LAST week, I received a call from an old friend in England. He’s thinking of going for a faraway vacation with his family and there are a few countries on his list of potential destinations. Therefore, no flights and hotel rooms have been booked yet. This friend keeps himself up-to-date on the news around the world – more so now that he’s planning to go on a vacation – and upon learning that I had been appointed as the Chairman of Tourism Malaysia, he made that call to me while considering adding ‘Malaysia’ into his list.
After all the pleasantries, he asked me this: “Is it safe for us to be in Malaysia?”
I was stumped. My brows furrowed. Despite my decades in the legal profession, where arguing and quick retorts are a big part of business, it took me a couple of seconds – and that’s a long time! – before I managed to muster a dignified reply to him on behalf of this beloved country.
Now, to the average Malaysian the first reaction would be something like: “Of cooouurse! No problem at all lahh! Don’t worry…. come come! I can show you around…” while feeling good at doing a service to the country and immediately thinking of places of interest that family of tourists can be taken to… or at least suggest them to go themselves.
Me, I gave him a similar answer as a friend and in my capacity as an official of Malaysia’s tourism authority while at the same time feeling very concerned at the reasons for his asking such a question to me. He didn’t have to explain it to me… I know why – it’s all those very unpleasant things, to put it mildly, that we have been publicising to the world about ourselves. I don’t have to mention it in detail; you know what they are since you can read about them in the media every other day.
Now, I’m not wishing that we remain taciturn about the not-so-nice things that happen in our country and only publish the ‘nice’ stories all the time, everywhere. That would make us no better than, say, North Korea! We’d be kidding ourselves! But we can certainly strike a good balance of them, can’t we?
You see, if you tell a friend that you had caught a big, venomous snake yourself inside your house and no one was injured in the incident, your friend would express his relief and congratulate you for your heroic act. You could invite him over for tea and show to him in which room you had discovered the slithery thing and how you heroically captured it, and he’d gladly take up the offer… no questions asked.
But if you contact your friend every week to tell him about a different snake being captured in your house each time, he’d definitely not want to drop by your house, ever! While you sit at home and pride yourself in being a good snakecatcher, you might never find out why that friend never drops by your house, despite your repeated invitations.
That’s what I observe has been happening to Malaysia. We may thump our chests for arresting suspected hardcore criminals, terrorists, pirates and religious extremists, and even successful convictions and sentencing of them – and congratulate ourselves for those while getting a lot more praises from our neighbours and faraway countries.
But if we keep on publicising such stories, thanks in part to such crooks keep appearing in different guises, we may inadvertently and singlehandedly kill our tourism industry, which is among the country’s top income earner.
Worse, we keep on giving space in the mass media to the bigots, racists and fanatics who constantly scream and shout about silly, trivial and hurtful things. Sure, the mass media always give the “The people have the right to know” excuse to justify its actions, but don’t the people also need to know about the more positive and pleasant things that happen in this country?
Yes, compared to the latest developments on flora and fauna stewardship, multi-cultural togetherness or anything that would make tourists confident enough or attracted to Visit Malaysia, stories that have elements of guns, gore and/or gruesomely-bent fanaticism always make juicy reads.
The mass media, complemented by the many blogsites and social media pages out there love to splash such stories, almost always with detailed photos, graphic renderings and further follow-up reports, as any seasoned Editor would do.
To me, and I’m sure many of us, reading, watching and/or listening to such stories get depressing after a while, not to mention damaging our chances of getting healthy tourist arrivals and foreign investment. While we are all anti-extremists, our fixation with publishing all those horrible stories is also a form of extremist behaviour!
As if things can’t get any worse, we now have a very weak Ringgit Malaysia. But remember the ‘When Life Gives You Lemons…’ proverb? This is the time where we should be working extra hard to get as many tourists we can to come to Malaysia and spend as much as possible, as long as possible.
And one of the many ways of doing it is by portraying to the world that “Hey, we are no different than many other countries, with our problems and shortcomings… as well as successes, nice things and awesome traits. We are working hard to control the former and improve the latter. Please drop by and have a smashing time!”
Isn’t there a way where we can create a ratio-of-sorts whereby those ‘not-so-nice’ stories can be kept at a minimum and in less graphic detail while the positive, feel-good stories get more prominence and frequency? Sure, newspaper publishers and television and radio networks need to sell their newspapers, get as many viewers and listeners as possible, achieve superb ratings while keeping those advertisements coming to stay afloat and maybe make a profit once in a while.
But what about the country itself where those publishers and networks (as well as thousands of their employees) live in? Doesn’t it matter at all? If the country’s economy suffers so badly, those companies themselves will face the gory and gruesome prospects of redundancies, retrenchments and even shutdowns!
I say enough is enough. Yes, we can’t tolerate any form of extremism in this country, but we must also keep it away from the limelight while we swiftly deal with them. In the meantime, we educate our people and show to the world about the wonderful things we have to offer.
Tourism Malaysia is doing this via its newly-launched ‘Dekat Je’ campaign. Although it is to encourage Malaysians to travel domestically, it can also affect the influx of tourists into Malaysia. Still, we need the cooperation of all sectors to for that.
I hope that my friend and his family, plus millions of other non-Malaysians out there will be able to read or hear about so many pleasant things about Malaysia regularly, and decide to come for a holiday here… again and again.