A few months ago, an opinion piece was published on Singaporean digital news portal RICE Media. It was titled "Hawker culture belongs to Singapore because we have more money" and drew the ire of Malaysians on Twitterjaya.
The gist of the article, written by tech entreprenuer Jeremy M. Foo, is that while Singapore's hawker food may be inferior to Malaysia - it doesn't matter - because Singapore has managed to market themselves better than us.
There were two main Malaysian reactions to this piece.
The first was anger as some were put off by the tone of the article that came off a little obnoxious, as the writer relishes how his country has managed to appropriate culture from right under our noses with money.
The other reaction, which was the one I had at first when I read it, was dismissal.
Yeah, keep talking Singapore - I know that you know my food and culture is better. End of discussion. We win. Malaysia Boleh. Jalur Gemilang.
I've had some time to mull over Foo's thought process in the piece and weighed it against the trend of tourism and the general image my foreign friends have of Malaysia and Singapore - and I have come to this conclusion - he was right.
Now before you dismiss me out of hand as a Singaporean sympathiser, hear me out!
I'm on our side. I want our country to get the international recognition for the vibrant culture that we have. But to do that, we need to stop hiding behind cultural superiority and realise that just because we know we have better things for tourists in Malaysia, it doesn't necessarily mean the tourists know that.
Most foreigners I meet say the same thing when I tell them I'm from Malaysia: "Ah, I haven't been there. But I did go to Singapore." I think most Malaysians can testify to similar interactions like this.
And I think most of us would have issued the same response to these foreigners.
"Singapore?! Ugh. Malaysia is so much better." End of discussion. We win. Tanggal 31. Standing in the eyes of the world. Buruh, nelayan dan juga petani.
That overt sense of pride is nice when we are around fellow Malaysians, but to the outside world, they don't really understand what we're talking about.
Because while we were sitting content with our better tasting rojak and laksa, Singapore was busy marketing itself to the world and making sure its country image was the one people were seeing.
In 2017, a little less than 26 million tourists visited Malaysia. Singapore had 17.4 million tourists. Now you might take that as a sign that we are still winning. But also note that that country is smaller than the size of Perlis and still managed to pull in just nine million visitors short of us.
We aren't winning. We are slowly losing our cultural image autonomy on the international stage. And we've been too proud to see it.
How did Singapore manage to pull a fast one on us? It's marketing. Pure and simple.
The Singapore Tourism Board, in a 2016 whitepaper, laid out its promotional strategy. Tell interesting Singapore stories, use the right imagery and make sure the right people see it. Then it made sure that the country had the infrastructure and customer service that can handle the world.
According to the Singapore Tourism Development Fund, the country will spend up to SGD700mil from 2016 to 2021 to develop and promote its tourism industry.
That money is clearly being put to good use. Singapore is making a push for Unesco to recognise its street hawkers. Movies like Crazy Rich Asians that appropriates Malaysian buildings and celebrities as Singaporean has made waves in Hollywood, and the country has the fifth highest tourist spending rate in the world outstripping even New York, Seoul and Paris.
You know how much Malaysia has spent in marketing our tourism hotspots to the world? Well, according to an interview with Tourism Malaysia deputy director-general (promotion) Datuk Seri Abdul Khani Daud, we didn't allocate anything for 2019.
Is it a wonder why foreigners know more about Singapore, despite us having the superior culture?
We can be angry about Singapore stealing this or that. Or misrepresenting this or that. But at the end of the day, they played the marketing game and they won. We need to get over ourselves and stop expecting tourists to come to us - just because.
So let's recap. We have a neighbour who shares similar culture to us but has done a better job at marketing themselves and establishing their name over us to the rest of the world. They have been doing it for some time and because of that, the world only sees them and not the vast, rich and frankly authentic history and culture that we have to offer.
What are we going to do about it Malaysia?
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