On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Let’s watch our own turf

And even the PWTC was not big enough as two other venues, the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and the Matrade Exhibition and Convention Centre, were incorporated to host the fair.  

Over 100 shuttle vehicles ferried 5,000 visitors comprising buyers, exhibitors and journalists from these venues to more than 10 participating hotels.  

Yet the event was only briefly reported by the media.  

Beyond the number of venues and exhibitors involved and the few words of wisdom from the minister that would most probably now be forgotten, the real excitement, was missed.  

Italian reporter Nicoletta Armenes was asked by her magazine to report about the exhibition, which she said was one of the best in Asia and featured the top four furniture makers in the world. 

“We are here to see and report what is being offered. We are talking big money here,” said the reporter from the Rima publication group, which has five magazines, including those published in English and Arabic. 

The Italians used to be number one in the furniture business but have now been dislodged by the Chinese.  

In 2004, Italy made US$10.5bil (RM36.8bil) against China’s US$10.3bil (RM36.1bil) but in 2005, China made US$13.5bil (RM47.3bil) against Italy’s US$10.2bil (RM35.8bil). It was a blow, and that fact was widely reported.  

Malaysia was in the 10th spot in 2004 with US$1.7bil (RM6bil) but climbed to the ninth position in 2005 with US$1.8bil (RM6.3bil). Closing in are the Indonesians and Vietnamese. 

For the first time in 2005, the Indonesians made it to the 10th spot, according to the World Furniture Review 2005. 

Organiser and MIFF chairman Datuk Tan Chin Huat walked up to as many participants as he could during the five days to shake hands and thank them personally for their support. 

“To keep Malaysia on the international map is my main concern,” said Tan, who started his career as a salesman selling sofa material to manufacturers. 

The fair is a feather in his cap because the powerful International Alliance of Furnishing Publications (IAFP), which has members worldwide, chose to celebrate its 10th anniversary here in conjunction with the fair. 

For those involved in the planning, there was another minor victory. Thailand had attempted to host a fair much earlier than Malaysia but failed. It started the fair after the KL event. 

Said one participant: “Timing is important because if you host it early, that means business would be done and sealed. Latecomers always lose out. It’s that simple.” 

But the competition continues to get stiffer each year. There are over 30 similar furniture fairs each year and in some cases, like in China, four are held simultaneously. 

Vietnam, for example, is said to be providing subsidy for the rubber wood used by its local manufacturers in a move to boost competitiveness. The low-cost of production has helped, too. 

But said Paris-based Jean-Jacques Dufour of Le Courier: “Low cost of production is only temporary. Even in China, wages have gone up and the same is reported in Poland. 

“Eventually, it will be the concept, design and quality that will make a country stand out. The growing affluence of people in Shanghai and Moscow, for example, will see upmarket clients looking for quality products.”  

He pointed out that over 300 Italian makers showed up in Moscow for an exhibition. 

Malaysia has so far been in a dominant position but more can be done if we wish to be more competitive. Support from the Government need not necessarily be in the form of subsidies. 

No doubt, agencies like Matrade have done their share by absorbing participation expenses for some manufacturers in overseas promotion missions and establishing a network for Malaysian businessmen. 

But more needs to be done by other government bodies in Malaysia.  

Malaysian businessmen who travel overseas will be able to tell you about the strong public relations exercise by many countries now. 

In China, it is not uncommon to see trade officials sending limousines right up to the tarmac to pick up investors and businessmen.  

Often, even police outriders are included for the VVIP treatment. For these people, there is no such thing as lining up for passports to be stamped.  

Nearer home, we have heard how Singapore offers permanent resident status and even places in university for investors and their children if they wish to do serious business there. 

For a start, Kuala Lumpur City Hall can waive the fees imposed on banners and billboards put up to promote such internationally endorsed events, which is being done in most countries.  

While such events are carried out by the private sector, there is increasingly a need for the Government to lend its support in a big way because ultimately, it's the country that benefits.  

But that aside, we need to maintain our turf, with Indonesia and Vietnam hot on our heels.  

We need to watch how we treat our rubber trees, the basis of our furniture industry. 

As they say, a piece of furniture is no longer just a piece of wood product but a multi-billion-dollar industry that needs to be selfishly guarded if Malaysia is to improve its position.