IN THIS column some years ago, I made an observation: If you dug a hole in front of your house and threw in some guppies, you could get a VIP to officially launch it and it would be declared a "tourist attraction". What I did not add was that you could even get million-ringgit grants from the government. From watch exhibitions to sports events, the phrase "tourist attraction" has been used to squeeze the arms of our tourism "czars" for money.
It was not surprising that a retired police officer with "strong connections" walked into Tourism Malaysia’s office demanding RM10 million so that he could open a booth at last year’s Beijing Olympics. When he was politely shown the door, one of the bosses remarked: "Even my father does not like you."
If you thought that the nonsense of "investing" in sports activities ended with the Champions Youth Cup (CYC) where a "bidding" fee of RM17 million was paid to the promoter which led to the National Sports Council almost breaking the bank, the queues are getting longer at the Tourism Ministry. The key weapons in the new operators’ armoury are "project paper" and "surat sokong". Armed with these, all and sundry have joined the bandwagon – spin doctors, journalists and even sports officials – to become sports impresarios. For a good measure, the traditional name-dropping game is used.
Last month, we had the Malaysian Open ATP tournament and no one knows how much the Tourism Ministry doled out. Yet we talk about Key Performance Index and Return on Investment. Of course, the reasoning that is often given is that "the tournament will put Malaysia on the world map." Really? Does anyone measure the returns on million-ringgit investments? Except for the VIPs who get the syiok sendiri feeling of rubbing shoulders with the stars, there’s nothing to show.
If you are talking about attracting tourists, then the promotions for the event must have started a year ago. But no, we can "create" instant tourists. And after the never-heard of CYC tournament which came to our shores three years ago and in which we lost more than RM25 million, another circus is coming to town.
It’s called the Showdown of Champions – Asia versus Russia Grand Slam 2009. Ever heard of it? No one had heard of it previously. I Googled this tournament and as of noon yesterday, there were just two entries – both from the website of the Lawn Tennis Association of Malaysia (LTAM). There were no such tournaments previously and someone coined the name of the tournament and for good measure appointed a failed but good-looking tennis star as "ambassador". Does she have to present credentials to anyone? Probably not, since she has not won a major singles title. Judging by the posting on the website, even the LTAM does not deem it important enough to deserve better play. The posting dated Sunday reads: Tennis fans will be in for a treat as the Tourism Minister is scheduled to launch the Showdown of Champions 2009 at the Pavillion Shopping Center in Bukit Bintang at 10am tomorrow. Also, a Russian female star will grace the event and meet our junior players at the National Tennis Center in the evening.
Four women will travel to Kuala Lumpur with an entourage of coaches, tukang urut and the lot (on first-class of course) and we the taxpayers are supposed to pay for their holiday. And we are told that some tukang urut have also jumped on the bandwagon.
Government departments and agencies are not sports promoters. And for one moment, do not use the phrase "it will help promote tennis among the youth". We have had an overdose of such clichés.
Are we giving promoters the impression that Malaysians are a gullible lot? Like trying to export snow to the Eskimos, many are looking East for vulnerable people who are willing to part with their money so as to enrich themselves with all kinds of events. And we seem to be suckers for punishment. No one will have any qualms if promoters take their money out of their own pockets and take business risks. But when taxpayers are asked to guarantee that such events are not financial disasters, then it takes a different dimension. If previously, government-linked-companies were directed to do "national service" by underwriting costs, they have now turned to the government coffers, in this case, taxpayers’ money.
At a time when the Tourism Ministry can’t even put its house in order with the million-ringgit losses in "investments" by its wholly-owned companies under the Pempena umbrella, why is it getting involved in areas which are alien to it?
The Tourism Malaysia and the Tourism Ministry must come clean on the sports events that they are funding. Taxpayers are entitled to know how much is being spent on and what kind of returns can be expected. The reply can be envisaged: "Malaysia will be mentioned four thousand nine hundred and two times during the telecast and we see this as valuable returns" but are we as gullible as they are?
Heads of government departments and agencies are custodians of people’s money. They have to be prudent and the principle of "value for money" must always be in their minds when spending it. While some will be labelled as "kedekut" and refuse to part with taxpayers’ money without examining its implications, there are many who are willing to spend RM42,000 for a laptop. And the people at Tourism Malaysia have seen similar transactions in the past; the time has come for them to be accountable for their actions.
Now that the dozens of "aides" of the minister have found themselves in different locations and no longer poke their heads into finance and administration, it is time for Tourism Malaysia to stand up and say: "We’ll not be a party to your money-making schemes."