Citizen Nades - Winds of change at Tourism Malaysia

ON TUESDAY, the whole world celebrated World Tourism Day, which the United Nations World Tourism Organisation has been observing since 1980.

Some European travel portals had sent out special packages for their subscribers, some of which were real bargains.

But on this auspicious day, something did not sound right in this part of the globe. The conflict between tourism dollars and basic requirements of the domestic populace is evident in several parts of the world including our backyard.

This added with personal greed, lack of integrity and abuse of power do not necessarily give the industry a good name.

Deputy Minister of Tourism and Culture Malaysia Datuk Mas Ermieyati Samsudin in a video message said World Tourism Day should be celebrated by Malaysians as part of our efforts to share the hospitality, warmth, beauty, diversity and uniqueness of our country.

"It is a reminder for us to take care of the needs of all tourists, irrespective of gender, age and physical ability. We, therefore, strive to provide universal accessibility to all, both international and domestic tourists," she said.

Despite such a clichéd declaration, not everything is hunky dory on the corridors of Tourism Malaysia.

The seasonal "pain attack" is in full bloom with some of its officers making the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Tourism Malaysia, as a single entity, has one of the largest allocations in the annual Budget. But things are not all looking good – both in the front and back rooms.

Last week, it got a new chairman – Datuk Siew Ka Wei and he has his work cut out for him. His predecessor went out unceremoniously albeit with a big bang.

Wee Choo Keong had allegedly lambasted Tourism Malaysia staff during the 4th China (Beijing) International Tourism Expo in May after seeing an AirAsia bunting put up alongside other promotional material at the Tourism Malaysia booth.

Siew hardly sat in his seat when investigators from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) came visiting – which to industry watchers, was not surprising.

Past experiences which have been chronicled in this newspaper showed lack or absence of integrity when it came to the spending of millions which is allocated for tourism promotion every year.

Yes, the old Malay proverb "Mana ada gula, disitu ada semut". Yes, where there's money, the brigade will congregate.

The congregation takes place not only in Malaysia but also in faraway lands away from the prying eyes of the public and where offshore bank accounts thrive for special purposes. I have seen them all.

Agency bosses, middlemen and cronies can be seen loitering at international fairs such as the World Tourism Market in London and the ITB in Berlin where the Malaysian presence is always seen.

Even producers of television commercials converge with their credit cards to "look after" their moneyed clients and also "help out" in the shopping.

During my sojourn in London, I bumped into many of them, not only at tourism visits but also when members of the Cabinet are on official visits.

Sometimes, agency bosses who just place the advertisements on behalf of Tourism Malaysia are "invited" to join the rombongan.

The purpose of their presence is questionable, but it is always good to have someone handy with the platinum credit card!

As it has been said before, corruption is difficult to nail if the giver and taker choose to remain silent – especially when both declare their partnership as a win-win agreement.

Many years ago, I had interviewed a media agency boss and asked him the need to buy a business class return air ticket for someone unrelated to the industry. He was the minister's personal fitness trainer.

As if acceptable, he told my colleague and me to our faces: "To get close to the minister, you have to get close to those who are close with her." I have used that infamous quote regularly in my speaking engagements.

I don't expect much to come out of the latest MACC raid unless they have discovered incriminating evidence. A conviction can only be secured if some of the agencies who "invested" in these officers come out and tell their side of the story.

If agencies were chosen on merit, then it would be the end of the story. However, on record, there is at least one person who has admitted that she won a contract because of her closeness to a senior official.

All that has to change. Siew, in a brief chat before being officially appointed, talked to me about the challenges ahead. Yes, he is the man for the change and he has a good lieutenant to lead the charge – the director-general, Datuk Mirza Mohammad Taiyab.  

A much-maligned man, twice wrongly accused of wrongdoing is on the last leg of his long and illustrious career with the tourism industry. Siew and Mirza must lead the charge to change the atmosphere and culture in the organisation. This in turn will empower its employees and spur productivity.

But they will have to stand up to political godfathers and patrons who have vested interests. I have reason to place my trust and belief in these two Datuks to do the right job with a no nonsense attitude.

Go through the past records; look at the winners of the bids; calculate how much was lost because they are not mere ringgit and sen; some media agencies have milked millions of taxpayers' money. Go get 'em and the people are solidly behind you.

R. Nadeswaran has been watching the developments in tourism with a keen eye. Comments: