IDEAS: The Malaysia Truly Global story

Edward Ong is on a quest to discover and create Malaysia’s best ideas. He is an award-winning Writer and Creative Director and can be found at

Malaysia has been making headlines lately. Assuming nothing major happens between the time of writing and publication of this article, our tanahair currently stands as a shining beacon of democracy.

Sure, there are people who equate Malaysia with a missing plane, missing pastors and missing millions. Nothing new. Way back then, people even equated our beloved land with unwashed natives swinging from trees.

This imagery about tree dwellers was a running joke for many years. Perhaps owing to the fact that countries in the far east were seen as exotic, mysterious, and uncharted.

And then one day, the west started to change their minds about Malaysia. Our country began appearing in international news. Malaysia wasn’t just a developing nation, it was developing in its own way.
When did the change happen? What was the tipping point?

I believe it was around 1999. In that fateful year, two things happened: The Tourism Ministry introduced the tagline, ‘Malaysia. Truly Asia’, and Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir officially opened the Petronas Twin Towers.

For the first time, the world had a verbal nail (Malaysia. Truly Asia) and a visual hammer (The Petronas Twin Towers) to drive home the message of brand Malaysia. The Petronas Twin Towers presented a modern and dynamic face of New Asia.

That’s not to say previous tourism ads didn’t have powerful visuals. Just that imagery shown on a major news network had a stronger impact.

It was at that time, the world’s tallest building- until it was surpassed in 2004 by the Taipei 101.

Visuals are powerful. Once an image lodges itself in the mind, it can be hard to extract.

In WW1, German cruisers had 3 smokestacks, British cruisers had 4. Everybody knew this and adhered strictly to this design rule. Whether you loaded the cannon or rolled out the welcome mat depended on the number of smokestacks on the incoming ship.

It wasn’t long before somebody found a (seemingly obvious) way to exploit this technicality. That somebody was Karl von Muller, a veteran German captain.

He added a dummy forth smokestack on his ship. From a distance, the SMS Emden looked like any other British ship with its captain presumably enjoying tea and crumpets on the deck.

The SMS Emden approached many Allied ships unopposed before unleashing total destruction on the surrounding vessels.

Muller used the same tactic over and over again to stamp naval superiority on the Indian Ocean. According to one report, the Emden captured nine ships and sank six others over a period of nine days.

Times were simpler back then. Visuals are powerful, and powerful visuals stick in the mind. It’s what every great marketing campaign needs.

The Marlboro Man. SIA’s Singapore Girl. BSN’s Kucing Happy. Nippon Paint’s Blobbies. Mamee Monster. McD’s Golden Arches. Nike’s swoosh logo. The distinctive orange of Carotino’s cooking oil.

The shapely contours of the famous coke bottle. The memorable silhouette of the Petronas Twin Towers.

Built on the site of a former horse-racing track, the towers are just one of Tun Dr Mahathir’s many megaprojects. He had at it all planned out- long before the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

It is said that Tun sketched, on a napkin, the eight-point Muslim star on which the Argentine architect used as the basis for the towers.

The buildings are now firmly entrenched in pop culture and appear every so often on the big screen. It’s not as if we don’t have other interesting buildings but you know, once a visual lodges itself in the mind…

In a sense, the project is our country’s best and most effective tourism campaign.

Sans maintenance fees, the campaign costs USD1.6bil, created global talk-ability on the day it was launched, and continues to provides incremental ROI- as reflected in the number of tourists who make it a must-see destination.

The skyscrapers are also a fitting tribute to the growth of Petronas, our national oil company that is now a world-class multinational.

Granted, erecting iconic buildings to make a statement is nothing new. Cities do it all the time. Nonetheless, the launch of the towers was a defining moment for Malaysia.

It gave the world what it didn’t know it wanted: A visual hammer to nail in a powerful message about brand Malaysia.

It’s an idea that stands out in many ways. Some of which we haven’t realised or discovered. Some of which can only be appreciated in hindsight.
For this writer, it was when Malaysia Truly Asia became Malaysia Truly Global.

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