Incidents may mar Malaysia's tourism bid
By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia celebrates 50 years of independence this year and to mark the occasion it has launched Visit Malaysia Year 2007.
The country's palm-fringed beaches, affordably priced hotels, sprawling shopping malls, fantastic food and wildlife already make it one of Asia's premier destinations.
And this year its tourism authorities hope a big push will propel visitor numbers towards an astonishing target of 20 million.
But following an incident late last year, American Wayne Wright is far from convinced by the promise of Malaysian hospitality and the claim of its tourism slogan that it is truly Asia.
"I was walking in Chinatown," he told the BBC, "when a gentleman in very scruffy type clothes, nothing that you would associate with police or anyone in authority, walked up to me and asked me, "Can I see your passport?"."
Fearing a scam, Mr Wright refused and tried to move away.
"At that point he essentially lunged at me, grabbed me, put handcuffs on me really tightly and called for a few other people out in the crowd," he explained.
Mr Wright, a serving US Navy lawyer, says he protested that he was a US citizen and told the men who had grabbed him that his passport was in his hotel room, a matter of a few hundred meters away.
He was taken, shackled, through Chinatown and put into a caged truck used by the Malaysian immigration department.
There he met a second American, who had also been grabbed by men who refused to show any identification, Yahweh Passim Nam.
It became abundantly clear to Mr Wright and Mr Nam they had more in common than their nationality. Both they and every one of the 30 or so other people arrested in the same raid were black.
"At this time I'm knowing this is racial profiling, beyond a shadow of a doubt," said Mr Nam, an ex-US Navy serviceman and now a multi media engineer living in Vancouver, Canada.
"This is definitely some screwed up mission by some... militant group, trying to get Africans to take us somewhere," he said, adding that he feared for his life.
They were taken to an immigration detention centre where for almost 24 hours they say they were fed only bread and water, not allowed to go to the toilet and refused permission to contact the US embassy.
"I was treated inhumanely," said Mr Nam. "I felt like a dog, I felt like something worse than a dog."
Mr Wright agrees. "Honestly this was probably the worst experience I have had in my life," he said.
Both say that, when they were finally freed, immigration officers treated the matter as a joke, something that incensed them.
Malaysia's Head of Immigration Enforcement Ishak Mohamad was approached by the BBC for comment, but was unavailable.
Nor would the prime minister's department comment, although a senior official privately cast doubt on the accounts of the two men.
However not only do they appear to bear one another out, but they are also backed up by the US embassy, which confirmed it provided consular assistance to have them released from custody. No charges were filed against the men.
The incident does not appear to be isolated.
Several Africans approached on the streets of Kuala Lumpur by the BBC over the issue reported facing discrimination in Malaysia, whether it be people refusing to sit next to them on public transport, taxis refusing to stop for them through to harassment by police and immigration officers.
Nor have recent problems been confined to people of African origin.
In October, a couple in their 60s from the US state of Alaska were woken at 0200 with threats to break down the door of their rented holiday apartment on Langkawi Island.
It was an Islamic morality patrol, which under Malaysian law has widespread powers over Muslims' behaviour.
"When I opened the door I saw six men, in my face, yelling at me that they want to inspect the apartment, that I'm Muslim and that they're coming in," Randal Barnhart said.
He told the men he was not Muslim and refused to let them enter, but they persisted.
"They started yelling, 'We want to see your woman, we want to see your woman'," an angry Mr Barnhart recalled.
"So I asked Carole, who was just wearing a sarong to stand back 15 feet in the light so they could see that she is a white woman - my wife of 42 years."
The intruders refused to leave without seeing a marriage certificate and were only persuaded to go after being shown the couple's passports.
Mr Barnhart says his wife suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to the US and he is currently pursuing legal action against the religious department.
But rather than disciplining the officers - who apparently broke the law by carrying out the raid without regular police in tow - local politicians defended them saying Mrs Barnhart was mistaken for a local Muslim because she liked to wear a sarong.
That assertion has been greeted with derision by some in Malaysia.
Malaysia's Tourism Minister Adnan Mansor defended the immigration department, pointing out that Malaysia has problems with illegal migration.
"Sorry to say especially there's a lot of Africans, black people, who come to our country and overstay," he said.
"What they did was just trying to clean up some of these people who've overstayed in our country."
Both Wayne Wright and Yahweh Passim Nam had not overstayed their welcome. They had legitimate tourist visas.
The minister says he is keen to repair the damage.
"Give us a chance and let us correct this," Mr Mansor said.
He has apologised to the Barnharts and acknowledges Malaysia has a problem with petty officials who readily abuse their power - a problem he says the government will address by re-educating them.
But it is not the kind of news the country needs on the cusp of its big tourism year.
Asta, the American Society of Travel Agents, described the incidents as regrettable.
"Authorities have an obligation to educate the local populace about the importance of tourism and their role and to be vigilant and protective of anti-tourist incidents," a spokesman told the BBC.
And more worrying still for Malaysians is that such incidents are merely symptomatic of a wider issue - public servants who are increasingly resistant to government control.
Newspaper columnist Dina Zaman says some Malaysians are looking to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to take a tougher line.
"They don't think he's authoritative enough," she believes.
"You need someone to actually sit down and say, 'Look you can't do this, you can't do that'. And yes, he's a nice man but with... the crime rate, all these things... it just makes you wonder whether he's too nice."
Millions of people will doubtless visit Malaysia during 2007 and most will have a very happy time.But until Malaysia's bureaucracy wants to make sure they all do, some would-be visitors may be deciding to holiday elsewhere.