In a move that has raised eyebrows, the Government is helping to train local therapists for the spa industry to make it more professional and give it a Malaysian identity as well.
Amid the mushrooming of illegal massage and foot reflexology centres that offer "other" services, the National Spa Council, spearheaded by the Tourism and Culture Ministry (Motac), is striving to promote a good image for the local spa and massage industry. And it's going as far as to fund the training of local therapists in a move that has raised eyebrows.
In May, Motac found itself on the defensive when an English daily's columnist questioned the rationale of taxpayers funding the training of therapists for the benefit of profit-making private operators. The writer also asked how such a move could promote tourism and went on to claim that through negotiated tenders, RM700,000 (S$277,000) was paid to an academy in Selangor to train therapists.
It is a claim Motac (industry development) undersecretary Mohd Daud Mohd Arif disputes.
"We did not call for an open tender because training is a very specialised field," he says. "And, from 2013 up to May this year, only RM347,600 was paid to the academy for scholarships awarded to well-deserving students."
The RM700,000 quoted was the maximum amount approved by the Finance Ministry, not what was paid, he stresses.
The ministry's involvement is a necessity, as we need to diversify our tourism products, he adds.
"Spa and wellness is the current trend, which is why we are working hard to grow and promote it as a luxury industry."
There are some very good spas in Malaysia but the majority of therapists are foreigners, he says, explaining that such a scenario is not feasible because the Government plans to phase out foreign spa workers by Jan 1, 2017.
"So, to meet the need for quality local therapists and trainers, Motac started the Certified Centre of Excellence (COE) programme where we give scholarships to students who enrol at training centres that meet our stringent requirements," Mohd Daud says.
All COEs are registered with the Human Resources Ministry's Skill Development Department and must report to Motac regularly on training updates and the students' progress and placement at three-star to five-star rated spas upon graduation.
There are currently five COEs - Stella-In International Academy (Penang), Jari-jari Spa Training Academy (Sabah), Langkawi International Spa Academy (Kedah) and Energy Academy and Beaubelle Academy (Selangor).
Motac is aiming for a total of eight.
"Our investment must make sense," Mohd Daud explains. "The COE must ensure that all scholarship recipients are hired or they won't get paid. There is no lump sum payment upon signing a contract with us. Payment is progressive, so if a student drops out, we stop paying."