Every time my friends from overseas visit Malaysia, I always end up helping them get special discounts. They can get 30% discounts on batik art. And a boat trip that should cost RM140 will magically only cost RM80.
It must be because of my good looks and charm. Or because tour operators assume I am a local tour guide and get a cut which they don’t realise I pass on to the foreign tourists, my friends.
Why is there this discrepancy? Obviously, it is a lot to do with the fact that most foreign tourists can afford to pay more. This is good business, to raise the price to the point the market can bear.
So, the nationality of who you represent makes a difference.
This calls to mind a recent story of a Japanese man who charged Chinese tourists 10 times as much as anybody else for the rental of beach parasols.
However, in his case he was trying to charge more than the Chinese tourists would bear, saying “Chinese tourists have terrible manners… I don’t want to rent to them; now I decided to charge them 10 times as much”.
When I told my friend about this, she pointed out that if this man tried to do this in Germany, he would be arrested for being racist.
A quick Google search revealed that Germany has a law called the Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz (the General Equal Treatment Act) which, in short, ensures that every person is protected from “discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnic origin, gender, disability, religion, belief or philosophy of life, age, or sexual orientation”, including “access to and supply of goods and services which are available to the public”.
I then pointed out that many tourist sites in Malaysia charge different prices for Malaysians than they do for foreign tourists. She thought for a while and then said, “I think they couldn’t do that in Germany.”
As a Malaysian, I obviously have no problem with this double standard in ticket prices. I don’t even have a problem with it when I visit countries abroad.
For example, in Cambodia, visitors to Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples have to pay US$37 (RM159) for a day, while locals can visit for free.
I remember when I visited many years ago, a US tourist complained loudly at this “unfair” practice.
My response was that while this price represented maybe weeks of income for the average family in Cambodia, it was a small fraction of the cost of an air ticket from California.
Again, the argument is that the foreign tourist can afford to pay the higher prices, while the local one wouldn’t.
This idea of a tiered pricing system should not be a strange idea these days. I’m not just talking about budget airlines that vary their prices depending on how many seats have been bought up.
For example, a report from 2015 claimed that sites like Amazon and Sears customised prices depending on the type of computers you used and even your browsing history. But it makes sense if you were willing to pay higher prices for previous purchases, you might do the same again. And everybody knows Apple users have cash to spare.
The thing is, this kind of discrimination creates opportunities for many to enjoy the services. Because a rich foreign tourist pays a high price to go on a boat, it means the tour operator can afford to let a local family of five do the same at a discount.
But then a guy like me slips in to take advantage of the system and lets the foreigners get in at (almost) local prices. Effectively, the rich subsidises the poor – and the sneaky.
Imagine if tour operators charged people based on their race? I argue it can make sense.
According to 2014 statistics from the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), the average household income for a Chinese family is about one and a half times more than a Malay family.
So based on this idea, the average Malaysian Chinese tourist should be charged one and half times more than a Malay tourist.
Of course, this is where the whole thing becomes ridiculous. The average incomes may show a disparity, but the overlap between the two groups is large. It would not be difficult to find a rich Malay family or a poor Chinese one.
Perhaps we should have an equivalent discrimination law in Malaysia to ensure this doesn’t happen.
In fact, we almost have a framework already. Article 8 of the Federal Constitution says there shall be “no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender in any… carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation of employment”.
But of course, I have neglected to include the preamble to this which says “except as expressly authorised by this Constitution…”, which provides for clauses such as Article 153 (Reservation of quotas in respect of services, permits, etc., for Malays and natives of any of the states of Sabah and Sarawak).
The thing is, many policies enacted under this are designed to help improve the lot of the poorer segments of the population. But it can’t also be denied that many who fall in those segments have long gone beyond the scope of being called “poor”.
They are, like my friends from Europe, people who can afford to pay the higher price, but have managed to find a way to pay less.
But, like my friends, until this loophole is closed, it’s unlikely that they will stop taking advantage of it.