02 April, 2007

Malaysians put out unwelcome mat

Malaysia - Malaysia's government has laid out the red carpet for the world's tourists for the 50th anniversary of the country's independence. But the message about treating these invited guests cordially apparently hasn't gotten through to some of the country's top tourist destinations. And blame for the poor reception can be laid at the doorstep of the Malaysian government itself.

Aside from microstates Singapore and Brunei, Malaysia is the richest and most developed country in Southeast Asia. In addition to demographic good fortune, Malaysia's progress owes much to pro-business government policies and initiatives that industrialized and expanded its original agricultural and resource export economy. Many of Malaysia's tourist attractions, such as Petronas Towers and last week's Kuala Lumpur International Literary Festival, owe a debt to the nation's relative affluence and advancement.

But skyscrapers and other urban delights are hardly unique to Malaysia. Every major Asian city has the same international designer shops in its malls, flogging its creations at similar prices. If you're looking for nightlife, nearby Bangkok beats Kuala Lumpur hands down. Local music and theater are better in Manila, while Singapore attracts a greater variety and frequency of international shows.

Natural advantage

Malaysia can claim to stand out from the regional tourism competition with its natural endowments. Development has made Malaysia more efficient than neighboring Indonesia and Thailand at denuding its forests and paving its paddies. But development also means surviving natural wonders have adequate infrastructural support for visitors, from Air Asia flights to air-conditioned rooms.

No part of Malaysia has more natural wonders than Sabah, which lives up to its designation in the tourism literature as "Malaysia's solar-powered theme park". Sabah's crown jewel is Southeast Asia's tallest peak, Mount Kinabalu. But East Sabah is packed with the widest variety of attractions, including the world's most popular place to see orangutans in their native habitat, at Sepilok, ancient unspoiled forests at Maliau Basin and Danum Valley, a chance to bathe with elephants along the floodplain of the Kinabatangan River, and what's arguably the world's best dive site at Tun Sakaran Marine Park.

At these locations, and a dozen more, tourism professionals offer guided excursions that will take you seamlessly from the airport to hotels to attractions. Step outside that cocoon, however, and you're likely to find shocking levels of rudeness toward foreign guests. Rather than a helping hand, at times you're likely to encounter the local equivalent of an outstretched middle finger. These incidents were far more common and unmistakable on a recent trip than when this correspondent visited these same parts of Malaysia a decade ago.

Tourism taxes

The episodes went beyond the usual overcharging for transport or insistence on offering the most expensive product or service. In Tawau, a border town that has the closest air connections for diving around Sipidan, clerks in a bookstore avoided me when I entered, then taunted me when I inquired about buying a map of Sabah, an item the store stocked for sale.

In Lahad Datu, gateway to spectacular nature trekking and game viewing in four different directions, waitresses refused to serve me until compelled by managers, and even then had to be goaded to bring each item included in the meal - the rice, the vegetables, the chili sauce - that other customers received on a single tray with their main dish. At a bus-ticket booth, a tout pushed me out of the way in the middle of an inquiry - pretty routine - and a clerk in the booth defended him.

I could rarely pass a night market or open-air warung without a racial remark in the local language being directed my way. In most cases, it was young people who were the most offensive. To be sure, I received a good deal of Malaysian hospitality from a variety of people, rich and poor, young and old. But the unpleasant experiences were so frequent and so similar that they defied coincidence. They also defied the usual explanations offered for them.

The first excuse was that these runaway clerks and wait staff hid out of embarrassment because they didn't speak English. It is true that English was more widely and better spoken a decade ago than now, as the primary-school medium of instruction has changed to Bahasa Melayu. But I spoke Bahasa Melayu's close cousin, Bahasa Indonesia, languages as close as British and American English. Even then, staff still hid when alone or continued their ridicule and abuse in groups.

Blame the immigrants

The second excuse was a global favorite: it's not Malaysian citizens but rather illegal immigrants that are rude and abusive. That's a more interesting argument, since East Sabah has a long land and sea border with Indonesia as well as passenger-boat service and a lively smuggling trade across the Sulu Sea to the Philippines and with historical ties to both. Indonesian migrant workers supply much of the labor at local oil-palm plantations.

However, there are a couple of problems with that explanation. First, the frequent insults that were made in this correspondent's direction were voiced in Bahasa Melayu, not Indonesian slang. During six weeks spent in the neighboring Indonesian portion of Borneo, rarely did I face this type of hostility. People in Kalimantan are generally poorer, less educated and less exposed to foreign visitors, but they managed to be outwardly friendly far more frequently. The difference is no doubt related to the values the Malaysian government espouses.

The official Tourism Malaysia website proudly declares the nation "a bubbling, bustling melting pot of races and religions, where Malays, Indians, Chinese and many other ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony". In reality, over its five decades of independence, Malaysian government policies have enshrined race as a key factor in the national character.

Amazing Race Asia

Malaysia's institutionalized racism in the form of preferences for Malays and restrictions on Chinese and others in government employment, university places and other benefits teaches that there are real differences between races, and all races are unequal, whether it's by natural endowment or national legislation.

Malaysia's Islamization over the past decade has arguably made matters worse and likely contributed to the hostility. Even though Muslim Malays just barely constitute a majority of the population, the government has proudly proclaimed Malaysia an Islamic state. It's strictly political Islam: the ruling United National Malays Organization invokes religion to counter Islamic-party challenges.

Islamization also serves as convenient shorthand for generic, amorphous anti-Westernism. That's particularly ironic given Malaysia's numerous homages to the West, from its US-inspired flag to its urban elite's embrace of Western materialism and English Premier League football. The elite may be immune to its own propaganda, but it seems to work at the grassroots, beaches and rainforests.

Islamization's main effect isn't to unite the country but to highlight differences, whether it's with your Chinese neighbors or that Westerner ordering local fare. At half a century, Malaysia can be proud of its economic progress and remaining natural beauty, but arguably has a long way to go in the social sphere. Speaking as one 50-year-old to another, I can tell Malaysia it's never too late to learn. The first lesson might be to get its national house in better order before it invites guests.

By Muhammad Cohen

Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is special correspondent for Macau Business and author of Hong Kong On Air (Blacksmith Books), a novel set during the 1997 handover and Asian economic meltdown featuring television news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie.



Blogger zewt said...

some very strong word there my friend...

April 03, 2007 1:05 AM  

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