Sarawak has withdrawn from the Malaysian Tourism Board, escalating a sudden spat between the state and federal governments over a new tourism tax set to begin next month. "The state government deems that the participation of its representatives in Tourism Malaysia is not necessary as this is duplicating the role and functions of the Sarawak Tourism Promotion Board," the chief minister's office said in a brief statement yesterday.
The move prompted calls from federal ministers - chiefly Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Abdul Rahman Dahlan - for the Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Aziz to be more diplomatic and conciliatory in discussing the thorny issue with his counterparts in the states of Sabah and Sarawak.
"We should talk on such issues in such a way that does not hurt the feelings of the people in Sabah and Sarawak," Datuk Seri Anifah said.
The tax on accommodation is set to be levied nationwide from July 1, at between RM2.50 (80 Singapore cents) and RM20 per room per night, depending on the star rating of the hotel. Putrajaya says proceeds from the tax will be reinvested into the tourism industry.
But Sarawak Tourism Minister Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah had previously called for the tax to be deferred in Sabah and Sarawak, insisting the federal government should respect the Malaysia Agreement 1963 when deciding such matters.
Under the 1963 agreement, Sabah and Sarawak formed Malaysia along with Malaya and Singapore on the understanding that they were equal partners with autonomy in certain areas. Sabah and Sarawak have autonomy to this day over immigration and can bar other Malaysians from entering their borders.
The law was originally silent on where control of tourism lies but a 1994 constitutional amendment placed it under federal powers.
Datuk Seri Nazri responded on Sunday by labelling the Sarawak minister a greenhorn and asking him not to behave "like a gangster", reported the Malay Mail Online.
Mr Nazri also said the tax would benefit Sarawak more than it would affect tourism, adding that hotels that would attract the highest tax rate were a rarity there.
Both the federal and state administrations are controlled by Malaysia's ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN).
But political tension and state nationalism have risen in recent years as Sarawakians express grievances over their perceived mistreatment by the central government.
The state is a crucial vote bank for the Umno-led coalition, supplying 25, or nearly a fifth, of the government's MPs. Development in Sarawak still trails that of Peninsular Malaysia, where the administrative capital Putrajaya sits.
However, critics say the leaders of both Sabah and Sarawak, as part of the BN coalition, should be held responsible for allowing the erosion of their autonomy. The current tourism tax was approved by Parliament in April, and records show that the only MP from the two states on Borneo island to debate the Bill was from the opposition.
"I don't see why they are so upset about the tax. We made this decision several months ago in Parliament and the Cabinet. There were seven to eight Sarawakian ministers who didn't say anything," Mr Nazri was quoted as saying by Malay Mail Online yesterday.