For the people in charge of promoting tourism in Malaysia, events over the weekend added even more misery to an already terrible March. The tourism ministry was a promoter of the Future Music Festival Asia, a three-day series of concerts in Kuala Lumpur. But after six people died in what local media reported were drug-related incidents, organizers pulled the plug. “The health and safety of our patrons is of upmost importance to us and we are extremely devastated that circumstances such as these occurred despite the significant planning and resources in place,” Future Music Festival Asia said on its website. “The organizers are overwhelmed with sadness at this time.”
The music festival tragedy, coming in the midst of worldwide attention to Malaysia’s aviation- and transportation-safety record, is the latest blow to the country’s tourism industry. Malaysians had great hopes for 2014. To be sure, the country lacks the obvious appeal of neighboring Thailand, with its famed beaches, but with Thailand in turmoil as anti-government protesters disrupted life in the capital, Malaysia was well-positioned as a safe, stable Southeast Asian alternative.
To encourage potential visitors to give the country a try, the Malaysian tourism authority decided to increase its efforts by designating 2014 “Visit Malaysia Year,” complete with hundreds of events and festivals as well as an official mascot, the Proboscis Monkey. This is only the fourth time the country has had an official Visit Malaysia Year program, and it’s the first since 2007. Visit Malaysia Year launched in 1990. “Who could ever forget the song ‘To know Malaysia is to love Malaysia‘ during VMY 1990?” the official website asks. With the latest campaign underway, “this is the perfect time to see, feel and experience Malaysia!” the official website announces.
Now the government’s controversial handling of the search for Malaysian Airline Flight 370 is threatening to sour feelings about Malaysia among many would-be visitors. The website for the official Visit Malaysia Year 2014 opens with a photo of a MAS jet mid-flight with the hashtag #prayformh370 and a link to a transcript of a press briefing by Hishammuddin Hussein, defense minister and acting transport minister, whose performance responding to queries from reporters has not inspired confidence. As my Bloomberg colleague William Pesek pointed out last week, “The lamentable manner in which he has fielded questions about the search underscores how unaccustomed Malaysia’s leaders are to being questioned by anyone.”
China, with 153 of its nationals on the missing plane, has been particularly outspoken, with the government-controlled Global Times newspaper criticizing the airline and government on March 10. More than a week later, official Chinese media are still indicating displeasure. The official China Daily newspaper today reported that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke over the phone with his Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak, and called on Malaysia to provide information that was, in China Daily‘s words, “timely, accurate and comprehensive.” According to the newspaper, the Chinese leader lectured the Malaysian prime minister on the need to revise its search effort. “It’s Malaysia’s responsibility to fulfill the promise to take care of the affairs regarding relatives of the missing passengers,” said Li.
Amid widespread criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, one Malaysian business leader is trying to rally support for change. Tony Fernandes is the chief executive of AirAsia (AIRA:MK), the Kuala Lumpur-based airline that is the most successful discount carrier in Southeast Asia. He’s also a member of the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board. With people around the world suddenly focusing on Malaysia and its history of promoting the interests of ethnic Malays over those of minority Chinese and Indians, Fernandes has taken to his Twitter (TWTR) feed to express dissatisfaction with the status quo in the country:
“Hopefully at these difficult times in Malaysia people will realize that all Malaysians are the same. We must unite as a country,” he tweeted on Sunday. “Who cares about race Creed colour sex. It’s time we look forward together as Malaysians. Not Malays, Chinese Indians and others.”
“Malaysians must learn to be open and transparent. Be able to take comments and criticism,” he added. “Be a country that celebrates excellence has accountability and allows open debate.”