Time to self-rationalise

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  • Wednesday, 05 Oct 2011

Route cuts and flight frequency reduction have tourism players up in arms but efforts to make Sarawak deserving of MAS and AirAsia’s attention are not there.

WE are now entering week-three of flight uncertainties between the state and other parts of Malaysia.

Three memorandums on the confusion arising from the airline route rationalisation exercise will today be submitted to MAS, the Federal and state governments.

The memorandums are by Sarawak Tourism Federation and backed by chambers of commerce across the state.

I need not reiterate what had already been said and reported. In a nutshell, the state has become the first to lose out in the MAS-AirAsia rationalisation. Insiders now say decision makers are promising a “win-win solution”, but that is yet to be seen.

To be fair, the national aviation and tourism industries might emerge stronger; but for now, there is a whole lot of confusion, and answers have not been forthcoming.

Nonetheless, just as it is easy to lay blame on others, more importantly, now is also the time to reflect on our own weaknesses.

First things first, it must be said that whenever Federal decision makers decide on cost saving exercises (like this rationalisation and other austerity drives) Sarawak is often the first to be affected.

An argument can be made that Sarawak and Sabah have perpetually been on “austerity drives”. I do not think this is a controversial point to make as it is so common to hear government and opposition politicians alike talk about how our infrastructure is “20 to 30 years behind peninsula’s”.

However, a counter argument can be made that fund allocation according to population is the fairest way to distribute money.

Taken from that perspective, because the respective populations of Sarawak and Sabah are so small, we have been unable to get more funds compared to densely populated areas like Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor.

In fact, about half of Malaysia’s population is concentrated in the western corridor of the peninsula. Therefore, every ringgit spent there benefits more people than the same amount spent in Terengganu, Sabah or Sarawak, even though these are the big three oil and gas producing states.

At the state Barisan Nasional Convention earlier this year, Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud told delegates as much. It was a closed-door session but clips of his speech have been posted on YouTube.

Midway through his hour-long speech, Taib admitted that Sarawak’s infrastructure was lacking.

But he also said the Federal way of funding according to population was a fair way of distributing money. This was part and parcel of nation building, he said, adding compromise was inevitable.

Whatever your political views are, you must concede that there is truth to that logic. Indeed, most of us are benefiting from that logic, since funds for urban development in Sarawak have always outweighed funds for rural development.

When the state government funds new roads, new parks and gardens, new colleges and universities in Sarawak, it is urban dwellers that benefit the most. So much more money has been spent on upgrading the lives of people in Kuching, Miri and Sibu rather than the lives of people in Baram, Kapit or even Lundu. The fact of the matter is that there is strength in numbers. So although Sarawak and Sabah accounts for 61% of Malaysia’s landmass, in terms of population, we are just roughly 20% of Malaysians.

Here, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying our small population is a “weakness”. My point is that population is an attributing factor when it comes to funding. And like I just said, urban Sarawakians are just as guilty of this considering the lower quality of life and lesser opportunities in rural areas.

The “weakness” I want to talk about is this tendency to too quickly lay blame on others. Take the route rationalisation as an example. Can you blame the airlines for axing routes to Sarawak first, when, truth be told, our state’s tourism is less matured than Sabah’s or Penang’s?

Yes, yes, I know many will not take too kindly to this view. I do agree that given more funding in prior decades — for projects from infrastructure to human resource development — we could have been so much better off. No arguments there.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that could have been done earlier in Sarawak that we have not embarked on.

Within the state tourism sector, there is not enough qualified tour guides. Many of our tour guides are operating without proper licences. Whose fault is that? Is it right to only blame the state government on that? Isn’t the private sector at fault too for not encouraging or engaging with authorities to have better tour guide training policies?

A nature resort proprietor over lunch last week was lamenting that while Sarawak Tourism Board was marketing the state as “Where Adventure Lives”, there wasn’t enough adventure products available for tourists who do come.

It is only too true that often times we ourselves are not getting our priorities right while so much of society’s energy is devoted to mindless back and forth on non-productive matters.

So when we complain about routes being cut, let us also reflect on what we can do to improve our own systems. We need our own rationalisation exercise.

The second 10-year state Tourism Masterplan expired last year, and where is the new one? There is no new state Tourism Masterplan yet, according to the private sector.

I mean seriously, how do we go and negotiate with the airlines when we don’t even have masterplans to present to them?

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