Chapter 4 - Australians in Malaysia

Chapter 4

Australians in Malaysia

Discovering Malaysia

Up until the 1950s, few Australians, apart from servicemen and businessmen, travelled to Malaya, but those who did were impressed by its beauty and friendliness. In 1939, accountant, popular historian and travel writer Frank Clune, in his book Isles of Spice (1942), described the approach over the Malacca Straits as 'one of the world's most beautiful sights'.10 But for most Australians, tourism, even in the 1950s and 1960s, was still a luxury and travelling Australians, in the main, opted for a visit 'home' to the United Kingdom. The change came with our close cooperation during the Emergency and Konfrontasi, when Malaysia became a point of familiarity and a tourist destination on a largely unexplored Asian horizon. This familiarity was captured, and transmitted, through Radio Butterworth, or RRB, which broadcast from the RAAF Base for the first time on 1 August 1960. RRB was run entirely by volunteers and their eclectic musical programming—'Giants of Jazz', 'Discs-a-Gogo', 'Countdown Top 40' and 'Great Music of the Films'— filtered through to RAAF personnel, local Malaysians and Australian tourists. Staying at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel or the Lone Pine Hotel in Batu Ferringhi, tourists 'would be listening to the radio in their rooms or by the beach,' the music punctuated by news updates and the 'Window on Australia' program.11 When the Malaysian Government resumed command of the Butterworth Base in 1988, RRB ceased to broadcast, but it lives on through today's social media.12

Photo of The Australian High Commission Christmas Party

The Australian High Commission Christmas Party at the High Commissioner's residence in December 1971.

From backpackers to boom

In so many ways Australia 'discovered' its Southeast Asian neighbourhood in the 1970s and the number of Australians travelling to Malaysia increased significantly. The new package tour phenomenon took advantage of the familiarity with Malaysia gained over the previous two decades and catered to the curious but cautious Australian tourist. Similarly, young backpackers often chose Malaysia as the starting point for their journeys into Asia. In 1975, Australia's Lonely Planet travel guide published its first volume, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, which remains the biggest selling guide to the region. That year, 28 270 Australians travelled to Malaysia.13 For backpackers in those early days, a night at the Majestic Hotel in Malacca was recommended for just A$2 a night. Such has been the transformation of Malaysia's economy and its tourism market that, 40 years on, the luxurious Majestic Malacca is now far beyond the backpackers' means.

A real transformation began in the 1980s with the advent of two-way tourism campaigns. Recognising Australians' increasing desire to travel overseas, in 1984, the Malaysian Government launched a campaign to 'woo and win' them and sent a delegation of 70 representatives around Australia to showcase Malaysian food and culture.14 Four years later, Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and Qantas reached an arrangement, whereby MAS increased flights into Sydney and Melbourne, and Qantas secured flights into Malaysia via Singapore. This coincided with a 'promotional blitz' during the World Expo in Brisbane that same year to attract Australians to Malaysia.15

These efforts were successful. The number of Australians travelling to Malaysia in 1995 reached 88 600 and by 2005, this almost doubled to 159 600.16 In 2014, Australian visitors to Malaysia totalled 571 328 and Australia currently ranks 8th among the leading country sources of tourists to Malaysia.17 Malaysian visitors to Australia are similarly ranked, at 7th.18 This two-way tourism traffic is driven, not only by cheaper availability of travel, but also by a diverse range of educational, professional, business and social reasons to visit one another's countries.

Living history in Sabah

Over the past 20 years, Sabah has moved into the consciousness of the Australian traveller as one of the most poignant sites in Australia's war history. As recounted earlier, during the Pacific War, 2434 prisoners of war, predominantly Australians, were taken from Singapore to Sabah where the 'death march' took the lives of all but six Australians' lives.19 Several treks along the route of the death march now take place each year and, on ANZAC Day, an increasing number of Australians attend the dawn service at Sandakan. On Sandakan Memorial Day, August 15, a service is also held to 'recognise the bond of friendship, support and understanding that has grown since that time between our countries."20 That bond of friendship is frequently experienced by Australians in Sabah, who still encounter locals with poignant stories. Domima Akoi was just 12 when she encountered six escapees near the village of Paginatan, on the road to Ranau.

One day, while feeding the pigs, she felt small pieces of wood landing at her feet. The next day it was pebbles. Domima noticed a thin white man waving at her, gesturing for food and water. She ran to tell her father, who told her to take the men some rice and fish, but to be very careful not to be seen. She did this for the next six days, three times a day. On the seventh day, the food was not touched, but a tobacco tin was left with six gold wedding rings inside. Later that day she heard gunfire in the forest and knew the men were dead.21

Domima, and many like her, showed enormous courage and compassion, and are pleased to share their stories with Australian visitors, with whom they still feel a special bond.