Taking the bed tax lying down

Malaysians have just realised that we have to pay a new tax from July 1. It’s called the tourism tax and will be levied on anyone sleeping in a hotel, local and foreign.

Basically a bed tax, the Tourism Tax Bill 2017 was born in the still of the night, passed in Parliament with barely a murmur during one of those marathon sessions last April.

And now we have to pay it barely a week away. A lukewarm protest from the hotel industry who are worried about what it would do to tourism numbers has basically fizzled out.

Ditto the spark of dissent from Sabah and Sarawak after yesterday’s announcement that all is “settled”.

Well, we all hate paying taxes — that’s a given — but there are some taxes that we just think is plain wrong. The tourism tax falls directly into this category. Hotel operators are incredulous that they not only have to charge more for rooms in a tight market, but they are also to collect it on behalf of the government.

For Sarawak and Sabah, the tax’s July 1 implementation fait accompli was more than a threat to their internal tourism industry, it was no less than an imposition of their independence.

However, it is the ordinary Malaysians like us who will ultimately pay this tax — like it or not. Though small in the greater scheme of things, a RM2.50 bill per day is a lot in these trying times.

The Ministry of Tourism and Culture said the tax will pay for the development of the tourism industry. Now this is a catch- all reason for the tax, but according to a government circular, it will be used for “enhancing infrastructure and facilities, as well as tourism promotional activities and campaigns for the country.

The tax collected will also be channelled into protecting and preserving the environment, culture and heritage of Malaysia.”

Which is all well and good, but we can only hope that the money collected — which the Tourism Ministry will surpass RM800 million a year — will be used prudently.

When it says “tourism promotional activities and campaigns” we hope that would be just that and not interpreted as funding entourages of civil servants on endless fact-findings to Paris or Tora Bora.

But, we also hope that even if it is unheard that a tax — once introduced — would ever be revoked, there would be a certain way of accountability on what and how it is spent and whether the national tourism benefits.

We don’t want another road tax, which we dutifully pay presumably to provide and maintain roads, but still have to fork out for those pesky highway tolls. With that in mind, here are a couple of suggestions where the tourism tax can be put to good use.

1. Set up a design school for urban planners — or whoever those people who put up gigantic concrete sculptures of jugs, kettles, tower clocks of fake wood and tractor tyres at the entrance of our towns. If we are to have fake sculptures, at least make them less hurtful to the eyes.

2. Foreign language training for taxi drivers. Our taxi drivers are polite and never cheat tourists or beat up Uber drivers, but they can use a bit of coaching on how to say “I will have to charge more than the meter because of the traffic jam”.

3. Courses for local councils on what is a tourist attraction and what is not. These courses would prevent common mistakes of towns asking for funding to turn a hole in the ground, or trees purportedly planted in 1957, into a tourist attraction.

4. The Tourism Ministry should put on retainer that guy Andrew Zimmern, that Bizarre Food softie, to be a poster boy for a campaign discouraging foreigners from eating because westerners are pushing up the prices of our durian. Have you seen the prices for Musang King lately?

5. The tax is applicable to virtually everyone staying at a hotel for any reason whatsoever, but there should be exemptions for special cases. Any husband who has been locked out of the house by his spouse because the business meeting lasted until 3am, or any other irrational reason, should be exempted from the tax.

Okay, I have a few more suggestions for what to do with all that money if the Tourism Ministry is interested, but you get the idea. But to our MPs please, the next time someone proposes a new tax, for heaven’s sake stay awake.

  • ZB Othman is the editor-in- chief of The Malaysian Reserve.