To celebrate 50 years of independence the Malaysian Government is spending RM149 million ( about US$12 million) on its 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 its political masters and the prospects of a 14 per cent increase on 2006 arrivals (the goal) looks very difficult.
In addition, a recent international survey found that Malaysians 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 Reader’s Digest survey, even its Prime Minister, Dato Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, accepts that the country’s taxi drivers are far from charming.
Horrible taxi drivers
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 taxis on the Malaysia peninsula, and increasing complaints from tourists and locals alike, the country’s Tourism Ministry was forced to take its own steps to stop the grossly inflated RM500 ($144) (the real cost is around RM60) airport to city taxi rides.
Tourist taxi’s launched to combat “a maggot infested wound”
Even the chairman of the commercial vehicle licensing board, 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, Adnan Tengku Manso, “be slightly more expensive than regular cabs.”
This in itself is interesting. Malaysia’s taxi drivers claim the reason they are not inclined to use their meters and charge surcharges of between 200 and 500 per cent after midnight (the official surcharge is 50 per cent) is because the Government won’t approve higher cab fares.
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, Mr 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 taxis” 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.
Special events & 194 festivals
In addition to the regular 194 festivals and cultural events on the Malaysian tourism calendar, Mr 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.
Police want nightlife shut down at 1am
However the Ministry quickly backed away from its proposal in the face of opposition from the country’s powerful Internal Security Ministry (ISM) 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, 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”.
|Launch of Visit Malaysia Year 2007 and Eye on Malaysia Karsin Ng|
To curb sky-rocketing crime throughout the country inspector-general 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 per cent in 2006 over 2005.
Exactly how shutting down the nations entertainment industry at 1 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 ISM, Mr 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 backflip by Mr 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 Malays, who are all considered Muslims, and who make up a little over half of the country’s 26 million population, more than 72 per cent 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.
A glimpse of the deeply held racism that exists in Malaysia a recent survey found 87.5 per cent of respondents either “hated” or “disliked” America, while 57 per cent said the same about Europe and 55 per cent about Australia.
Not the land of moderate Islam
At the same time 57 per cent of respondents felt Sharia (Islamic law) was not strict enough in Malaysia and 77 per cent said they wanted a stricter application of it in the country.
Sharia provides for amputating the right hand of thieves, stoning adulterers to death, and whipping for drinking alcohol, adultery or a host of other crimes. While harsh, the evidence bar is also high, requiring multiple direct witnesses of an event.
In May 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”.
“There is the misconception that this is the land of moderate Islam”, says Kuala Lumpur based Islamic scholar, Aloystus Mowe.
Tourists and foreigners are not safe from this form of extremism either.
Retirees terrorised by morals police
An American retiree couple in their 60’s living in Langkowie had their condominium raided at 2am by State Religious Department (SRD) 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 to 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 RM10,000 ($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 attended the performance, “the group 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 from the 10,000-strong National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students for the concert to be cancelled.
Performer’s “obscene” video clips
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 rising Islamic conservatism is also reflected in the country’s national police force, which has a stated five-year plan to inculcate Islam Hadhari (a theory of government based on the principles of Islam) in the force.
While inspector-general Omar claims, “this does not mean the police force is becoming more Islamic”, there are, none-the-less, very few members of Indian or Chinese descent amongst its ranks.
Nightclubs constantly raided
The claims made by Mr Omar don’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 leading international 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 people 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, with tests were still being conducted on people at 7.00 am in the morning.
The most boring location in Asia
The result has been most KL clubs changing the style of music they play to attract the more sedate and less “druggy” 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. High duties and tariffs imposed in recent years are decimating the hospitality and entertainment industries.
“Alcohol is far too expensive in Malaysia. A glass of beer can cost anywhere between RM7 and RM30 ($2 and $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”.
Dengue on the rise
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 per cent increase in the debilitating disease dengue in the nation’s 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.
According to Dr Rahmat, director of the Health Ministry Disease Control Division, KL city centre and surrounding suburbs have been identified as “dengue hot spots”, adding that “Penang is another”.
Government figures show there were 17,600 cases of dengue 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; “Malaysia . . . 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.
Feature video iscmalaysia
He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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