OF THE states of Sarawak and Sabah, it’s undeniable that the latter’s tourism industry is better established. Sabah’s Mount Kinabalu has been a global brand name for decades.
Sarawak Tourism Federation president Wee Hong Seng, whose third two-year term ends in August this year, feels the local tourism industry has itself to blame.
Wee: Founder of Fabriko, one of Sarawak’s earliest textile-printing companies, and president of Sarawak Tourism Federation.
During an interview with StarMetro, he spoke on why Sarawakians should learn from Singapore, how crime is affecting the state’s marketability, and why the much-sought-after Unesco Heritage Site status could take up to ten years.
Q: Before we get to the work of your business and the Sarawak Tourism Federation, can you begin by telling us about your childhood?
A: I come from a normal-sized family. I have two elder brothers and two younger sisters.
I started my primary school education at Chung Hua No. 2, just off Main Bazaar here. I then graduated to St Joseph Secondary School but stopped before Form Five. I suffered from serious migraine. I had more holidays than anyone else. [Laugh].
Much of my childhood memories revolve around Main Bazaar and India Street, where my grandfather ran a textile business. From an early age, I realised that cloth isn’t just cloth. Every piece of fabric has a story to tell and plays a vital role in our daily lives.
Q: Were you involved in the family business?
A: My grandfather started Chop Chin Nam in 1940. By my late teens, I went to Singapore where my grandfather had set up another shop, where I was given the chance to dabble at the business. But within a year, I left for Europe.
In my teens, I always liked creative arts. At one point, I thought I wanted to be an arts teacher.
Q: How was it like to be part of your grandfather’s business at such a young age?
A: I quite enjoyed it. I was given a free hand, but at the same time, I wanted to do more than just book-keeping, ordering, writing receipts etc. But I did enjoy the responsibility.
Q: Was the company printing textiles?
A: No. We were only trading and wholesaling. During the 1970s and 1980s, business was great. Singapore picked up all the fashion trends of Asia that time. We had the privilege of selecting some of the best fabrics. All the salesmen were at the mercy of the traders. They had good public relations, and I picked up a lot of communication skills.
Q: When did you start Fabriko, which remains as one of Sarawak’s few textile producers?
A: In 1989, I branched out on my own. Earlier, my brother had returned from England after our father’s passing. He agreed to continue the family business and I wanted to indulge in my creativity.
Q: Was it challenging at the beginning?
A: Not really, I had acquired valuable communication and marketing skills in Singapore. I put up ads in local newspapers, and on my first big sale, I saw people lining up in front of my shop before opening time. I was very pleased. I took a lot of pride in that.
Q: So what is Fabriko’s core business?
A: I would say it is our textiles that are designed in-house. It’s still the favourite part of my job. I design at least 10 new pieces a year. I love pua kumbu but unfortunately those in the peninsula started calling it Sarawakbatik and the name seems to have stuck. In any case, any kind of attention given to Sarawak’s cultures is good.
Q: Moving on to your travel experiences, what is your favourite place to visit?
A: Simple answer, Singapore, and simple reason, security. Singapore is an amazing brand name nowadays, isn’t it?
Q: As the president of Sarawak Tourism Federation, are you proud of our Sarawak brand?
A: Yes and no. We have a lot of products. I don’t like it when people say we are short of tourism products. This is just a convenient excuse. When you talk about tropical eco-tourism, Sarawakians are surrounded by potential. Even our backyard can be a product. I think our people have not fully explored our potential.
I won’t deny that some products have been extremely successful, like the Rainforest World Music Festival. But where do we move to from our prior successes? Where is the direction? We’ve got to think bigger, to link one good product to others. For example, why not have a month-long music and craft festival?
There must be a clearer direction. By the way, don’t forget that Sarawak is bidding for tourists in the new information technology age. We are bidding together with the world. And let’s not just have tourists who come here only because Sarawak is cheap.
Q: Do you feel Sarawak’s tourism industry is IT-savvy enough?
A: We’re getting there I suppose. Yes, we are selling Sarawak online, but is there enough information on how to get to Sarawak, for example? How much does it cost for people to come to Sarawak? How easy is it to get the information? Do our websites make a convincing and persuasive case?
Q: Besides this, as the head of a federation that represents the private sector, has the sector been progressive enough in your opinion?
A: Let’s look at the legal aspect of tour guides. In Sabah, there are more than 1,100 legal tour guides. In Sarawak, there are only just over 140. Yet, if you look at tourist arrivals, there seems to be more coming here. What does this tell you? It means there are a lot of unlicensed, ordinary guides employed here. As a tourist, which kind of guide do you think will give you better information, better service?
Q: I remember a few years ago, when the licence was introduced, there was much unhappiness in the private sector. There were complaints of the state overburdening the private sector. Was that a fair criticism?
A: We should support such state initiatives. How can licensed guides be a bad thing? Improvements must come at all levels. But anyway, we did renegotiate and some fees were reduced.
For most travel agencies, there are financial reserves for upgrading human capita, so just use the money. Of course, some bosses tell me that once their employees are certified, they leave. But what can you do about that? If you treated your staff well, do you think they will leave the company? I do not think so.
Q: You mentioned that it’s bad for Sarawak’s tourism industry when tourists come here only because it is cheap. Do you think this has something to do with the industry’s resistance to funding training courses for its staff?
A: Yes that’s true. But on the other hand, there is an acute lack of innovation and creativity within tourism in Sarawak. The Internet is an amazing marketing tool. So, it boils down to how the tools are used. Also, don’t offer the same products as everyone else. When the product is not unique, it creates a price war. Then you have to get illegal guides to make up for the cost.
Q: What are the other big issues affecting Sarawak’s tourism?
A: Crime. [Laugh] So many of my members complain, but, excuse me, I’m not the IGP. [Laugh] Anyway, the federation has met up with the police to discuss our unhappiness.
We’ve also mentioned to the Government that it must introduce the Second Hand Dealers Act soon to regulate the scrap-metal industry. Do you think it gives tourists confidence in our state when they see missing road signs and manhole covers? The most important kind of tourists are those who return, and we are not attracting enough of them.
Q: How about the lack of air connectivity?
A: We’ve got to improve air connectivity very fast. No doubt we’ve lost many, ie Kuching-Bali, Kuching-Jakarta, Miri-Singapore, Kuching-Macau. As far as I’m concerned, we are over-reliant on one or two airlines. We are seeing our air connectivity disappear for the worst reasons. The state is simply not harvesting its raw potential.
At the basic level, let’s make sure all new routes come with tour packages. This will improve air loads both ways. Airlines are commercial entities. Can you blame them for not flying here if there isn’t any money to be made?
Q: What about our long-established products like the resorts at Santubong, about 30km from Kuching city? I was at one of the four resorts there last week and I was told there were only four rooms that were occupied.
A: Developments at the beach are a good move. The cultural village is good too. It is part of our tourism package. But what we need is better promotion. Tie up with private hospitals, offer patient family packages, especially to those who come here only for annual check-ups.
Or tie up with the universities. There are many foreign students whose families visit all year round.
Q: Over the years in the Sarawak Tourism and Heritage Ministry, there have been many changes in top personnel. Can you comment?
A: Yes this has been happening and I’ve ended up as the longest-serving person in the industry. [Laugh] Anyway, the new minister is Sarawak’s Deputy Chief Minister (Tan Sri Dr George Chan). That’s about as senior a minister as you can get for tourism. I hope, as the Deputy Chief Minister, whatever issues the tourism sector raises, he’ll be able to co-ordinate with other government departments.
Q: But what about the issues that the ministry has to resolve? It seems like your comments point to long-unresolved issues.
A: One sentence: Same song, same lyric, same singer; different audience. [Laugh] The issues remain, but I suppose it’s getting better now.
Q: Lastly, can you comment on the state’s bid to make Kuching a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco)-recognised heritage site?
A: Firstly, we should market Sarawak as a heritage city from now on. Let’s not wait until the official granting of the status, if it does come eventually.
Unesco or no Unesco status, we are already a heritage city. But the application process will take a long time. It’s a good idea that it has been made public, but it’s premature to keep harping on it. The fact is that we do not have enough professionals in the industry to assists us.
It took Penang and Malacca an entire decade, from the time the idea was mooted until both were granted the status.
Q: At best, how soon can Sarawak be granted the status?
A: I think we would have done a very good job if we got it within eight years. We need a lot of professional advice and a lot of researchers to do reports. It’s going to cost a large amount of money.
We need a full-time committee to look into it. It’s going to be a full-time job. Are we ready? I’m not sure. But will it be worth it? Yes, definitely.