She comes with a strong message: that the Nordic countries ought to join their forces more in Singapore! H.E. Ambassador Anita Nergaard presented her credentials to the Singaporean President on 25. October 2017. Now she is the official Norwegian representative in a country popularly described as Norway’s gateway to Asia.
Enter the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Singapore and the Scandinavian style immediately encaptivates you in all its lightness. White walls and airy rooms invites the sunlight in, as modern art and furniture makes you think for a second that you are back under the far northern hemisphere.
“We redecorated. It hadn’t been changed since the 70’s,” the Ambassador says with a smile. Two months into her new posting Anita Nergaard’s job has mainly consisted of getting to know the Norwegian community that is here, the businesses and institutions.
“It’s important to know what they are doing but also to know the persons a bit. Personally, it has also been important to me to signal that the Embassy is really here to work for them and to partner with them so that they feel that the threshold for approaching us is low.”
Approachability is something that is close to Anita, who not only prefers the Embassy’s interior design to be of the Scandinavian style; it goes for the atmosphere, as well: “The work environment here is very dynamic and, Nordic-style, informal. Though we represent several institutions back home, we share the same goals, so in that way it’s not very hierarchical. We have to be quite flexible – we even have rather fluid responsibilities amongst the employees here.”
Mrs. Nergaard sees her role and the reasoning for the entire Embassy’s presence as a way to deepen the relationship between Norway and Singapore. Relations are not only managed by the Embassy itself, it stretches broadly to the functions of the many Norwegian businesses and institutions that are here, such as within education, research, and development.
“We are really here to support all these actors and to also conduct a direct dialog with the Singaporean government to increase the understanding between the two countries and to enhance the cooperation.”
To be a great ambassador, the demands might vary depending on where you are serving. In a conflict or post conflict country the demands will be different than from Singapore where the work environment is very stable and secure, the ambassador explains.
Although she does not believe that an Ambassador must have any particular personality traits, she does point to some aspects that are necessary in order to represent your country well: “Certainly, you should have a broad understanding of your own country. Who are we? You must have an interest in meeting people and looking for connections.”
Additionally, one needs to be reasonably interested in societal questions: internationally, regionally and domestically. However, this is something that comes naturally for most diplomats, she thinks.
Most ambassadors have worked for the government for a long time. Anita Nergaard has worked in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1995, focusing on security policy for more than a decade. Her latest posting was almost five years as Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway to NATO in Brussels.
Becoming the ambassador to Singapore was certainly a goal for Mrs. Nergaard. Though far apart, Singapore is a country in which Norway has a great interest: “Singapore is often described as Norway’s gateway to Asia. With all the very exciting developments happening in the region, Singapore was on the top of my list!”
Singapore – a maritime mecca
Promoting Norwegian business and trade interests in Singapore, the ambassador points to one specific sector, which is big in both Norway and Singapore: the maritime and shipping industry. Even though, there are a lot of well-established Norwegian companies in Singapore, the industry is facing new challenges, with environmental regulations, digitalization and automation.
“One of our most important tasks is to make sure that Norway and Norwegian companies play a leading role in this sector also in the future. We have great companies and institutions, and we want to make sure they partner up with companies and research institutions here, because we think Singapore is one of the places where the future of the maritime industry will be shaped.”
Two weeks ago, the conference Arctic Frontiers, which is held annually in Tromsø, visited Singapore. At first, it might not be obvious to everyone why the developments in the Arctic are relevant to a tropical state like Singapore. The answer is at least two-fold. First, climate change. As an island where most land is no more than 15 meters above sea level, any rise in sea level will be noticeable and potentially very problematic for Singapore. Additionally, because of melting ice in the Arctic, a new northern sea route stretching from Northern Europe, past Norway and Russia, to Korea, Japan, and beyond, would become a possibility. If this comes to fruition, it will have a direct impact on the shipping industry and therefore on Singapore.
“So, there are both long-term potential effects and more immediate interests for a country like Singapore, which is a leading maritime hub. Like Norway, Singapore wants to be present where questions that could impact the maritime field are discussed,” Nergaard says. Singapore has been an observer in the Arctic Council since 2013.
Other fields with a potential for increase cooperation are clean energy, the smart nation initiative, and biotech. By now, Norway is working on several smart city initiatives, and according to the ambassador they want to match them with the ones of Singapore.
“In Norway, there are already cities starting to offer smarter services, be more energy efficient and less congested. There are a lot of new areas where we see that we can work much closer with Singapore.”
“A country’s best resource is its people”
Singapore is an ideal country to be ambassador in because the country shares a lot of characteristics with Norway.
“We are both rather small countries with big neighbours,” the ambassador says. “We are both high cost advanced economies. So, we will seldom compete on price, but rather on quality and innovation, and by having for example more advanced products,” the ambassador explains, stating that it makes a good foundation for cooperation.
Being industrially and economically similar, the two countries are also facing similar challenges. With an increase in wealth, the populations in the two countries are becoming older, and initiatives like e-health, which is part of the smart city umbrella becomes a natural interest for both countries.
Even though they are similar, differences are also key in collaboration. Thus, the two nations can share experiences and learn from each other.
“From Singapore, I think you can learn that even without any particular natural resources or any particular natural advantages, you can reach the stars. If you really set your mind to it, you can go as far as you want to.”
The secret to this success, is a combination of many things, Nergaard believes, mentioning both a good education system and good services for the entire population. Nevertheless, there is one thing, which over shines them all: “The most important resource a country has, is its people. That is true in Norway, as well. We are of course known for the wealth that we have gained from the oil and gas sector, but if you look at these statistics the Treasury from time to time publishes, it is the people that is the most valuable part of a country.”
When asked why that is, she states: “It’s the enormous amount of energy and creativity that people can have. If you manage to bring everyone with you, and focus on establishing a good foundation when it comes to for example education, and on avoiding social exclusion as far as possible – that makes it possible for a country to unlock the potential in its people.”
The Scandinavian way
In terms of what Singapore can learn from Norway, it is the social values that come to her mind. Family policy and gender equality are two areas in which Norway is rather advanced. Especially family policy is an area, which Anita Nergaard thinks that Norway, together with the other Nordic countries, should do more to promote.
“For governments to help promote an environment where parents, both women and men, can combine an active working life and career with raising a family, this is key to a society’s well-being – and to the economy over the longer term.” Nergaard believes. “Affordable and high-quality child-care, combined with a business culture which values flexibility and awareness of the fact that your employees also have other obligations, of equal value to the society at large. This is the key”.
The private sector also plays a big role: “I think we see that the Nordic companies established here, whether consciously or not, bring the Nordic management style with them to Singapore and to wherever they go. They leave an impression. So, they are a huge part of it.”
In general, the Norwegian ambassador wants to work for an increase in collaborations between the Nordic countries, because in a place like Singapore there are many actors all trying to promote their values. Globally, there is a competition of ideas, and all the Nordic countries represent the idea of an open society, equal opportunities, free and fair trade, international cooperation, sustainable development, and advanced technical solutions.
“The Nordic countries are not identical – we do have our differences to a certain extent. We also have different strengths. Even so, out here we are more similar than different. And I really think we can have a much more visible presence if we can manage to do more together.”
All photos: Marica Salokangas