Sabah has a shuttler in its corner

New ambassador: Lee (right) receiving an appreciation gift, which includes the native headgear called siga, from Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Jafry Ariffin after being appointed Sabah’s Tourism ambassador. ­— The Star

“KOD 12 kad dia tu [Does his IC number have the 12 code to denote that he was born in Sabah]?” Wil-helm Avila asked on Facebook.

“Why is he a better [tourism] ambassador than any talented Sabahan/Sabah-born?” wrote Angie Chin-Tan.

“My only question is, why him?” asked Nancie Kay.

These were critical responses to my posting on Facebook requesting for questions to ask world champion badminton player Datuk Lee Chong Wei about his appointment as a Sabah tourism ambassador.

Lee’s one-year appointment starting in 2022 had meletup (exploded) in Sabah. Sabahans were torn between wanting a local person to be their tourism ambassador and having a former world number one shuttler to promote the Land Below the Wind to the world.

There were heated debates in my Sabah WhatsApp chat groups. Some of the arguments quickly turned political. Then again, almost anything – even a carbon sales deal – can become political in my state.

On Thursday night, Sabah Way Forward, together with radio stations Kupikupifm 96.3 and Cityplus 106 organised the online “Introducing Sabah’s tourism ambassador” event.

Sabah Way Forward is a civil society-organised campaign to start a conversation on how Sabahans can tap into their resources and talent to ensure basic infrastructure is a given. The movement invited Lee and Sabah Tourism Board chief executive officer Noredah Othman to take part in the online session, which I moderated.

OOGAX (formerly Cense Media) co-founder Fui K. Soong said her radio stations supported the event because interest in Borneo is on the rise.

“Borneo is the ‘lost world’ of Asean. Everything Pan-Borneo is gaining momentum now. It is the Sulu-Sulawesi economic corridor,” she said.

“Not many people have even heard of BIMP-EGA [Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area]. It is the next growth region of Asean. It is time to put Borneo on the map.”

In the one-hour conversation, the Penang-born Lee said: “I hope the people of Sabah will stop getting angry at me because I am also a Malaysian and Sabah is part of Malaysia. Everyone has the same position as me to promote Sabah.”

His humble approach to answering the thorny question about whether he’s the right choice to promote a state that he was not born in might have won over some of his critics.

Lee also promised to be terbaik (the best) in his effort to promote Sabah.

Noredah defended the Sabah Tourism Board’s decision. She said the board had also appointed Sabahans, such as professional golfer Ben Leong as its golfing ambassador and artiste Gary Chaw as its tourism ambassador.

“But we got everyone interested [with Lee’s appointment], and we’re happy people have taken note. Sabahans are always passionate about the state.

“We hope our collaboration with Lee will bring about a positive result for us in Sabah, for our tourism industry and Malaysia in general,” she said.

As a Sabahan, I understand why some of my fellow state citizens are dead set against Lee. I do believe that we should use local talent to showcase the state.

But we also need to think beyond Sabahans for Sabah. For example, David Beckham is the face of the Qatar World Cup in a deal worth US$277mil (RM1.16bil).

The former England football captain is the Middle Eastern country’s global ambassador for the next decade.

Lee has a rock star’s pull. Several Sabahans called me up to ask me if I could connect them to him. They want him to be part of events they are organising.

Anuar Ghani, the managing director of North Borneo Explorer, which organises the world-famous TransBorneo 4WD event, believes that Lee’s appointment will be good for Sabah as he is internationally known.

“That’s what Sabah needs. Most of his detractors have been people not from the event and tour industry who don’t understand his value as a marketing product. Chong Wei’s honesty and sincerity shine through when he presents himself,” said Anuar.

“We in TransBorneo are ready, willing and able to share our experience and knowledge of Sabah with him and invite him to join us in the TransBorneo Land Below The Wind event.”

TYK Adventure Tours founder Tham Yau Kong pleaded with Sabahans to give Penangnite Lee a chance.

“I would like to invite Datuk Lee to my Padas Farm, and he can try our asam boi [preserved plum], and we can ask him to promote Sabah to the China market so that locals can benefit,” he said.

During the online conversation, I challenged Lee to try butod (sago worms, a delicacy in Sabah). The badminton star countered by saying he would only eat butod if I ate them first.

“Since you challenged me to climb Mount Kinabalu, I challenge you to eat butod,” he said.

Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Sabahan, I can’t imagine eating sago worms. But for the sake of tourism in my state, I shall accept the challenge.

Lee also promised to try local delicacies such as bosou (fermented fish), bambangan (wild mango) and tuhau (wild ginger).

Now the big challenge for the badminton star is making Sabah meletup as a tourism destination globally.

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