KOTA KINABALU, Oct 28 — The appointment of former world No. 1 shuttler Datuk Lee Chong Wei as the state’s tourism ambassador has received flak from many Sabahans who feel that the role should be reserved for those with a stronger connection to Sabah.

Sabahans expressed their discontent on social media and through coffee shop chatter, questioning the rationale of appointing Lee, a Penangite, when there were other local-born personalities who they said were better qualified to helm the role.

“LCW should promote Malaysia or his birth town, not Sabah, LCW should decline it respectfully as this is a selection issue. There are a pool of Sabahans who can promote the state better and more effectively,” said Facebook user Denis Shen.

“Is there really no Sabahans who are available for the job? Won’t they know better what Sabah is about? He is famous in the world of badminton, maybe in the sporting world, but how much does he know about Sabah?” said another Facebook user known as Emma R.

Although many were respectful of the 39-year-old shuttler’s personal achievements and contribution to the country, they questioned his qualifications as tourism ambassador, to a state which he was last known to have visited in 2008, where he claimed the world title for the World Super Series Masters Final.

“Maybe they are appealing to the badminton market, but people are questioning this appointment because they do not know what his contribution to the state is. He came here to get a JP (Justice of Peace) award from the TYT, and now suddenly he is tourism ambassador. It is insulting to Sabahans who have always had to give leeway to West Malaysia and suggests something political,” said a tourism industry player who only wanted to be known as Reuben.

“The Ministry or the Tourism Board could explain what the justification is — has he been contributing to the state? What are his credentials that qualify him to be a representative to Sabah and what he can bring to the tourism table, perhaps a major sports event or conference — I think people can accept it better. As it stands, he is better qualified as a sports ambassador — not for tourism.”

The controversy first started with news of the Olympic silver medallist receiving a JP award.

It gained more ground when state Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Jafry Arifin announced that Lee had been appointed as the state’s tourism envoy from now until December 2022.

According to Jafry, it was Lee’s global reach in the Asia-Pacific and South-east Asia markets, as well as other badminton-playing countries such as the United Kingdom and Denmark — “traditional” travel markets for Sabah’s tourism industry pre-Covid-19 — that made him the ideal candidate for the post.

Lee told reporters he was looking forward to spending more time getting to know Sabah and sharing the beauty of the state with the world.

Sabah Tourist Association (STA) chairman Tonny Chew, however, lauded the decision and said that Lee, as a globally accomplished athlete and Malaysian, could promote Sabah in his own unique way.

“I am aware of all the arguments against a non-Sabahan in the role but look at it in a positive way. He has a lot of fans throughout the world. For sure he can bring a lot of awareness to his audience and can promote Sabah in terms of sports tourism.

“He has a profile and portfolio unlike any other Malaysian, a world-class player. I think he can showcase Sabah to a new and different market. And why not? The more the merrier.

“We should support any kind of movement and measures to promote the state. We cannot just limit it to Sabahans. We could be missing out. Other figures may be more popular in the adventure industry; others may have fans in the entertainment arena. The point is different figures have their own audience,” said Chew.

He added that it should not matter where the tourism ambassador is from, but that they can bring tourists, awareness or attention to Sabah.

“Some things I agree should be reserved for Sabahans. But not when it comes to tourism,” he said.

Previously, the state appointed Taiwan-based singer Gary Chaw, who was born in Kota Belud but grew up abroad.