I wrote and published this piece for Loyar Burok on 1st November, generating in what was a considerably powerful response from the Malaysian public online that resulted in the public dressing-down of Reggae Mansion via The Star newspaper. Suffice to say, this is testament to the fact that a successful link between online blogging and citizen action can sometimes happen in Malaysia.
I was struck by the blatant ableism, racism, ageism, and xenophobia displayed by the proprietors who run Reggae Mansion, Malaysia’s “newest and funkiest” chain of hostels and guesthouses. No doubt bigotry occurs at a systemic level in Malaysia, the kind of bigotry against Malaysians on Malaysian soil recalls the days of European invasion and systematic racism of untold horror where local people were excluded from entering certain public establishments. With branches in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, the company proudly demonstrates its credentials as an exclusive and highly sophisticated place for tourists to stay and call one’s home away from home. Reggae Mansion Hostel also stresses that it caters to an “international” clientele of backpackers, a subtle code suggested by its promotional photos to mean white backpackers.
Unfortunately, exclusivity also means the gates are tightly shut to “riffraff” otherwise known as Malaysians, Indian and Middle Eastern nationals. The proprietors will declare bookings from people of these national backgrounds “null and void.” Reggae Mansion Hostel is also not wheelchair accessible which means wheelchair users due to disabilities, age, and / or injury cannot easily enter the premises of the “funky” hostel. Just to further demonstrate how unwelcoming they are, Reggae Mansion is closed to prospective guests over the age of 60.
How did a public establishment arrive to such an extreme policy of exclusion? It has been a long and unproblematic issue in Malaysia that many public spaces are just not wheelchair-friendly. The fault lies in our generally ableist society where social welfare is hard to come by and people ignore the under-privileged for the sake of “minding one’s own business.” For a “mansion” hostel that has a cinema room equipped with a THX sound system and intercom on every floor, it is surprising why its management team did not bother to invest in a wheelchair-accessible environment. Rejecting guests over the age of 60 meanwhile suggests that older people will be a nuisance to younger guests and unappreciative of the young backpacker lifestyle, if there was such a lifestyle to begin with. Hence, it will be far easier to ban an undesirable group of guests than to go into the trouble of making a space inclusive and welcoming for everybody.
The far more disturbing form of exclusion demonstrated by Reggae Mansion is its policy against Malaysian, Indian, and Middle Eastern guests. Whether it is an indication of the proprietor’s racism against Indian and Middle Eastern people, and the classism against groups of Malaysian tourists who can only afford to stay in backpacker hostels is anyone’s guess. It could also be a policy that accommodates xenophobia and Eurocentrism. In other words, it may be based on the assumption that white backpackers would not like to share rooms with brown-skinned people because of their stereotypically uncouth and criminal behaviour.
The anti-local policy is reminiscent of the many plush hotels and resorts that dot the beautiful beaches of Thailand, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Maldives where locals are barred from walking on its sands and swimming in its waters. Instead of ethnicity, locals are excluded as guests based on class; locals are certainly more than welcome as service providers so long as they remain in the background of a tourist’s paradise. Reggae Mansion is not much different in perpetuating this unequal racial and class dynamic, by simply barring the custom of Malaysians, Indian and Middle Eastern altogether while rolling out the red carpet for white tourists.
The unfounded “logic” it seems is that white tourists who travel on a shoe-string budget, who may even come from working-class backgrounds are good for business, but Malaysians, Indians, and Middle Eastern people of similar background are for some reason bad for business. Many legitimate guests will leave the country with the disconcerting message that “Malaysian businesses are not only allowed to be shamelessly xenophobic, ageist, and deliberately ableist, but appear to be hostile to their own citizens”. How tragic.
In capitalist Malaysia, profit-driven policies trump social equality and efforts to end discrimination. In the weeks approaching the Bersih 2.0 rally on 9th July this year, marchers were warned not to take to the streets lest they will disrupt businesses. It is only in a culture where we put profit ahead of people where such a protest against demanding greater democracy is common sense. Reggae Mansion Hostel and Guest Houses in Kuala Lumpur and Penang have no reason to turn away great swaths of people from its door unless its owner(s) truly believe that racism, ableism, xenophobia, and ageism are good for business. Reggae Mansion Hostel also makes the offensive assumption that its target clientele are also racist and xenophobic, incapable of sharing their space with so-called “uncivilised” brown people.
Short of boycotting Reggae Mansion, which may not make much of a direct impact on its business since Malaysian guests need not apply, we must condemn its heavily exclusionist policies. There is still hope in the many hostels in Malaysia that are welcoming spaces which do not question your ethnic, national, and class background, sexuality, age, and religious beliefs. Some hostels make it a point to build ramps, automated doors, and lifts so that wheelchair users can move independently and inhabit public spaces as freely as able-bodied people. Businesses which are premised on bigotry have no place in the tourism industry and certainly not in Malaysia.