WIKILEAKS: High-Tech toilets for tourism; rising Ringgit. Economic Update Dec 2006

In response, the GOM installed 23 high-tech, self cleaning toilets in major shopping areas and tourist sites in and around Kuala Lumpur. Each air-conditioned toilet, which reportedly costs RM 400,000 (USD 113,000), has an automatic seat cleaner that washes, scrubs and dries the bowl after every use, according to the city authorities. Users are charged RM1 (USD 0.28) per use. Deputy Prime Minister Najib, who tested one of these toilets during their debut, said clean toilets were a measure of a country’s level of civilization.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

1. (U) Summary:  The Government of Malaysia is ready to launch its drive to attract more tourists this year in honor of its 50th anniversary.  Initiatives include a multi-million dollar Ferris wheel, sorely needed lessons in customer service, and 23 self-sanitizing toilets at a cost of USD 113,000 each, in addition to a generous appropriation for an advertising campaign.  Meanwhile, the Ringgit continues to strengthen against the dollar, but less so than some other currencies in the region.  End Summary.

Launch of Visit Malaysia Tourist Campaign

2. (U) Malaysia will soon kick off a grand tourism campaign entitled “Visit Malaysia Year 2007” (VMY 2007) with the theme “One Golden Celebration.”  The campaign, in honor of Malaysia’s 50th year of independence from Britain, aims to draw in over 20 million tourists and generate spending of RM 44.5 billion (USD 12.7 billion).  In 2006 Malaysia drew 17.5 million tourists who spent an estimated RM38 billion (USD 10.8 billion), mostly coming from Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

3. (U) On January 6, Prime Minister Abdullah will launch the VMY 2007 campaign at the Titiwangsa lakeside park in Kuala Lumpur with a “Colors of Malaysia” celebration that will include a portable 60 meter high giant Ferris wheel named the “Eye on Malaysia.”  A Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board (MTPB) official told FSN Econ Analyst that the RM30 million (USD 8.5 million) Ferris wheel will face the Kuala Lumpur skyline.  Other activities will include a water screen display on Malaysia’s history, rides, and performances by local artists.  Several fireworks displays are also scheduled throughout the year.

4. (U) According to the MTPB official, the Ministry of Tourism is coordinating over 240 events for VMY 2007 nationwide, with 50 major events showcasing Malaysia’s  tourist attractions.  The MTPB has invited print and electronic media representatives to publicize the campaign and is working to link up local tour companies and airlines with international operators to highlight places to visit in Malaysia.  The GOM is developing tour packages tailored to specific travel interests such as shopping, exotic cultures, or nature vacations.  MTPB’s targeted markets are ASEAN, China, India, the Middle East and Europe, with special attention being given to countries where cold winters are more likely to entice travelers to visit warm exotic places.  The government-owned radio station is working with a private production house to air tourism programs.

Plans for VMY2007

5. (U) Malaysia has allocated RM 200 million (USD 56.7 million) for promotional activities to bring in the tourists.  Working with other countries in the ASEAN region, the MTPB has come up with new programs such as a “one destination, two nations” package that promotes both Malaysia’s and a neighboring country’s tourist sites through the national airlines of both countries.  The VMY 2007 organizers will also coordinate with the state governments to promote region-specific tourism.  On average, MTPB said tourists spend about RM 2,600 each but the tourism industry is hoping to entice tourists to increase their spending to RM 3,500 each with new packages and special deals.  The Tourism Ministry hopes to increase tourists’ spending in part by asking local tour operators to promote tourist destinations outside or in addition to the typical preferred destinations.

Cheap Hotels; Courtesy Courses; Taxi Crackdown

6. (U)  A representative of the Malaysia Hotel Owners Association told FSN Econ Analyst that few hotels acted on last year’s approval by the Ministry of Tourism to increase prices.  Competition is fierce due to Malaysia’s abundance of hotel rooms, which helps keep prices among the lowest in the region.

7. (U) The Ministry of Tourism has started to train some 20,000 service providers in the tourist industry, including taxi drivers, hotel and shopping mall staff, tour coach operators, and Customs and Immigration officials.  Programs include crash courses in Malaysian tourist attractions, customer service, and basic spoken English communication.

8. (U) The GOM also is taking stern action against unlicensed taxi service providers at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.  A draft amendment to the Road Transport Act would carry a fine of up to RM 50,000 (USD 14,000) and a sentence of up to five years in jail, or both, for providing non-licensed taxi services from the airport.  These providers normally offer cheaper fares but the GOM finds their solicitation of arriving passengers “aggressive” which, according to Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Tengu Adnan, “could reflect poorly on the country during VMY2007.”

High Tech Toilets

9. (U) Malaysia’s public toilets have become a hot issue for the GOM because of tourist complaints that they are often dirty with water everywhere and basic items such as soap and toilet paper missing. In response, the GOM installed 23 high-tech, self cleaning toilets in major shopping areas and tourist sites in and around Kuala Lumpur.  Each air-conditioned toilet, which reportedly costs RM 400,000 (USD 113,000), has an automatic seat cleaner that washes, scrubs and dries the bowl after every use, according to the city authorities.  Users are charged RM1 (USD 0.28) per use.  Deputy Prime Minister Najib, who tested one of these toilets during their debut, said clean toilets were a measure of a country’s level of civilization.

The Strengthening Ringgit

10. (U) On December 22, Malaysia’s ringgit appreciated to 3.5278 against the U.S. dollar, its highest level in nine years.  The currency had weakened to a two-week low against the dollar on December 18 following news of Thailand’s imposition of capital controls but bounced back when Thailand reversed its decision a day later.  Several senior Malaysian government officials and the central bank immediately announced Malaysia would not impose similar capital controls.  The ringgit subsequently fluctuated between 3.53 and 3.54  during the final week of 2006.

11. (U) Malaysian officials appeared to shrug off concerns that the strength of the ringgit against the dollar would hurt the nation’s trade-driven economy. The press reported that Second Finance Minister Nor Mohamed Yakcop said the government was not worried about the ringgit’s rise because the currency’s strength is mainly the result of the U.S. dollar’s weakness.  He said the ringgit was not that strong when viewed against other currencies and has not approached a level which could hurt exports, noting that other Asian currencies have appreciated more against the US dollar.  For 2006 the ringgit gained 7% against the dollar while the Thai baht appreciated 13% and the Indonesian Rupiah 8%.  (Comment:  Malaysia shifted the ringgit peg to a managed float system based on a basket of trade-weighted currencies in July 2005.  The Central Bank closely monitors fund flows in and out of the country and intervenes in the market in an effort to maintain the ringgit within in a range to ensure economic stability.)

12. (U) Bank Negara data indicated that from July 2005 to the end of September 2006, the ringgit had appreciated 3.1% against the US dollar and 7.9% against the Japanese yen, but during the same period had weakened by 7.6% against the Thai baht, by 7.3% against the Philippine peso, by 6% against the Korean won, by 3.3% against the Indonesian rupiah, by 2.8% against the Singapore dollar and by 1.4% against the Chinese renminbi.

13. (U) Analysts say the ringgit has more room to strengthen on expectations of further appreciation of other Asian currencies, particularly the renminbi.  The Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER), an economic think tank, estimate that the ringgit is still undervalued and expect it to reach 3.5 to the dollar by the end of the first quarter of 2007.  Commerce International Merchant Bank (CIMB) also revised upwards its forecast for the ringgit, raising its forecast from 3.55 to 3.45 by end of 2007.  A Dow Jones Newswires poll of 10 financial institutions put expectations at 3.535 to the dollar by the end of March and 3.455 by the end of 2007.

Inflation Eases

14. (U) Malaysia’s consumer price index (CPI) rose 3% year-on-year in November, the lowest rise in 15 months.  For January to November, the CPI increased 3.7% from a year ago.  For the full year, inflation is expected to reach 3.6%, below the Ministry of Finance official projection of 3.9%, and is expected to continue to ease. Although the government has not made a forecast for next year’s inflation, CIMB has projected inflation to retreat to 2.7% in 2007, provided there is no hike in fuel prices.


15. (SBU) The GOM’s lavish spending to attract tourists bears all the marks of typical government waste and economic micro-mismanagement.  The concept of letting the private sector do what the private sector does best has not quite caught on in Malaysia.  It is the government, not the private tour operators, putting together the packages and telling people where they ought to want to go.  The bright side is that the GOM seems aware of the need to improve customer service throughout the country; training in this area could prove a worthwhile investment.  The same cannot be said for an 8.5 million dollar Ferris wheel and two dozen hundred-thousand-dollar toilets.

SHEAR (January 2007)