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Opinion

Give Malaysia a Break

Rais Hussin calls for an end to comparing Mahathir to Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew, left, and Mahathir Mohamad meet at the latter's office in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur on April 27, 2005.   © Reuters

In the Nikkei Asian Review article of Feb. 6, "Mahathir still living in the shadow of Lee Kuan Yew?", Nikkei Asia Editor Toru Takahashi argues that the Malaysian prime minister is somehow living in the shadow of the late prime minister of Singapore who passed away in 2015.

It bewilders the mind that Lee Kuan Yew has to be resurrected in the article, when Dr. Mahathir has long moved on. As he once affirmed, "it is impolite talk about the dead."

The truth is Lee Kuan Yew was once in awe of Dr. Mahathir's tenacity to campaign well into his late 80s. The facts showed that both leaders have always respected the iron will and steely determination of the other, from well before both the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965.

If geography is destiny, small countries connected to bigger hinterlands must know how to conduct their diplomacy with bigger neighbors with poise, tactfulness and sheer gentleness.

According to this principle, since the end of Konfrontasi in 1965, when tensions ran very high between Malaysia and Indonesia, both countries have learned to keep the peace. Malaysia has always seen the importance not of appeasing Jakarta at every turn but of harboring overwhelming goodwill toward Indonesia, including over the maritime dispute in the Sea of Ambalat.

Malaysia knows it cannot challenge Indonesia, lock, stock and barrel. It would be nothing short of a collective suicide.

Malaysia's behavior is not unlike that of Finland toward Russia. Although Russia is a thousand times bigger than Finland, Moscow has not had any serious problems with Helsinki since the Second World War. Why is this the case?

The reason is simple. Instead of poking a stick into the eye of the Russian bear, Finland has always encouraged the whole of Europe to consult with Russia time and again. The Conference of Security and Cooperation (CSCE), also known as the Helsinki Process in 1970s, culminated in a better relationship with Russia that even survived the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1990. CSCE became the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has as its primary goal encouraging arms reduction.

Takahashi's evidence seems to revolve around the recent dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over the waters in the Straits of Johor. But both sides have agreed to find a negotiated solution.

If anything, many Malaysians including Dr. Mahathir have had a healthy respect for the late Mr. Lee. During his first time in office, the maiden trip of Dr. Mahathir was Singapore.

There was no fear of any loss of face. As the leader of a bigger country, in terms of size at least, Dr. Mahathir knew then -- as he knows now -- he has to set the tenor of the bilateral relationship on behalf of the cabinet members of the two countries.

In fact it would appear that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching understood the delicacy of the bilateral diplomacy just as much. When Dr. Mahathir recently returned to office, the first couple from Singapore paid an early visit to Putrajaya to meet Dr. Mahathir and his wife Siti Hasmah.

Rais Hussin is a member of the decision-making supreme council of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

We welcome readers' letters via email to letters.editor@nex.nikkei.co.jp. Please see guidelines link.

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