By Yasmin Merican

Twenty years ago, amid the optimism of a new millennium, Malaysia made the decision to invest in the making of a powerful destination brand on the promise of premium but affordable hospitality, all at one distinctive and fascinating location. Within the year and throughout more than a decade following the launch, we had the world singing our song.

From billboards on main streets to subways in major cities, would-be visitors were drawn to this faraway destination synonymous with the glittering Petronas Twin Towers, exotic cultures, pristine beaches and quintessential cuisines. Visions of teh tarik, satay, char kway teow and roti canai, and the juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar languages, kept those looking for a different travel experience enthralled by “Malaysia Truly Asia”.

While others built appealing country brands on the promotion of homogenous cultures, Malaysia was ultimately associated with the many cultures of Asia. With our brand of warmth delivered to all corners of the world through the cohesive experience of Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia and the country’s world-class hospitality industry, “Malaysia Truly Asia” gave us our well-earned place in the sun.

To those who visited, we were seen as a friendly destination where, irrespective of our diverse cultural roots, hospitality was free and just a smile away. For Tourism Malaysia, the economic returns of the collaborative effort were unprecedented. It was place branding at its best and the market effects were magical as we captured the imagination and embrace of friends and strangers from afar.

Unfortunately, no brand survives without a shared and institutionalised DNA. No brand lives forever without a common understanding of its intended journey and chosen values. Without continued stakeholder support, commitment wanes, investments are withdrawn and the exponential significance of once-powerful brands is often waylaid and falls into oblivion.

By 2015, the image and sounds of “Malaysia Truly Asia” were no longer as visible and as audible. As new countries were targeted for additional tourism dollars, some felt it was time for a different country brand image while others argued for its retention.

Why was this change necessary? Did the positioning no longer resonate with the new visitor profile? Did it not reflect our values as a nation? Or did it not speak sufficiently to preferred or desired audiences 15 years later? A great brand on effective execution usually connects with everyone, but unless brand equity (the metrics on potential or future market value) is diligently quantified as the brand is being built, it is difficult to be definitive on the measure of brand failure or success.

Where did “Malaysia Truly Asia” come from? When the winning communications agency was asked to position the brand concept to Tourism Malaysia in late 1999, the line initially felt awkward, if not uncomfortable. If we are truly Asia, how would that claim impact our neighbours?

Yet, there is no denying that our cultural milieu is unique. Living together as unassimilated cultures (except for the Peranakan, who espouse facets of Malay culture), Malaysia is the only multicultural country that is home to people from the major civilisations of Indonesia and the Malay Archipelago, China, India, Sabah, Sarawak and those who centuries ago arrived to trade from the Middle East and other parts of Asia. As a place brand, “Malaysia Truly Asia” was and is factually strong and convincingly differentiated.

Designed primarily to attract more tourist interest, it is nevertheless only a location or destination brand, not intrinsically a nation brand, which needs to be articulated from the premise of a national identity. Although we continue to be proud of “Malaysia Truly Asia”, not all of us were part of its creation. And while Malaysians tend to support what we relate to without too much of a hassle, we could not defend the brand’s existence when challenged or dismissed. When brands are not created through shared values, policies and longer-term commitments, there is no permanent custodian, no governance to safeguard it and no empowerment of ownership across present and future stakeholders.

As Malaysia celebrates its 65rd birthday, it is perhaps timely to revisit the question of national identity. Who were we in 2000 and who are we in 2022? How do we want others to perceive us now as we recover from the effects of Covid-19 and restore our competitiveness as a nation beyond our many challenges? How do we strategically build an attractive nation brand to appeal to all, internally and externally?

The process of identity development inevitably starts from within. While our ancestors were from different countries of origin, we have a shared history. We speak a common national language. We carry the same passport. We stand for the same national anthem and we uphold the same constitution. Through the interface of our many cultures, we are and continue to be branded together as a nation in the need to belong.

As a snapshot of our identity, “Malaysia Truly Asia” is the endearing picture of how others see us from the outside. But a more enduring identity needs to go deeper, as when left undefined, unsupported or unmanaged, it will palpably fade and mutate away from the original intent.

Inasmuch as there is extraordinary respect and tolerance for one another in this country, what we don’t do enough is share the definition of our national identity, to collectively acknowledge our separate and intercultural strengths as bridges towards cohesiveness as a nation.

In 2019, Tourism Malaysia restored “Malaysia Truly Asia” as our destination brand. Despite the pause in brand commitment and investment, the measure of a great brand is the memories that remain when others have long been forgotten.

What survives today are the recollections of an appealing people-driven brand. Momentarily shaken by the frustrations of kleptocracy, the sadness of aviation tragedies and economic uncertainties, Malaysia ranked No 2 in the world after New Zealand for Covid-19 management in 2020. Brand building is not only about the cosmetics. So, hooray to us all!

As we go offline together with the rest of the world, what may stay imprinted in the minds of many from “Malaysia Truly Asia” are the happy sights and sounds of a multicultural Malaysia: the friendly faces, colourful customs, tolerance and hospitality. A country that wakes up each morning celebrating its cultural differences and steadfastly smiling through it all. Perhaps that is who we really are. Truly Malaysia.

Selamat Datang, Selamat Pulang and a belated Selamat Hari Malaysia.

Yasmin Ahmad Merican is a former partner at EY Malaysia and EY Global Consulting and the author of the black book of branding, The Right to Brand. She is also Adviser to Antarabudaya Malaysia and a member of AFS International Board of Trustees.