Making friends with Helsinki

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 18 Sep 2005

A spate of activities including the visits of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to Finland starting tomorrow and a high-level Finnish trade delegation to Kuala Lumpur next month signals the strengtheningof ties between Malaysia and Finland. AGATHA MATAYUN reports. 

WITH the Helsinki Conference in full swing, President Tarja Halonen of the Republic of Finland had more on her official plate than usual but she still made time to meet us and talk about why her country is interested in forging strong ties with Malaysia.  

Arriving on the dot for our “interview” with her, we – three journalists from Malaysia –had expected to wait a little while before she turned up. But she was already waiting for us as we were ushered into the meeting room of the Presidential Palace in Helsinki. 

I think most Malaysiansknow Nokia, but Finland isnot only Nokia. We are also goodin paper, in metal industryand in forestry— President Tarja Halonen

Known for her warm and gracious personality, President Halonen conveyed her sincere hope that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s visit would be “a very successful” one and that it would “make Finland a bit more visible in your country.” 

In the course of the almost 30-minute meeting, she touched on a wide variety of topics, including her special interest in globalisation and reform of the UN, bilateral and economic ties with Malaysia, how both countries could work together on the global stage, and the ways that Finland could work with Malaysia in a number of issues, particularly in tackling corruption. 

“I think most Malaysians know Nokia, but Finland is not only Nokia. We are also good in paper, in metal industry and in forestry,” she said. 

In land size, Finland at 338,145sq km is slightly larger than Malaysia (329,758sq km) but it only has a small population of 5.2 million people. 

“We are a small country, originally poor, and not even 100 years independent,” President Halonen said. 

“But today we are one of the best in the world in terms of competitiveness, and equality, and we are No.1 on the list of least corrupt countries. We have succeeded in research activities and I think we have benefits that we can share. We are ready to introduce our society to you, and we are interested in what’s going on with you. We know you have positive development, low inflation and good economic growth, and also your people are well educated.” 

We have experiences that can help your companies, your people, and your business community, she added. 

“Also, I respect and admire very much the position of Malaysia today in its leadership of some main multilateral organisations (OIC and NAM) and I think your country will have an important position in meetings with the EU countries and Apec countries.” 

She said that in this scenario, having strong ties with Malaysia will be especially important for Finland's multilateral relations as it will be holding the presidency of the EU from July next year. 

Furthermore, she said, with your position in Asia, your country could become the regional headquarters of many businesses. 

Globalisation is an issue close to the President's heart, and in this she expressed her hope that Malaysia and Finland will work closely together on the global stage. 

“I know we have different backgrounds,” she said, citing among others that Finland is a fairly homogeneous country with a population that's mainly Christian whereas Malaysia is multi-cultural and with a Muslim majority. “But I think we are quite moderate, pragmatic people. Perhaps we could, in that way, be constructive for global work.” 

She is also happy with Malaysia's support for the Helsinki Process, a concept initiated by Finland in the early 1970s (in the Cold War era) that has gained international repute in its success at resolving certain regional and international conflicts. (The recent peace deal between the Indonesian Government and the separatist movement in Aceh, for example, came about as the result of a “Helsinki Process”.)  

The Helsinki Conference from Sept 7 to Sept 9 was the culmination of a Helsinki Process on Globalisation and Democracy, which was jointly launched by the governments of Finland and Tanzania on Dec 2002. It stems from the belief that inclusive and equitable globalisation should be promoted through closer dialogue and new partnerships that embrace not only governments but also civil society and the private sector.  

Malaysia, as one of the “friends of the Helsinki Process”, was represented at the Conference by a delegation headed by Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar. 

“I am very happy that the Helsinki Conference was very successful,” President Halonen said with a warm laugh. “And thank you to your people for their participation.” 

Finland has been consistently ranked in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index as the least corrupt country in the world, and President Halonen was keen to share her country's experience in combating the scourge that she described as a cancer. 

“You never know when it comes, and you have to be ready all the time to fight it,” she said. 

President Halonen cited four important ways of tackling corruption: good governance, transparency, adequate wages for civil servants and creating a tradition where it is not honourable to take money. The last one is the most difficult, she said. “This will take time to build.” 

Finland set up its embassy in Kuala Lumpur in the 1980s, but it was only in November last year that Malaysia did likewise in Helsinki. However, ambassador Syed Sultan Idris is making up for lost time. 

“Officially, there are 160 Malaysians here, mostly married to Finns, and there are a few working in higher institutions,” he said. “Malaysians open restaurants and the business venture is only in food but I am proud. At least that is something.” 

Syed said there are a lot of areas that Finland can help Malaysia with, including in the biotechnology and ICT sectors. 

“Right now, there is a lot of furniture, teakwood and garden furniture, coming in from Malaysia,” he said. 

“And I am interested in getting the Finns to come to Malaysia as tourists. We have a lot to offer them and they are quality tourists. 

“We could perhaps get Finnair and MAS to put together tour packages for them. Right now, they are going to Nexus Hotel in Sabah.” 

Tourism sounds promising indeed, with President Halonen herself saying that Finns “are very active in tourism.” 

Related Stories:Platform for building stronger ties 

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