Cultural Tourism Promotion and policy in Malaysia

Associate Professor Dr. Badaruddin Mohamed
of Housing, Building and Planning
Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia


Like its Asean neighbors, Malaysia too regards tourism as a very important sector that brings the much-needed foreign exchange, new jobs and businesses.  Heritage tourism, classified as a subclass of cultural tourism by the World Tourism Organization, has been identified and spelt out in the new Tourism Policy by the Tourism Ministry as one of the new niche products to be developed extensively for the next ten years.  Paralleled with the growing interest in heritage tourism and the global influx of the alternative tourists, tourist arrivals in the Malaysian heritage cities, especially Penang and Malacca, have improved over the years.  Despite this, the real potential of culture and heritage as tourism resources is not fully realized.  They are not well attended and only started to be appreciated.

KEYWORDS:  heritage, culture, tourism, policy


Malaysia is experiencing a tremendous pace of tourism development.  Tourism sector has been recognized by Malaysian government as a major source of revenue and catalyst to the Malaysian economic renaissance.  Tourist arrivals to Malaysia for the last ten years have shown a significant rise (Table 1).  In the year 2004, this country attracted 15.7 million foreign tourists generating around RM29.7 billion into the company.  Major tourist market for Malaysia has been the neighboring ASEAN nations especially Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei.  Other main traditional foreign markets include China, Japan, Taiwan and India.

Table 1: Tourist arrivals and receipts to Malaysia


Arrivals (million)

Receipts (RM millions)































Source: Tourism Malaysia, 2005

Coupled with the growth in tourism is a booming interest in the ‘new tourism’.  Cultural tourism has emerged as a potential form of alternative tourism among both international tourists as well as Malaysian domestic travelers.  Cultural tourism in Malaysia attracted great publicities with the increase in the number of incoming tourists annually.  Malaysia has marvelous cultural tourism resources that are readily available to be explored such as the existence of multi-cultural, historical buildings, colorful lifestyles and friendly atmosphere.         The purpose of this paper is to give an overview of the promotion of culture and heritage in Malaysia as well as the related strategies and policies that support the measure.  It also discusses several underlying issues pertaining the cultural management in Malaysia.

Defining Cultural Tourism

Culture in tourism is an important issue.  The relationship between tourism and culture can take many forms and the outcome can be viewed as negative and positive when meeting of hosts and visitors occurs and possibly leads to the transformation of the hosts’ culture.  The destruction of local culture as a result of tourism is well documented.  However, studies by researchers’ consider this as a lopsided view of the impact of tourism.  Studies have shown that tourism have lead to the strengthening of local culture (Yamashita, Kadir and Eades : 1997).

Culture is defined broadly as quoted in Meethan (2001:117),

“… a set of practices, based on forms of knowledge, which encapsulate common values and act as general guiding principles.  It is through these forms of knowledge that distinctions are created and maintained, so that, for example, one culture is marked off as different from another”

World Tourism Organization (1985) defines cultural tourism as the movements of persons for essentially cultural motivations such as study tours, performing arts and cultural tours; travel to festivals and other related events.  Essentially, cultural tourism is based on the mosaic of places, traditions, art forms, celebrations and experiences that portray ones nation and its people (National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 2005).

Meethan (2001:128) rightly observed that there are array of tourist activities that come under the heading of cultural tourism.  However, he argues for a distinct demarcation of cultural tourism and hence a distinct profile of cultural tourists quotes,

 “….the cultural tourists are those who go about their leisure in a more serious frame of mind.  To be a cultural tourist… to go beyond idle leisure and to return enriched with knowledge of other places and other people even if this involves `gazing` at or collecting in some way, the commodified essences of otherness”

Studies of western culture by Richard (1994) described the cultural tourists were ‘a high socio-economic status, high level of educational attainment, adequate leisure time, and often having occupations related to the culture industries’.  It must be borne in mind that culture is not static but one that is dynamic and evolving. Meethan (2001: 127) draw attention to globalization of culture and also the mobilization of culture for internal and external purposes. Yamashita, Kadir and Eades (1997: 29-30) further illustrates the processes that transform culture.

            Heritage tourism can be classified as a subclass of cultural tourism. Both cultural and heritage tourism become a growing segment of the tourism marketplace. Cultural tourists appear to be motivated for different reasons than do traditional tourists. Some tourism destinations see cultural tourism as a promotion for tourism products, and this has been lamented. Millar (1989) and others (Hardy, 1988; Tighe, 1986) suggest that heritage tourism is "about the cultural traditions, places and values that ... groups throughout the world are proud to conserve." Cultural traditions such as family patterns, religious practices, folklore traditions, and social customs attract individuals interested in heritage (Collins, 1983; Weiler & Hall, 1992) as do monuments, museums, battlefields, historic structures, and landmarks (Konrad, 1982; McNulty, 1991).


In Malaysia, heritage and culture has also been identified as new niche products to be developed extensively in tourism development.  Cultural vibrancy is clearly manifested in the ongoing and successful “Malaysia: Truly Asia” promotional drive by the country’s promotion arm, Tourism Malaysia.  In this promotion, Malaysia boasts to host a wide variety of Asian ethnic groups that making it into a little Asia. Malaysia also has distinctive multicultural architectural heritage with strong Islamic, Chinese and Western influences; all of which have been portrayed in the heritage buildings.

            The major heritage elements; historic building, historical sites and unique local cultures are commonly found in many historic cities throughout Malaysia. An inventory has revealed that 30,000 heritage buildings are located in 162 cities throughout Malaysia (Idid, 1996). From this figure, 69.6% are shop houses and dwellings built before World War II (Table 2). The unique colonial architectural styles of buildings have played major role in the creation of historic cities such as George Town, Ipoh, Malacca, Taiping, Kuala Lumpur and Kuching.

Table 2 Distributions of Pre-War Buildings in Selected States in Malaysia

States in Malaysia

Number of Pre-War Buildings

Percentage (%)





Kuala Lumpur











The management of culture and heritage in Malaysia was put under the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, established on the 20th of May 1987, combining Department of Culture from the Ministry of Culture, Youths and Sports with the Malaysian Tourism Development Corporation from the Ministry of Trade and Industries.  On 22nd October 1992, the ministry was renamed into Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism.  This ministry was later divided in Mac 2004, into two ministries, namely the Tourism Ministry and Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage.  This separation is seen as recognition of tourism as a potential number one sector of the country and a move to appreciate the value of heritage of the country.  Agencies under this ministry are the National Archives, the National Art and Gallery, the Department of Museum and Antiquities, Malaysian Handicrafts (Kraftangan Malaysia), the National Film Development Corporation (Finas), the National Art Academy, the National Library and the Istana Budaya (the Culture Palace).  Despite the move to strengthen the ministries, the separation of the cultural elements from the Tourism Ministry can give impacts on the direction of ‘cultural and heritage tourism’, leaving this niche area as an no-man’s land!


At a national conference organized by Malaysia’s Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports in 1971, the Malaysian government formulated what was to become a national cultural policy based on the following principles:

      i).            The national culture of Malaysia must henceforth be based on the cultures of the people indigenous to the region

     ii).            Elements from other cultures which are judged suitable and reasonable may be incorporated into Malaysia’s national culture

   iii).            Islam will be an important element in the national culture

In the period since its implementation, Malaysia’s national culture policy has become one important point of vigorous debate and political conflict.  In the years since the formulation of a National Cultural Policy, and particularly in the late 1980’s, the Malaysian government has been concerned to implement its basic principles by intervening directly and across the board in the cultural field.  Not surprisingly, and perhaps because it has not been altogether clear and efficient about its task, government intervention in the cultural field has produced a response on the part of a variety of non-Malay groups who feel that their cultural freedom has been curtailed.  For example, at a meeting of the Chinese guild and associations of Malaysia held in March, 1983, delegates passed a series of resolutions that were compiled in a joint memorandum to the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.  In April 1984, a group of the best-known Indian cultural, social and religious organizations submitted a similar memorandum.  Both memoranda accused the government of having formulated a cultural policy which was Malay-centric and undemocratic, and requested that a new policy on national culture be established which was more clearly multi-ethnic and democratic (Kahn & Loh, 1992).


The legal foundations of the Malaysian cultural policy are derived from the following acts and regulations:

      i).            Antiquities Act 1976 (Act 168)

     ii).            National Art Gallery Act, 1958

   iii).            Legal Deposit of Library Material Act, 1986 (Act A667)

   iv).            National Library Act, 1972; The National Library (Amendment) Act, 1987

    v).            National Archive Act, 1966 (Act 44), (Revised 1971), (Act A85), (Revised 1993), (Act 511)

   vi).            Tourist Development Corporation of Malaysia Act 1972 (Act 1972)

 vii).            Broadcasting Act 1988 (Act 338), Broadcasting (Amendment) Act, 1997 (Act A977)

viii).            Cinematography Film - Hire Duty Act 1965 (Revised 1990), (Act 434)

   ix).            (Perbadanan Kemajuan Filem Nasional Malaysia Act 1981 (Act 244), Perbadanan Kemajuan Filem Nasional Malaysia (Amendment) Act, 1984 (Act 589)

    x).            Perbadanan Kemajuan Kraftangan Malaysia Act 1979 (Act 222)

   xi).            Theatres & Places of Public Amusement (Federal Territory) Act 1988 (Act 182)

 xii).            Bernama Act, 1967 (Revised 1990), (Act 449)

xiii).            Entertainment Duty Act 1953 (Revised 1973) (Act 103)

            Efforts to preserve the heritage buildings in Malaysia are supported by various acts and legislations.  The prominent acts have been the Town and Country Planning Act of 1976 or the 172 Act, The National Land Code (Kanun Tanah Negara), the Street, Drainage and Building Act 133, the Antiquities Act 1976 , as well as local legislations such as the Malacca Enactment No. 6 (1988).  Act 133 for instance stipulates that “No person shall erect any building without a prior written permission of the local authority” (Section 70[1]).  This provision is supported by Section 18(1) of Act 172 which states “All land/building use shall comply with the local plans (structure and local plans).  Any development shall obtain planning permission (Section 21).  And if there is no development plan prepared for the area, the owner/developer of the land shall inform their plan to the adjoining landowners (Act 172, Section 21 (6)).

            To date, a guidelines on the Guidelines on the Conservation of George Town Inner City details out specific recommendations pertaining extensions, renovations, revitalizations of heritage buildings within the prescribed zones.  At present, any erection of buildings is loosely bonded by both Acts (133 and 172).  Section 16 of 133 defines  erections of building includes ‘renews or repairs of any existing buildings in such a manner as to involve a renewal, reconstruction or erection of any portion of an outer or party wall to the extent of one storey height”.  Further, all building that fall within the definition of development, stipulated in Act 172 also requires planning permission.

            The Guidelines is in concordant with Part Vll of Act 133 that gives the State Authority to make by-laws or in respect of every purpose which is deemed by him necessary.  In regards to the preservation of buildings, the State Authority, among other things, has the right to make by laws in:-

      i).            the construction, paving, width and level of arcades and footways;

     ii).            the construction, alteration and demolition of buildings and the methods and materials to be used in connection therewith;

   iii).            the minimum timber or other building material content in any building.


The promotion of culture and heritage in Malaysia faces several underlying issues that both are related to the complexity of the society living in Malaysia.  Among the issues are:-

i.  Whose culture?

Despite the fact that Malaysia is proud of its multiculturalism, promoted worldwide as the ‘Truly Asia’, the question remains on whose culture should be promoted at the forefront.  As discussed above, Chinese and Indians have continuously felt that their cultures are not well represented in the tourism brochures produced by the government.  Similar sentiment was raised up during the nomination process for the listing of Penang and Melaka into the world heritage city.  Malays in Penang especially feel that the listing do not benefit them and the island’s Malay history is not taken into consideration.  Some also feel that the listing of the 12000 heritage buildings where many of them are colonial buildings—is just another post colonialization of the country, lamented on why we have to glorify the colonial past!

ii.  Authentic versus Staged Culture

Tourism has evolved to become a significant factor in the development of culture in two ways: as a support and as a threat.  The converse is also possible – culture can support or inhibit the growth of tourism.  In the Malaysian context, there has so far been no specific attempt to study the value of cultural attractions from the point of view of the tourists.  Tourism authorities and promotional consultants simply assume that the cultural elements of a plural society are attractive.  Further questions can be raised as to whether it is the ‘staged culture’ or the ‘street culture’ that is more appealing to outsiders.  According to Kadir Din (1997), ‘street culture’ depicts the scenes of everyday life that can be readily observed by tourists in their natural setting, as opposed to ‘staged culture’ which refers to contrived staged presentations, which are specifically prepared for the tourist.  He concludes that in terms of government allocations of funds for tourism, and of coverage by the promotional media, there seems to be a belief that staged culture contributes more to tourism than street culture.  To complicate things, as mentioned above, the nomination of Penang and Melaka includes the conservation of cultural elements of the society.  However, with so much pressure and development that have taken place, one may wonder how this society can conserve its cultural elements to remain authentic.  Or perhaps, one may also wonder whether what is left is still authentic?  A similar comment can be made on the staging of the massive festival of ‘Citrawarna’—a cultural parade of various ethnic groups in Malaysia.  Perhaps copying the success of the Samba Festival in Brazil or the New Orleans Parade or perhaps the Gion Matsuri (festival) in Kyoto Japan, the Citrawarna Malaysia has a lot of colors but lack authenticity and also history!

Concluding Remarks

Malaysia starts to realize the value and the importance of culture and heritage tourism when more and more tourists coming to this country to visit the cultural heritage.  Having a long associations with the past colonisers like the Britain,  Japan, and Portugal, Malaysia does have attractive and diversified cultural products that can be attractive.  The promotion of culture and heritage, however is rather new.  To date, Malaysia only has two natural world heritage sites in Gunung Mulu National Park and the Kinabalu Park.  It yet to have a site that is listed under the world’s cultural sites.  To movement to appreciate and to manage culture and heritage in Malaysia gaining momentum however with establishment of the culture ministry.  It is interesting though, to see how heritage tourism and cultural tourism being managed by both ministries.


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