Malaysia is a big tourist destination, yes. "Malaysia, Truly Thief Asia" has been constantly advertised on CNN International for years, Penang and Langkawi are resort hotspots and Kuching and Kota Kinabalu are big culture/adventure travel destinations. But, compared to its neighbors, Indonesia with Borobudur and Bali, Cambodia with Angkor Wat, the international hub city of Singapore and of course Thailand, Malaysia pales as a tourist destination. This sort of seems like a fact of life, but why? What about Malaysia makes it relatively unappealing, so lame-seeming? It can certainly be good value, with many services at first world levels for discount prices. The food is excellent. Melaka and Penang have intriguing history and there is natural beauty galore on Borneo. Is Malaysia's poor reputation unmerited? Admittedly we've spent little time in Malaysia, just a couple weeks in Borneo and about a week in Peninsular Malaysia, but our answer would be no. Malaysia just isn't in the same league.
The first problem with Malaysia is, apparently, violence. I do not know the statistics on this, but Malaysia is the only country in Asia (other than the Philippines) where I have heard repeated safety concerns from other travelers. Yes, you may be conned in Bangkok and there are certainly some government-related issues in Burma and China, but East/Southeast Asia as a whole (other than the Philippines) is extraordinarily safe, one of the region's many strengths for travelers. Even Jakarta, which I had at one point ignorantly feared, feels astonishingly safe on the ground. In sharp contrast, in the short time that we were in Kuala Lumpur (KL), we heard two separate stories about muggings, and I was physically attacked in the main bus station (more on this below).
The second problem with Malaysia is racism and racial tension. While Malaysia has a history dating from the 15th century or so as a Malay-ethnic sultantate, Malaysia as a modern country is largely the product of colonial powers (first Portuguese and Dutch and then British) and labor brought in by those powers (the Chinese for manual labor and commerce, the Indians for administration and the service sector). Well into the twentieth century, the principal cities of Malaysia were largely built, owned and populated by Chinese, who made up nearly half of the country's population. The smaller Indian population is augmented by the presence of overseas workers from the subcontinent. Yes, Malaysia is a multicultural society, but Malaysia's vision of itself as a country where all three of the major ethnic groups live together in complete harmony sometimes seems to be more dream than reality.
The biggest problem, in my view, is discriminatory Malaysian laws. I do not deny that it is unfortunate for your "homeland" to be taken over by an outside ethnic group that has been brought in by a colonial power (the Palestinians certainly can identify with that)--the Chinese minority is still disproportionately economically powerful--but the policies put in by the majority Malay (now some 60% of the population) amount to little other than discrimination against and theft from the Chinese and Indians. Public companies are required to be at least 30% owned by Bumiputras (i.e., "sons of the earth," or Malays and certain other "native" groups), new housing construction is required to be sold to Bumiputras at a discount, Bumiputras are allowed affirmative access in higher education and many government contracts and permits are given to Bumiputras on a preferential basis. This racist system is enshrined in the Malaysian constitution, and although the provision was supposed to be temporary, and there is occasionally talk of trimming back on its application, it remains in place.
The laws are no doubt both an effect of and a cause of racial sentiment that seems prevalent throughout the country. Malaysia is certainly not the only country with racial tension (Indonesia in particular is infamous for racial riots that have occurred in its history), but, currently, Malaysia is, outside of the U.S., the country in which I've felt the greatest amount of animosity among different ethnic groups. Our conflict at the bus station was with Malay-ethnic Malaysians, and Chinese-ethnic Malaysians who were present immediately came to our defense, telling us that as Americans in a position of relative influence we had to report what had happened to us. One middle-aged Chinese woman said that "they" (meaning Malays) commit all kinds of crimes, especially against defenseless South Asians, and get away with it. She was also mistrustful of the police, and told me that I should make sure to keep copies of all reports that we make, to ensure that they are not subsequently doctored. An Indian police officer who handled our matter said that such violence was a "national epidemic," with the subtle implication that it was a Malay-ethnic problem. A Chinese taxi driver told us not to take Indian taxis, because they would rip us off (perhaps in this case a justified prejudice, judging from our limited sample). Surveys have shown that racial stereotypes are widely held in Malaysia, with people believing Malays to be lazy, Chinese greedy and Indians dishonest.
Third, Islam is manifesting itself in Malaysia in strange ways. People may think of Malaysia as the more modern and cosmopolitan of the two Muslim Southeast Asian nations, but, it seems to me, Malaysia, far more than Indonesia, is turning to a sort of fundamentalist version of Islam that is bizarrely conservative and reactionary. (I have read that the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Indonesia was at one time called "the Malaysian problem" because Malaysia was the Asian source of the movement.) All Malays are subject to sharia (or Islamic law) courts, which have ruled apostasy a crime. Malaysia is famous for having pursued, essentially as a political crime, a sodomy charge against a former prime minister. Our bus station altercation involved an argument with a woman, whom I had to shake off of me at one point because she was forcefully grabbing my arm and not letting go--a person standing by told me that I should have my hand cut off for fighting with a woman ("chop chop chop," she cheerfully said, making a chopping gesture with her hand), a demented vision of Islamic punishment. Ideas which are out of date seem even more backward when placed in a foreign cultural setting--it may make sense for some Arab countries to wish to revert back to a more glorious Arab past, but in Malaysia the adoption of the foreign code of behavior feels not only anachronistic (shifted in time) but misplaced (shifted in space and culture).
Finally, however Malaysia may try to sell itself as a developed country, the primitive state of some of its public transport culture shows that it is in some ways still very much a third world country. First, the taxis. I remember, not too long ago, when taxis in Korea used to rip customers off--overcharging foreigners, refusing to use the meter, refusing to go to certain parts of town, etc. At some point, some combination of the government, drivers and customers recognized that developed countries do not behave this way, and taxis are now, for the most part, totally clean. Vietnam is clearly still on the developing end of the scale, according to this metric, while Thailand with its combination of meters and crooked drivers falls somewhere in between. The taxis in KL are some of the absolute worst for ripping travelers off--perhaps the only place we've seen worse is Delhi, and that's saying an awful lot. Drivers in central KL routinely refuse to use their meters and instead quote astronomical rates that are multiples of the proper fare. Rather than turn their meter on or accept a reasonable fare, they will simply tell you to get out of their car. The government apparently lacks the will or the means to clean this up, despite the extremely poor impression it makes on travelers to Malaysia, while the lack of dignity on the part of the drivers reveals a grave deficiency in the levels of civics and ethics.
But even worse than the taxis (after all, a common problem, even if not to the level of KL) is the situation at Puduraya Bus Station. Puduraya is the country's largest bus station and is located right in the heart of KL. If you've been in Korea or Turkey or Mexico or any other country with well-developed bussing, you know that bus lines can be extremely comfortable and professional. I recall that the main bus terminal in Mexico City is pretty much like an airport in terms of modernity and efficiency, Turkish busses famously have attendants that give you cologne and Korean busses leave precisely on time, almost to a fault, with many offering 2-1 seating (two seats on one side of the aisle, one on the other). Even Indian bus stations, for all their chaos, are pretty well run, with reliable schedules and fares by state-owned companies.
Puduraya is, simply put, the worst bus station we've ever seen. The place is in congested central KL (has no-one thought to move this thing a bit out of town?) and, in steamy Malaysia, not air conditioned. All of the guidebooks refer to it as a den of pickpockets. There are some fifty or so ticket counters--competition run amok with no sense of regulation--and no centralized way to figure out when what busses are going where. Worst of all are the many scams. We fell prey on the one ride we tried to take out of Puduraya and met another tourist who was also an angry victim. Reports online suggest that the scams are extremely common, not only but especially for tourists. It goes something like this: You buy a ticket, and at some point someone pretends to be a ticket agent and tears off your stub. Given the chaos of the station, with literally dozens of companies, almost no-one in uniform and multiple companies operating in each bay, this does not happen only to the naive. Then, when it comes time for you to get on your bus, you are told that your ticket is invalid and your assigned seat has been sold to another passenger.
What happened to us was a slight variation on this. We showed up for our bus exactly seven minutes early, but didn't find a bus. Bus station employees who were standing at our bay told us to wait, and then tore off our ticket stub. After waiting for twenty minutes, we realized that our bus must have left without us (as we learned later, after filling our seats with other passengers who were charged an on-the-spot premium for getting on an earlier bus), and so went angrily to ask for a refund. At the counter, we were told that our tickets could not be refunded because the stubs had been torn off, despite the fact that we were not the only passengers who had been waiting, promptly and in the right place, and never even saw the bus. Basically, this ploy allows the companies to sell more tickets than there are seats on the bus. In our case, with a typically Malaysian twist it turns out, this dispute led to the crook running up behind me and hitting my head with a heavy walkie-talkie.
When Derek defended me with a quick punch to my attacker, an angry crowd of Malays converged, all siding with the attacker (later we learned that they were likely other resident con-artists who were part of the same gang). But many others knew exactly what was going on. A taxi driver (figuring it best to get out quickly, we opted for an expensive long-distance taxi instead of trying another bus) told us that there's a "mafia" of ticket sellers and con artists operating at the station, selling tickets to buses that don't exist and otherwise getting people to pay for tickets that they cannot use. It is equally well known among well-seasoned travelers. To quote Lonely Planet's Thorntree message board:
"Having been traveling for over 16 months through Northern Asia, Latin America, Australasia and now South East Asia we have seen a lot of bus stations (at the moment we have used over 115 intercity buses on this trip) but we agreed that Puduraya was the worst we had seen so far in terms of ease of use, safety and reliability. "
"Agreed, Kuala Lumpur's Puduraya Bus Terminal is a hellhole. Those of us who know Puduraya would love to avoid it, but when going through KL [by] bus, there are few options. For a country that pretends to be on the treshold of joining the First World league of nations, it has some of the worst bus terminals anywhere; even India's are better; Malaysia's bus terminals are not even Third World, but more like Fourth World. "
Given these safety concerns, the institutionalized racism and racial tension and "fourth world" transportation hassles, is it any wonder that so many travelers prefer to go to friendly Thailand, rustic Laos or service-focused Bali?