[Viewpoint] Tight bond needed with Malaysia

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[Viewpoint] Tight bond needed with Malaysia

Paris is not France.

That is something I often heard during my correspondent days in Paris. To talk about a country after seeing just the capital would be no different than blind men saying they knew an elephant after touching only different parts of its body. Still, I wish to remark on Malaysia from a short visit to Kuala Lumpur, because the capital made a deep impression on me.

Anyone who had considered Malaysia as just a tropical Southeast Asian destination would immediately drop their jaws once they set foot in the ultra-modern and expansive Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The award-winning airport serves as the regional aviation hub and its services are ranked among the best, along with the airports in Incheon, Singapore and Hong Kong.

You can see the Petronas twin skyscrapers signaling downtown from the expressway that conveniently links the airport to any part of the Malay Peninsula.

The 88-story, 452-meter-tall (1,483-foot-tall) buildings had been the world’s tallest until the record was broken by Taiwan’s landmark financial center in 2004. The towers, each erected by Korean and Japanese builders, symbolize the country’s economic rise and prosperity.

The country’s per capita income is only $8,118, but Kuala Lumpur stands equal to any world-class city in looks, with its lush tropical landscape and posh, postmodern skyline.

Most impressive was its global cosmopolitan ambience.

Everyone spoke English. Although Bahasa Malaysia is the national tongue, English is spoken as the first language by many.

Local participants in a forum cosponsored by the Korea Foundation and the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia all spoke fluent English.

Foreigners rarely feel out of place in this multicultural, multiracial and multifaith society. Many multinational companies base their headquarters in Kuala Lumpur because of this accessibility.

Despite its diversity and religious freedom, the country at heart is an Islamic nation.

The Malay that form the largest community practice and follow Muslim customs and culture. Women cover themselves with scarves while outdoors and the local press notifies the public of daily prayer times. The Bible and Koran are placed side by side in hotel rooms.

Each room also has an arrow pointing in the direction of Mecca. All food specifies whether it is edible for Muslims. Middle Eastern tourists prefer Malaysia as a shopping and vacation destination because they feel at home there.

Foreign tourists here totaled 22 million last year, tripling the number of visitors to Korea.

The country is naturally blessed, bestowed with rich resources like petroleum, natural gas, rubber and tin as well as agricultural produces like palm oil and tropical fruit.

Moreover, it boasts a geographical edge by controlling the Malacca Strait that has served as an international shipping hub for many centuries. Ships from the Persian Gulf carrying oil and other raw materials must pass the narrow waterway to pass the Indian Ocean on the way to East Asian markets on the Pacific.

The Malacca royals reaped huge wealth from trading between Asia and Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. More than 120 languages were spoken in the ports during that time.

The country’s multilingual and multifaceted social legacy took root from those golden trading days.

China has taken great interest in Malaysia. During his state visit to Malaysia last week, Chinese President Hu Jintao took time to view the channel through which most of his country’s imports have passed from as early as the Ming Dynasty.

The lanes take on increasing strategic importance as China makes aggressive inroads in the global community.

Malaysia serves as a kind of torchbearer in the modern Islamic world. Its capital is the Muslim financial hub and Malaysia sets most of the guidelines and standards in commercial trade among Islamic markets. The Islamic population is one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the world rich with resources and human networks. We must seek greater partnership with Malaysia for joint ventures with Islamic societies.

We cannot refer to Malaysia, in which a coalition is essential to run a multiethnic society, as a model derived from Western social political textbooks.

President Lee Myung-bak emphasized unity among Southeast Asian nations, but the bloc is not one; it is rather many different societies.

We must tailor our diplomacy accordingly to address and engage each society. Otherwise, we won’t benefit from strategically valuable and resource-rich markets like Malaysia.

*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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