To celebrate 50 years of independence the Malaysian Government is spending RM 149 million (US$ 12 million) on it’s third “Visit Malaysia Year (VMY) promotion in the hopes of attracting more than 20 million foreign tourists.
However skyrocketing street crime, increasing Islamic conservatism, an entertainment industry that shuts down at 2.00 am along with the rudest taxi drivers in Asia and the task looks formidable.
Added to this is a dramatic increase in the debilitating mosquito borne disease Dengue Fever in the capital, drink prices that are amongst the highest in Asia, and a police force that sees itself above it’s political masters and the prospects of a 14 % increase on 2006 arrivals looks very difficult.
In addition, a recent international survey found that Malaysian’s are “rude” and “arrogant,” – an opinion resident’s of the former British colony are still trying to come to terms with and refuse to accept.
While the country’s population thumbs its nose at the results of the Readers Digest survey, even it’s Prime Minister, Dato Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, accepts that the county’s taxi drivers are far from charming.
At an industry event last year the PM implored Malaysia’s taxi drivers not to cheat their customers by taking them for a long ride, and chastised them for refusing to use their meters.
He also urged them to periodically service their vehicles and told them they should keep their vehicles clean, be courteous and to communicate effectively with passengers to ensure they enjoyed their ride.
Despite the heartfelt plea by the PM, reports of Malaysian taxi drivers refusing to use their meters, haggling over fares, verbally, and even physically abusing passengers remains a weekly feature in the country’s newspapers.
With only 24 enforcement officers policing the 31,000 licensed taxi’s on the Malaysia peninsula, and increasing complaints from tourists and locals alike, the country’s Tourism Ministry was forced to take it’s own steps to stop the grossly inflated RM 500 (US$ 144.00) (the real cost is around RM 60) airport to city taxi rides.
Even the chairman of the commercial vehicle licensing board, Datuk Markiman Kabiran is fed up with taxi driver complaints describing the situation as “a maggot infested wound that refused to heal”.
In attempt to stamp out the actions of rogue taxi drivers the Ministry approved the issuing of 500 additional taxi licences for “tourist taxis”.
Painted in the distinctive red, green, blue and yellow used in the VMY 2007 logo, as well as displaying the logo itself, the Mercedes Benz 200C’s will be available for use by locals as well as tourists and will be obliged to always use their meter and not refuse fares.
The one catch though is that the flag fall and trip charges of the new cabs will, according to the country’s Minister for Tourism, Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Manso, “be slightly more expensive than regular cabs.”
This in itself is interesting as Malaysia’s taxi drivers claim the reason they are not inclined to use their meters and charge surcharges of between 200 and 500% after midnight (the official surcharge is 50%) is because the Government won’t approve increasing cab fare rates.
While the logical answer might appear to be to increase the fare rates for all cabs and then impose heavier penalties for those breaking the law, Datuk Manso said people could use the luxury cabs and “not be afraid of being cheated or overcharged.”
However with only 500 of the special “tourist taxi’s” on the road tourists remain unimpressed by KL cab drivers.
Robert Pearce from London said, “KL taxi drivers ask for five times the regular fare. I have been abused many times by cab drivers because I refused to pay or get in their cars if they wouldn’t use the meter. It’s not fun to visit Malaysia; we’re terrified of the taxi drivers.
“How can we have a good time here when we can’t move around because we are afraid of being cheated, abused and assaulted,” he and his brother Adam said.
In addition to the regular 194 festivals and cultural events on the Malaysian tourism calendar, Datuk Manso said a number of special events were planned throughout the 2007 year.
These include an aerospace exhibition from Russia featuring the mothballed unmanned space shuttle “Buran”, which circled the earth twice in 1988, a laser show, and a floral parade.
None of which seems like the stuff foreigners would leave home and travel to another country just to see.
As a result of feedback received by Tourism Malaysia offices abroad from tourists who had visited Malaysia and found the country somewhat boring, the Ministry submitted a proposal to the Government to extend the operating hours of entertainment venues from the current 2.00 am weekday and 3.00 am weekend closing times.
However the Ministry quickly backed away from its proposal in the face of opposition from the country’s powerful Internal Security Ministry and the national police force who submitted a counter proposal that entertainment venues should instead close at 1.00 am.
According to the Inspector General of the Royal Malaysia Police Force, Tan Sri Mohammad Bakri Omar, the 1.00 am curfew “is part of a plan to improve the efficiency, professionalism and image of Malaysia’s police and to curb drug abuse.”
To curb sky-rocketing crime throughout the country Tan Omar also requested an additional 3,000 police officers, 2,000 extra patrol cars and announced that the training period for police recruits would be cut from six to three months, after crime figures showed an increase of 27% in crime reports in 2006 over 2005.
Exactly how shutting down the nations entertainment industry at 1.00 am will improve the image and professionalism of the Malaysian police he declined to say.
To add even more confusion to the situation, immediately following the opposition by the police and Internal Security Ministry, Datuk Manso publicly claimed the extended operating hours proposal “was not my idea.”
“I don’t want Malaysia to become like Bangkok, Las Vegas or Singapore. That’s not the idea,” he said.
The rapid back flip by Datuk Manso does nothing but highlight the tightrope walked by those who try and balance commercialism with the increasingly conservative Islamic views of Malaysia’s Muslim population, despite the high Indian and Chinese ethnic mix.
In a survey of ethnic Malay’s, who are all considered Muslims, and who make up a little over half of the country’s 26 million population, more than 72% said they identified themselves as being “Muslim’s first and Malaysians second”.
A clear slap in the face of the unifying “One Malaysia” campaign pushed by the Government as it battles with raging racial divide and discontentment in the country.
In a perfect example of the racism that exists in Malaysia, 87.5% of respondents said they either “hated” or “disliked” America, while 57% said the same about Europe and 55% said the same about Australia.
At the same time 57% of respondents felt Sharia (strict Islamic) law was not strict enough in Malaysia and 77% said they wanted a stricter application of the law in the country.
Sharia law provides for amputating the right hand of thieves, stoning adulterers to death and whipping for drinking alcohol.
“There is the misconception that this is the land of moderate Islam,” says Kuala Lumpur based Islamic scholar Aloystus Mowe.
In May of 2005 Muslim mobs broke up a meeting in Penang held to discuss religious pluralism and constitutional protection for minority groups.
According to Forum organisers, the message was clear; “attempts to equate other religions with Islam in Malaysia will be met with violence.”
Tourists and foreigners are not safe from this form of extremism either.
An American retiree couple in their 60’s living in Langkowie had their condominium raided at 2.00 am by State Religious Department police who demanded to inspect their home.
According to the Randal Barnhart, “the inspectors wore blue uniforms and were threatening and aggressive”. “They kept demanding ‚Äòto see the woman’ (his wife, Carol) and then demanded to see our passports and marriage certificates”.
According to Mr Barnhart he had to send his wife back to the United States on the next available flight because “she feared people might return to the condominium to terrify her in the middle of the night.”
Likewise, when the Pussycat Dolls performed in Malaysia last year organisers were slapped with a RM 10,000 (US$ 2,800) fine by Subang Jaya Municipal Council and faced a five-year prison sentence if they allowed the matter to proceed to court.
According to the Council, who had approved the event and admitted none of its enforcement officers were at the event, “the groups was deemed guilty of performing sexually suggestive routines on stage”.
Similarly, organisers of a performance by Gwen Stefani later this month in Kuala Lumpur faced calls for the concert to be cancelled from the 10,000-strong National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students.
The group said Stefani’s video promotion clips were “obscene” and the event would “clash with local Asian and Islamic values”.
“We want the organisers to cancel the concert, failing which we will ask the authorities to intervene,” said Mohammad Hilmi Ramli, the group’s president.
In deference to the group, organisers said the “Sweet Escape” tour would “feature no revealing costumes.”
The country’s official guide for performers says women must be covered from the top of the bosom to the knees, while jumping, shouting and the throwing of objects are barred. Performers may not hug, kiss or wear clothes with obscene or drug-related pictures or slogans.
Kissing in public is also deemed inappropriate and those who display their affection openly can rapidly find themselves arrested and dragged before the courts for breaching public morality laws.
The increasing Islamic conservatism is also reflected in the country’s national police force, which has a stated five-year plan to inculcate Islamic Hadhari (a theory of government based on the principles of Islam) in the force.
While Tan Omar claims, “this does not mean the police force is becoming more Islamic,” there are none the less very few of Indian or Chinese descent amongst the nations force.
The claim made by Tan Omar doesn’t wash with owners of night-time entertainment venues who have to live with increasing numbers of police raids on their premises.
While KL nightclub owners have done their fair share to cater to the needs of locals and tourists alike by bringing big name artists such as Paul Van Dyke, Carl Cox and Paul Oakenfeld to the city, the police have been just as committed in their targeting of venues.
In the first five months of 2006 more than 9,400 were arrested at entertainment venues for drug offences after testing positive to random urine testing compared to 9.900 for all of 2005.
In one raid alone on a KL “super club”, police urine tested more than 2,000 people after raiding the performance of a popular DJ. Urine tests were still being conducted on people at 7.00 am in the morning.
The result has been most KL clubs changing the style of music they play to attract the more sedate and less “drugy” R&B, hip-hop and retro music market. Trance and hard dance style clubs are a rarity, justifying many tourists in labelling Malaysia the most boring location in Asia.
In addition, Government taxes and religious duty on alcohol mean drink prices are amongst the highest in Asia and on a par with many European countries.
Because of the taxation and duty system it is a better bang for your buck, and a cheaper overall prospect, to drink spirits than to drink beer.
Bangsar Baru Business Council spokesman Ronald Quay agrees, and claims high duties and tariffs imposed in recent years are decimating the hospitality and entertainment industries.
“Alcohol is far to expensive in Malaysia. A glass of beer can cost anywhere between RM 7 and RM 30 (US$ 2 to US$ 8.60), making drink prices here probably the highest in Asia.
The result, according to Mr Quay, is that the younger or more party minded tourists “are cutting short their stay here and spending longer in countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines”.
Reinforcing the “Malaysia is no fun” tag is a warning issued last year by the country’s Minister of Health, Dr Abdul Lahiff Ahmad, that there had been a 15% increase in the debilitating disease Dengue Fever in the nations capital.
The disease, for which no treatment of vaccine is available, is widespread throughout Malaysia, along with its cousin Malaria.
Both can cause death, or at the very least, lay unsuspecting tourists on their backs for many weeks.
Of even more concern was that the comments by the Minister came ahead of the country’s wet season and referred to densely populated regions including the nations capital as well as Putrajaya and Selangor.
According to Datuk Dr Ramlee Rahmat, director of the Health Ministry Disease Control Division, “KL city centre and surrounding suburbs have been identified as Dengue hot spots. Penang is another.”
Official Ministry figures show there were 17,600 cases of Dengue Fever in KL and Selangor between January and December 9 of last year.
While internally the country thrives on a slogan of “Malaysia Boleh” (Malaysia can), when it comes to VMY 2007 perhaps the real slogan should be ‚ÄòMalaysia . . . why bother’.
After all, anything that can be found in Malaysia can also be found in neighbouring Indonesia, Thailand or the Philippines, and at up to one third of the price.
If Indonesia could even remotely get its tourism marketing act together it could easily gazump it closest neighbour in the tourism market.
The fact that it can’t is the basis of a whole separate story, but not a valid reason to ignore the 16,000 islands forming the Indonesia archipelago.
¬© John Le Fevre, 2007
Related: Foreigners caned most in Malaysia
Malaysia ‚Ä¢ Malaysia tourism ‚Ä¢ Malaysia’s taxi drivers ‚Ä¢ Malaysia nightlife ‚Ä¢ Malaysia crime ‚Ä¢ Malaysian society ‚Ä¢ Malaysian racism ‚Ä¢ Visit Malaysia year
He is currently deputy editor and Thailand / GMS region editor for The Establishment Post
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