An unassuming Thursday was made special for those of us in the BSM Scandinavia class of 2015 on the last week of March. We were honoured to be invited to the Swedish Residence, home of the Swedish Ambassador to Singapore, where we were greeted by him and three other Nordic dignitaries and graciously welcomed.
The Danish Ambassador, Ms Berit Basse, was the first to share with us. She spoke about Denmark’s history, and the reasons behind the country’s keen interest in renewable energy. Most of us, at some point in our education or another, would most probably have heard of the oil crisis of the 1970s. What is less well-known to us, however, is how heavily impacted Denmark was, with 99% of the country’s energy being imported in the form of oil from the Middle East at that time. With the oil crisis acting as a catalyst, the Danes became aware of their devastating over-reliance on unsustainable fossil fuels and forayed into the world of renewable energy, never looking back. Since then, Denmark has consistently proven to be a role model to developed countries all over the world, Singapore included, as it constantly strives to better its energy efficiency until a fossil free society is achieved.
After Ms Basse’s sharing, Mr Antti Kuosmanen, the Head of the Embassy of Finland in Singapore, took the opportunity to give us a brief background of how modern Finland came to be, before focusing in detail on how we, as overseas students, could further our education in Finland. The Finnish Social Model was born as a result of Finland having had a longer history of poverty as compared to her Nordic counterparts. Finland’s heavy territorial, industrial, and financial losses at the end of World War II came as news to most of us; unsurprising, considering history always has a habit of favouring the big players. With this new understanding, it became clear to us why Finland stands so strongly for social protection and why it sees economic competition as not a barrier, but a partner, to the country’s welfare-centric core in the fuelling of its growth. As Singapore has never been able to reconcile social welfare with economic competition, this new perspective proved truly insightful and set us thinking on how Singapore may be kinder to her citizens, while remaining economically progressive.
Following Mr Kuosmanen’s sharing, the Norwegian Ambassador, Mr Endresen, launched into his presentation of Norwegian history by informing us that although Norway is now enjoying great wealth as the world’s seventh largest oil exporter, prior to discovering oil in 1969, Norway was considered the poverty-stricken younger brother in the Nordic family of countries. He highlighted key aspects of Norwegian culture; all of which, he’d noted, fell under what Ms Basse and Mr Kuosmanen had already shared about Nordic culture as a whole, such as gender equality and freedom of speech, among many others. A particularly interesting tidbit was the friendly rivalry between the Nordic countries. In a manner of speaking, Singapore’s relations with her neighbours is similar to that among the Nordic countries, and it was an experience to be able to witness it among the dignitaries themselves, as though they were the personification of their respective countries.
Mr Håkan Jevrell started the final sharing of the day by jokingly saying that his job had been done by the other Nordic dignitaries and that he had nothing more to say about Sweden and the Nordic region that had not already been covered, as they were all so similar in so many ways. However, as he skimmed through facts about Sweden that had already been covered by the other Nordic dignitaries when they’d presented on the Nordic region as a whole, one particularly defining characteristic of Sweden that stood out was the Nobel Prize, arguably the most prestigious set of international awards for various academic, cultural and scientific advances. It is absolutely amazing how a country with fewer than ten million inhabitants can have such a great international impact, and exceptionally inspirational for Singapore in particular, due to our modest size.
After the various presentations by the Nordic dignitaries, we were invited to partake in a sumptuous feast of refreshments before the Q&A session. The spread offered was beautifully delicious and truly showcased the gracious hospitality of the Swedes. Even during this break, the Nordic dignitaries were generous with their time and continued to share with us more tidbits about life in the Nordic region.
During the Q&A session, the dignitaries had time to address four of our questions. The first question touched on the extent of political freedom, namely, whether or not the oft praised freedom of speech regarding political issues in Scandinavia was as truly praiseworthy in reality. In agreement with the ambassadors, Mr Kuosmanen confirmed that there is true freedom of speech regarding politics in Scandinavia; a laudable and inspirational achievement, as it is rare for the ideal to correspond with reality.
Second to emerge was the question of whether or not multi-party and single-party governments have been successful in furthering the progress of a nation, both developing and developed. In particular, the discussion was focused on the governments of Scandinavia, India, and Singapore. Well-known for their multi-party governments, Nordic countries continue to experience high levels of efficiency and growth, whereas India unfortunately cannot say the same despite having a similar structure of governance. Singapore, on the other hand, although ruled by a single-party government, has been showing signs of moving toward a multi-party government structure, largely due to discontent regarding the equality of representation in the government of all population segments. To this, the dignitaries opined that perhaps developing countries require a single-minded vision and determination in order to succeed, while developed countries require multiple inputs from different segments of the population in order to ensure equal representation and general citizenry contentment. There is no single answer that can be held as the epitome of truth though; the reason for the successes and failures of different government structures could just as easily be attributed to cultural differences, among many other reasons.
Another interesting topic that came up during the Q&A was how eco-friendliness is cultivated across all the Nordic countries – a problem that Singapore has failed to solve since we first recognised our responsibility to protect the environment. For this, Ms Basse held up Denmark’s history as both example and an answer. Having experienced first-hand a severe energy shortage due to the 1970s oil crisis, the Danes knew acutely the importance of making the shift from fossil to renewable energy. Singapore, however, has never had such an experience and thus, does not feel the urgency to be independent of fossil energy as acutely as the Danes did and still do. Apart from that, Ms Basse noted that educating the public about the importance of being environmentally friendly is very different from dictating that recycling must be done. This observation was exceptionally illuminating, and a possible reason why Singapore’s National Environment Agency’s recycling campaigns over the years have not been as effective in changing Singaporeans’ perception of recycling and recycling habits.
The final question that emerged during the Q&A was on the topic of a hypothetical Nordic Union à la the European Union, especially with regard to the formation of a common currency. A classmate of ours very insightfully enquired as to the reason behind the lack of a common currency among the Nordic countries, which are all similar to each other in many ways, given that it would make the region more financially profitable and stable, like the European Union upon the founding of the European Monetary Union (EMU). In response, Mr Endresen summarised all the ambassadors’ opinions on the matter succinctly and accurately with the use of a single metaphor: the Nordic countries are like siblings in a family; while they hold the greatest of fondness for each other, living under the same roof would see them drive each other mad – a metaphor that stands unfortunately true in many other circumstances as well.
As the end of the event approached, we felt deeply the extent of just how truly privileged we were to have been able to engage in a discussion with the Nordic dignitaries with conversation topics ranging from the more formal political, economic and environmental, to the less formal social and cultural. Without this exchange, we would not have had the opportunity to gain invaluable insights regarding Scandinavia as well as Singapore, and would definitely have been poorer for it. It was also amazing to see the Nordic idea of a flat hierarchy at work – the Nordic dignitaries were not any less approachable for their statuses.
Mr Jevrell ended off on a humorous note by showing us a video highlighting the best differences between the worldview of the Swedes and the rest of the world. Let us share it with you!
*All relevant information regarding the hosts and their respective titles retrieved from: http://app1.mfa.gov.sg/dipcon/pdf/dipconopen.pdf