s not all bad: Malaysia had, by far, the largest total of tourist arrivals in the ASEAN region in 2004, and growth in tourism numbers has been fairly steady in the past five or six years.

At any rate, there’s lots to love about our country. The trick is to share the love with the international market and to know what to share by first experiencing it for ourselves, and perhaps nudging the powers that be to deal with our blind spots and problem areas.

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