Sarawak – the inside story

Interview: Philip Yong – President, Sarawak Tourism Federation, and Co-founder and Managing Director, Borneo Adventure (tour operator).

Co-founder and Managing Director of Borneo Adventure since 1987, Philip Yong has pioneered tourism products in Sarawak and Sabah that build on traditional culture, bringing benefits to local people, and conserving the natural environment.

Educated at St. Thomas School in Sarawak and the University of Toronto Canada, Philip Yong has a wide knowledge of the Malaysia Tourism industry and his deep passion for Sarawak’s natural and cultural assets. He is acknowledged as a leader of the Malaysian and Sarawak private sector tourism industry, with a strong public conscience.

How did you get into tourism in the first place?

That’s a long story… but the short version is that I had to, because I didn’t think anyone would give me a job. More seriously, I had been living overseas for a long time and I wanted to come back home to Sarawak, so this seemed like a good idea. I ultimately wanted to earn the right to speak about things that had meaning to me, avoiding the trap that I see a lot of people falling into – sensationalising issues. I did not want to become just an armchair critic. I wanted to earn the right to speak, because if you are not involved in the industry, how are you going to be able to say anything that’s credible?

You grew up here in Sarawak?

Yes, I went through the whole school system here. I went to one of the premier schools and oldest schools in Borneo, Saint Thomas’s, founded in 1848.

How important is tourism to Sarawak?

It depends on how you look at the statistics. If you look solely at the number of arrivals, Sarawak would not be doing so well. But one interesting thing is that people don’t just come here for a day, unless they’re from Brunei, or maybe Singapore. Visitors stay on average eight or nine days, and visit both Sarawak and Sabah. As I always say, 100,000 people staying one night is the equivalent of 10,000 staying for ten nights. We would rather have the 10,000… It’s much less wearing.

We often see posts on Facebook saying there will be no Orangutans left in ten years if we don’t donate to some “save the Orangutan” fund or other. Is that true?

Nowadays, we live in an age of fake news and we don’t know what to believe any more, as everyone is doing Twitter, Facebook and so on. The thing is that everybody wants to be the saviour of the world. And rightly so, we should. But how do you go about doing it? That is the great debate.  I like to think that through my involvement in tourism, I have been instrumental in being able to save a part of Sarawak from being logged, saving the habitat of the Orangutan.  At this point in time, in terms of conservation, it also has a lot to do with our own local consciousness here in Borneo. But right now, the most endangered species is not the Orangutan, but the Black Banded Langur. There are only two or three hundred left in the wild, and they are highly endangered. One of the things we did in the past, of which I am very proud, was to get the State Government to cancel several logging concessions. Part of our strategy in succeeding with this is that we did not go to the foreign press. Locals have to deal in a local way – internally – behind closed doors. People are receptive to being talked to in the right way. In the west, it’s always very confrontational. And that, sometimes, is very counterproductive, when people get very emotional and hyped-up. Basically, we presented in a very reasonable way, essentially saying, “If you do this, you will come out smelling like a rose, but if you don’t, you’ll come out smelling like something else. It’s your decision.” We had to acknowledge and respect the authorities we have here and let them make the decision. Actually, they made the right decision, but they have not publicised the fact.  Sarawak has done a lot in terms of conservation, but it’s not being talked about, because they failed in some other things as well. Right now, as we talk, I am very concerned about the Black Banded Langur, and I want to do something, through our company, and through tourism, that can be impactful in saving them in 2019. These may not be big primates, but they are very important primates. If we don’t do anything, they will be extinct in ten years. We will need to get the forestry involved, along with a couple of NGOs, and do something together. I don’t believe in the one man show, and we don’t want to grandstand. Last time, we got the community involved, and that was a game changer.

What about the argument that tourism can bring jobs to replace those in logging or on Palm plantations?

It’s a double-edged sword, because that’s also a problem, because if you say tourism will create a lot of jobs, expectations can get too high. Tourism can bring jobs, and create benefits, but it’s not going to be a big, instant money spinner. On the other hand, if you tap on it, it’s like tapping rubber. If you take care of it, you will be able to obtain very good returns over time. And this is why the whole idea of sustainability is so important.

How do you work with the state government?

What is exciting is that the Tourism Board has a new, very dynamic and bright CEO – Sharzede Datu HJ Salleh Askor, since September 2018. It’s probably not easy for her, but I believe she has the passion and she has the heart and the capability as well of getting things done. Because she is from Sarawak, she knows the lay of the land. We in Sarawak often say to people from West Malaysia, “You don’t understand us”. So, I am glad, because I think she is the right person, she is from here, so she understands the workings of our people, and number two, she has spent her time in the corporate world outside of Sarawak in KL. I about a year’s time you will start to see the difference that she will make.

What do you feel the goal should be for someone like her?

The goal is to have people come back and come back again. And Sarawak does that. We have a lot of people who come back year after year, and we want more of that. And secondly, I think it has to be organic growth as well. One of the interesting things about Kuching is that most of the establishments are owned and run by local people for local people. Other people who come here actually enjoy that, because it is not meant to be for the tourists. There is a tremendous authenticity about this place.

What would you say are the “three USPs” of Sarawak?

I think that Sarawak exceeds expectations, because on the surface we could advertise about culture, nature and adventure, but there is a whole lot more than that. There’s food, there are festivals, there is an incredible variety, and the layering of so many things, and that is a bonus. I think we do have some stunning places. I might be patriotic, but I like to think I am honest. Kuching still has a bit of old city laid-back charm, Mulu is spectacular. For me, it always takes my breath away. Then there is a variety of things people can do. For example, we can take people to see Orangutans in the wild. Not many people have done that. You can see them in the zoo. But there are probably less than ten thousand people who have seen Orangutans in their natural habitat in Sarawak. I believe animals have a sixth sense, and it seems that ever since we did our bid to save the Orangutans, they have been congregating around where we bring people. It’s a safe haven.

And there are enough things for people to do – for different people that want different things – for families, you can bring kids here, and we have some great museums. It gives an understanding of the rich history and culture. There are so many different museums around here.

How important is it for people to see how the local people live?

We are a modern people but one interesting thing is that if you scratch the surface we are very traditional. One of the promotions we are doing for the visit Sarawak year is to highlight all our festivals. one is Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Christmas, or Deepavali. This is an open-house concept of hospitality where one can practically go into some stranger’s house… and you are welcome to participate in the festivities. It is unheard of anywhere else in the world, but during that time, you can be a total stranger and people will be so excepting of you. So, we are going to highlight that open-house Hospitality. This is very unique. We want to emphasise the tradition, because even in China the tradition is not the same, but here, the Chinese continue the traditions. The Ibans have their own traditions as well, the Dayaks have their own tradition and the Orang Ulu have their strong traditions. Today, while they are all modern people, if you scratch the surface you’ll find it’s there.
Concept wise, many people still want to go and see the native people and expect them to be in the headgear and costumes. They will wear these, but only during festival time. Why would you want to dress in your Sunday best when a T-shirt is good enough? This is one of the things that I often talk about with the authenticity. What you have to do is learn about our traditional culture rather than what you see. That is what is so rich here, and that is why it’s so different from other places: I think much more intact. The Iban culture is probably more intact than in other places in Malaysia, partly because the previous regime left the people alone and allowed them to have their own culture. If you go to the longhouses, they will still have the traditions, but things are changing and we should allow for change. We are not taking people to a zoo. We are going to see a real-life community that is evolving just like everywhere else and you should not deny people modern amenities.

You have to be very careful, because it’s a fine line. If you come to my house once in a while, it’s good. But if you come to my house every day it will become very wearing. That is counterproductive, and that’s why we have to be very careful and that’s why I talk about sustainable tourism. The key is numbers. Carrying capacity is so important. You must not bring too many people through. The temptation is to bring lots of people through and make lots of money, but as I said, if you bring small groups of people this is what eco-tourism is about: fanning it out to lots of places so it’s not so taxing. Otherwise you destroy the very thing people are coming to see. This is something I’m very concerned about. The 31 years we’ve been taking people to these villages, there are some changes, but essentially, it’s still OK, because we tread very carefully.

Getting back to the conservation issue, what would you say to people who point the finger at Borneo, because people don’t make a difference they just say it’s Borneo they point the finger at Borneo and say the forests are being torn up and the orangutans are going to die out… That the people here don’t care and the officials are corrupt. What would you say to those people?

I don’t know what you can say because people’s minds are already made up, and there are a couple of things here. Sometimes it’s the incredible hypocrisy. To me, the greatest threat to the planet is the plastic problem we have. But orangutans are OK. I can show you that. I was just talking to the tourism board and we should market our orangutans because they are very unique. They are different from the Sabah ones. They have a flinch which neither the Sabbah orangutans do not have nor those of Sumatra. And that is unique. If you see the latest planet of the apes, Socrates the wise primate is a Sarawak orangutan, OK? But the people don’t come here to see what’s happening, and just repeat comments on social media. The black banded langur is really in a critical situation and no one is talking about that. This is the problem. We are living in a world that is full of emotions of anger. Look at what is happening in the United States for crying out loud. You don’t have to go very far to see the incredible, sheer anger that people have. They have my made up their minds, and they are not talking, and they are not really seeing what’s happening on the ground. Unfortunately, we are victims of bad marketing. I am not saying that we are angels, but it has to do with government policy. Whenever I am in a position to do something to change things, then I will do it but if I’m not in a position to tell people what they should do, there is no leverage point. We need to reason with people and have a dialogue and be open, because once the door is shut, there is no dialogue and that stirs up all the anger.

So in concrete terms, have they stopped logging or not?

Well under the stop all logging and plantations that was the government policy under the last chief minister of Sarah, it worked, so that is something that people should be applauding. There is so much cynicism out there in the west. What they are screaming about today was news 20 years ago, but things have changed, and sometimes they’re not helping us. Of course, things are not just black-and-white. For instance, even after the logging ban and the licenses were revoked there was a lot of illegal logging, but what are you going to do about that? We are keeping tabs on these things and there were so many issues to deal with, but as I said, whatever is in my zone of influence I will do my best. If everybody would do that, it would be good enough, and this is the problem. But often, people are overreaching their influence or area of authority or expertise and this is one of the biggest problems we have.
In other words, we must learn to choose our battles wisely. Our problem is that we want to fight is every direction, then we don’t get anything done and one ends up even more frustrated. At least I can say if nothing else, I did one thing and managed to get two timber licenses revoked, in the Batang Ai area.  This is a real-life story. We went through the whole system. We presented it through the forestry department, we helped them to do the reports, to go with them to present it to the chief minister of the time who was who was supposed to be anti-conservation. But he was the one who ordered the revocation of the licenses. It is because we mounted a very credible case – that if you did not do this, 200 orangutans would be lost. This was three or four years ago. It left me very exhausted at the end of the day. It was done in a scientific way. We identified the movement of individuals, got the locals involved and collected evidence together with the forestry… evidence by professional scientists that proved our case. But this has never been publicised and we should look into why. From that point of view, Sarawak has not done too badly. Sometimes when people slag off this and that, people often just don’t have the facts. We do live in a world of cynicism now… an age of cynicism and anger… and I don’t know how to change that… but that’s the world we live in now. As a lot of people say, we do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.

Another factor that is very important to stress here is the safety. I think here it is very safe. I also think that it is amazing that in this country, the people were able to overthrow the ruling party after 60 years in power peacefully, and have a peaceful transition. It speaks volumes. I am not saying it is going to be better or worse, but it happened, and it can still happen. This is a true case of democracy at work.

What makes your company different when it comes to CSR?

I think we have spent a lot of time thinking through things. A lot of it is applying common sense. We always believed in economic empowerment through education for the local people in the villages. What did we do? We bribed the kids to go to school. It wasn’t so much bribing… we gave parents an allowance if they sent their kids to school. We realised that while education is free here, the people don’t send their kids to school, because they can’t afford the uniforms, shoes and so on. So, we gave them an allowance to buy all these things so they would not feel ashamed. But we didn’t want them to just send the kids to school from time to time, so we said “OK anyone in the top five positions will get an extra special bonus”, and they took it seriously. After 15 years, we have been producing graduates from this little village school. I said, “Hallelujah, that’s fantastic”.

So, we understand that mass tourism and over-tourism are things you want to avoid…

Yes. Malaysia, and Sarawak, need to choose the people we want to come. And we need to take stock of what we have… the jungle and so on… and go to the people who are keen to see us. We are not always in that position, but that is the ideal. We need to do research and thinking. Who buys what when they are travelling, and what leakage there is. In the case of wealthy tourists who are consuming Spanish ham and French cheese, a lot of the money goes out of the country. It will be important for us to do more research on this.

What makes Sarawak unique?

We have unique history. You had an English family ruling Sarawak for over a hundred years, and that impacted a lot of things here. Basically, the cultures are basically intact; much more so than in Indonesia. In Indonesia, because they long wanted everyone to become Indonesians, the cultures were diluted. In Sarawak, it’s okay to be Iban…

What is your favourite place in Sarawak?

That’s a very tough question. I would say Kuching. I love being in Kuching, because it’s like Goldilocks – you know, “Not too big, not too small… It’s just right”.

Philip Yong has extensive experience and involvement in tourism industry associations and national tourism organisations. Mr Yong has served as a board member of Tourism Malaysia (1995-1997 and 2005-2007) and the Sarawak Tourism Board (1995-2003 and 2016-2018); and is a former Chairman of the Association of Sarawak Inbound Agencies (2006-2009), Malaysia Association of Tour & Travel Agents Sarawak Chapter (2001-2003) and Sarawak Tourist Association (1997-2002). He has also served as the President of the Sarawak Tourism Federation (2003 and 2016-2018), the Honorary Secretary General of the Sarawak Tourism Federation (2011-2013) and the Honorary Secretary of the Association of Sarawak Inbound Agencies (2011).