Closer ties would benefit both China and Malaysia
Published: Dec 18, 2018 06:57 PM

Visitors walk past a Bona Cinemas outlet in Malaysia's Resorts World Genting, the first overseas cineplex of China's largest film distributor Bona Film Group. Photo: Li Qiaoyi/GT

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

For two countries as linguistically and culturally interlinked as China and Malaysia, there should be closer tourism and commercial ties. This was the conclusion I reached after a recent trip to the capital city of the Southeast Asian nation.

More than four and a half years after the vanishing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, a journey between the two capital cities still creates a certain panic deep inside the hearts of some passengers.

The first and only question an American friend asked me about the trip was whether I was flying with Malaysia Airlines. She felt relieved after I said I was going with Air China.

More strikingly, my mom didn't even dare to mention the city, using "that place" as a substitute for Kuala Lumpur. It wasn't until I had got the red-eye flight back to Beijing that she finally voiced her fears about the missing plane with 154 Chinese passengers on board.

But the psychological consequences of the plane's disappearance are just part of the murky perceptions of Malaysia among many Chinese people who haven't been there before. A lack of marketing efforts and concern about political unfriendliness have also held back tourism from China to Malaysia.

During China's week-long National Day holidays in October, the number of tourists from the Chinese mainland traveling to Malaysia fell by 30-35 percent compared with the year before, the Strait Times reported, citing industry insiders.

As a first-time visitor to Malaysia, I did some research into its culture, language and social trends before setting off, and coincidentally found an article posted online a few years ago by a Chinese-Malaysian studying at Peking University. It offered an insight into the minds of about a quarter of the Malaysian population. The writer looked back at the efforts of previous generations of Chinese-Malaysians who fought for the right to go to Chinese-language schools. While Chinese-taught courses in Malaysia are well acknowledged in most parts of the world, they are still not recognized by Malaysian colleges.

Having studied and spoken Chinese since childhood, the writer thought he was closer to China. But after he came to Beijing, he soon found that he was different from Chinese people around him, not only due to his accent but also the way they viewed the world. To his frustration, his Chinese classmates were amazed by his fluent Chinese, without knowing what an endeavor it had been for his ancestors to continue the Chinese-speaking tradition in Malaysia. I had been unaware of that too before reading the article.

After my three-day stay in Kuala Lumpur, where I talked a lot with Chinese-Malaysians, I found myself agreeing with the article even more. Chinese travelers going to the country for the first time are still surprised by how good Chinese-Malaysians' Chinese is.

Concert posters for upcoming shows by Chinese mainland and Hong Kong singers could be seen on billboards around the streets of Kuala Lumpur. But Alipay and WeChat Pay, the two mobile payment apps that have become essential for Chinese consumers, are not yet among the primary payment options at Resorts World Genting, one of Malaysia's most popular tourist destinations.

Apparently, neither side has made enough efforts to understand each other, despite the fact that Malaysia might be the most suitable foreign destination for Chinese travelers in terms of language and cultural links.

Singapore seems to be perceived as the most Chinese-style foreign country, but after paying several visits to the city state, what I've discovered is that Singaporeans actually prefer to be considered an English-speaking nation.

It seems that Malaysia has increasingly lost out to other Southeast Asian nations, notably Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, in terms of efforts to attract Chinese travelers.

What reinforced my belief that greater efforts ought to be made to forge closer real-life ties between the people of China and Malaysia was my conversation with a young Indian-Malaysian lady.

We discussed the inequality between the ethnic Malay majority and the Chinese and Indian ethnic groups. For instance, one of the special rights of being a Bumiputra (Malay) is generously discounted housing. This has built a bond between Chinese-Malaysians and Indian-Malaysians, she said to me. She spoke Malay, the national language of Malaysia, as well as English, Hindi and Chinese, and she hopes for increased integration. She also asked me for travel tips for her planned visit to Chinese cities including Beijing. Her curiosity about China is about to send her out to explore what the Middle Kingdom really looks like.

Hopefully, there will be more such enthusiasm for tourism by the people of both countries, whatever ethnic group they belong to.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.