Peter Mueller — our pioneering global hotelier

The great advantage of a hotel is that it is a refuge from home life.

— George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright

Rome was not built in a day, as the saying goes, and Peter Ernest Muller knows this too well having established the Sarawak’s first international hotel.

Now called Grand Margherita, Peter whom I have fondly call the “General” because of his tough work ethics, has spent the best part of half a century in Sarawak.

Together with a handful of locals such as accountant Koh Poh Liang, they built up Holiday Inn Kuching through innovativeness and local know-how. Having studied in Kuching for my HSC in 1967, worked part time singer at Aurora hotel and Hotel in KL and Malacca as a crooner during the Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck era, I learnt a fair bit of the entertainment-cum-hospitality business.

In Faraway, Switzerland, Mueller dreamed of making a name for himself as a hotelier.

Nicknamed “Bruno” by his mother, Peter heard about the “wild man of the forest” in the remote jungles of Borneo when he was a young man.

“During our history lessons at school, we learnt that it was the land of headhunters. I never realised that one day I would fall in love with a country called Sarawak,” he said.

But in the early years of his career, he worked at some of the best hotels in Asia.

It was quite a pleasant surprise when the Peninsular Group which managed the Holiday Inn, decided to send him to Borneo.

On May 1, 1975 — Labour Day — he boarded a Singapore Airlines flight and was on his way to “beautiful Kuching”. It was a pleasant journey as the plane swooped in past Gunung Santubong and the Sarawak River as it meandered its way to the state capital.

Reminisced Mueller: “As the plane was coming in, I spotted a small building next to the large RMAF airbase. Was this part of the RMAF complex or the Kuching airport itself, I thought to myself!”

Indeed, when he landed, he found that the forlorn building was in fact the Old Kuching International Airport!

“It looked like one of the small airports in an under-developed country,” Mueller chuckled.

Four decades have gone by and Mueller, who is now resident in Perak, occasionally visits Kuching.

From the old airport building, it was the pioneers such as Mueller who witnessed the upgrading of travel facilities with Sarawak’s first Kuching International Airport which ushered a new era with an influx of international tourists.

Having been brought up in Kuching in the late 1960s, I remember some of the old friends — some still living and some gone to be with their maker — the likes of the late Bernard Solosa and late Shamsir Salleh Askor who played a major role in the making of a modern Kuching.

Long before the rash of new hotels — the Hiltons, Crown Plazas, Riverside Majestics, Pullman and Imperial hotels — they were the pioneers who established the foundations of the Holiday Inn Kuching (HIK) and Holiday Inn Damai Resort leading to the opening of new products — The World Rainforest Music Festival at the Sarawak Cultural Village.

On Mueller’s maiden visit to Kuching, one of the first persons he met was Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg who was then working with Malaysian Airlines at the Electra House building in the heart of Kuching.

Now the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Abang Johari will remember the 1960s and early 1970s when the only form of entertainment was Radio Sarawak.

Added Mueller: “In those days, Holiday Inn did not have any entertainment TV because we did not have television coverage. I remember very well, as lots of guests complained.

“When we finally got our TV sets, we had only two channels — RTM 1 and RTM 2 — and the TVs were black and white. Colour TV came much later.”

As Kuching did not have much attraction, Mueller helped the Sarawak Forest Department promote the newly-opened Semenggok Orang Utan rehabilitation which was established in May 1975.

Mueller also persuaded Johnson Jong who owned a small crocodile breeding station and “mini zoo” along the Mile 17 Kuching-Serian Road to open up his farm to visitors.

Today, Jong’s farm is a mini zoo which focuses on a “jumping crocodile” show.

Kuching with its network of new airports at Miri, Bintulu and Sibu and upgraded at Mulu has seen great transformation.

While the Kelabit community has come up with the innovative annual “Pesta Nukenen” Food Festival, the Sarawak government needs to encourage domestic tourism.

Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts Minister Datuk Seri Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah is a hands-on minister and has focussed his attention on Kuching so far.

Mulu, which is home to the last nomads, is a great attraction for adventurers, but we seldom hear of cultural activities in the remote parts of Baram.

What about a Penan cultural extravaganza or a Penan museum at the Royal Mulu Hotel?

As the biggest state with untapped potential, Sarawak can regain its reputation as one of the world’s best destinations.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.

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