In the complex and dynamic landscape of diplomacy, some individuals possess a strong ability to build bridges between nations. One such diplomat is Ambassador Joachim Bergström. His journey has been a testament to the power of dialogue, inclusivity and sustainable partnerships. As the Swedish Ambassador to Malaysia, he and his team try to work on broad fronts to strengthen the ties between Sweden and Malaysia. Ranging from sustainability, environmental protection and green transition to the whole range of all human rights – and human rights for all. They also focus on youth involvement, gender equality, democratic capacity building and inter-religious understanding. This is often smooth sailing, but there are times when true challenges arise and diplomacy is put to the test. One such test is the recent cases of Quran burnings in Denmark and in Sweden.
Interview on June 13, 2023
We had scheduled our appointment for this interview on June 13, 2023. As I sit in the lobby of the modern Hampshire Place office building in Kuala Lumpur, where the Swedish Embassy is located, I easily spot him as he steps out. His strong Scandinavian features with light blue eyes and dark blonde hair makes him stand out. Combined with his long slender physique it is easy to spot, why the otherwise formal diplomat, did some acting and modeling work back in the days. Back when he was living in Japan in the early 90s.
As we enter Restaurant Tatto, an Italian restaurant in the building, the waitress behind the bar recognizes him immediately. She warmly greets him and makes it clear, that he has been a missed guest. She then takes us to a table and introduces us to the menu, from which the busy Scandinavian ambassador immediately chooses the salmon as a starter.
“I try to eat healthy,” he explains with a warm grin.
The incidents at the beginning of the year involving the burning of the Quran in Denmark and in Sweden have sparked outrage and some protests in Islamic countries. Among them is Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion. The news of the incident spread rapidly through social media and the acts are seen as deeply offensive and disrespectful to Muslims worldwide.
“The Swedish government has been firm in condemning these very acts and acknowledged the disrespect and the hurt inflicted on Muslims around the world,” says Bergström.
“Sweden’s Prime Minister has reiterated that what is ‘legal is not always appropriate’,” referring to the extensive freedom of expression in Sweden, where it is allowed to voice criticism, and to do or say things that some may find uncomfortable. The Swedish police authorities do not grant any permission to burn the Quran, but they are obliged to grant permission to organize a public gathering. Our constitutional protection of freedom of opinion, freedom of gathering and freedom of expression is an important aspect of our democracy” says Bergström.
The issue has challenged both nations to navigate the complexities of law and human rights, religious and cultural differences, while emphasizing the importance of effective communication and interfaith understanding.
“It took a lot of our time from January and onwards – and a lot of our efforts to try to convey the condemnation of the acts, but also explain how Sweden sees the broader issues. How our legal system works. That human rights in our system cannot be hierarchized and are tightly connected to individuals,” the Ambassador explains.
“There are several misunderstandings regarding the issue, and we find ourselves regularly accused of ‘double-standards”, the ambassador says.
“To educate and to bring clarity to a field of misapprehensions takes time,” he elaborates.
“It’s very important to me personally and to Sweden, that when we talk about combating issues like Islamophobia in the world, that we take a holistic approach and acknowledge that all the human rights are on equal footing and should support one another. We also need to address anti-Semitism, violent extremism and the situation for the religious minorities in the Muslim majority world, because these things are linked. Many conversations here focus on this issue. We should approach this through the proper channels in the United Nations, together with the world community,” Bergström adds with a clear passion.
“Bottom line: we should work to ensure and protect human rights for all,” he adds.
The diplomatic mediator
As a Swedish diplomat based in Malaysia, Ambassador Bergström has found himself at the forefront of handling this situation. His background as Sweden’s envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and on inter-religious dialogue, has equipped him with the necessary skills to navigate through this challenging period.
Having partly grown up in Syria and Israel, he has later been posted to Saudi Arabia and has covered the Middle East on posts in Stockholm and Washington, DC. This has contributed to the Ambassador having a unique understanding of both sides.
“When I came here in 2021, I reached out to religious organizations, leaders and the Minister for Religious Affairs, to build connections in case of a crisis like “Charlie Hebdo.” This was very important to me. Informing about our efforts to combat xenophobia globally and in Sweden is an important aspect of this issue,” he shares.
“I regularly meet with official counterparts and with religious organizations. I am fortunate to have worked on the issue for a long time and somehow understand the complexities. But nothing replaces hard work. You have to do a lot of homework and you have to put in the hours,” Bergström adds.
Not always in the cards – An unplanned path to diplomacy
Joachim Bergström’s life and career took an unexpected turn in his early 20s, as he stumbled into a culture reporter role, covering European cinema and literature while living in Japan. This chance encounter opened doors to the realm of reporting and writing professionally. He found the prospect of waking up every day without knowing what new experiences awaited thrilling.
Returning to Sweden and to college, Bergström pursued degrees in psychology, literature, film, history and Japanese studies. All the while continuing in journalism, working for Swedish Radio, that later led him into freelance journalism.
His adventurous spirit and thirst for knowledge, then took him back to Japan during his graduate studies. Here, he once again had the opportunity to work for Japanese radio and various publications, while writing a PhD dissertation in history at the University of Tokyo. But as his academic journey progressed, he was offered to work as the head of the press and culture section at the Embassy of Sweden in Tokyo. Initially viewed as a short detour, this work led him to a path he hadn’t anticipated.
“I was running out of funding for my PhD, because I had a Japanese national scholarship for four years. As I was running out of funds, magically the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2004 was looking for somebody who knew Japanese and who had a background in journalism to run the press and culture section in Tokyo. So that’s how I ended up in diplomacy,” Joachim shares as he indulges in the salmon salad.
“What was meant to be a small detour in my professional life ended up being my entire professional life,” he then adds with a sincere smile.
More than a diplomat
Ambassador Bergström is more than just a diplomat. More than a scholar and more than a journalist. He is a traveler. An explorer. A yogi and a collector with a fondness for embracing life’s various experiences and gain as much knowledge as possible, while doing so.
Boldly he explores the bustling streets of Kuala Lumpur on his bicycle, which is his preferred way of transportation. As he navigates through the old neighborhoods the Scandinavian way, he feels as if the city comes alive.
“This is how I feel free. When I go on my bike, I get to just wear shorts and a t-shirt and nobody knows who I am. No one cares. There’s no fuss calling me “your excellency.” You’re on street level. If you’re in a car, you need to find parking and stuff. But if you’re on a bike, you can go by quickly. If you see a restaurant that you want to check out, you can just stop by and have a quick bite. It’s really amazing. And you get a little workout at the same time. To me, it’s ideal,” he tells with sparkles in his light blue eyes.
His ideal vacation involves biking through big cities. This along with the occasional weekend getaway to Penang, where his foldable bike is his most essential luggage. The trip has become a way for the busy Ambassador to recharge and disconnect.
A shared Nordic mission
Like the other Nordic countries with Embassies in Malaysia, the Swedish mission in Kuala Lumpur places a heavy focus on the trade relations between the countries. More than eighty Swedish companies are based in Malaysia – representing a wide variety of Swedish industries, and several with large factory operations.
”The real ambassadors of Sweden in Malaysia are all these companies and their staff,” says Joachim Bergström.
”They walk the talk every single day. On the factory floor. In the transportation sector. In the IT industry leading the digital transition. Or in the board rooms. They show Malaysians what we stand for and what we represent. They are the ambassadors for our ambitions to be an even greener, cleaner and more equal society.”
The Nordic countries are highly associated with the green transition, and Malaysians from all walks of life enjoy participating in the programs around this topic, along with the remaining Nordic Embassies in KL (the Danish Embassy closed in 2021).
“The cooperation between the Nordics in KL is excellent and we enjoy a joint ‘branding’ if you want to call it that”, says Bergström.
“In March 2022, we organized a whole month of sustainability-related activities and projects under the banner ‘the Nordic way’.”
A personal passion
“Both Sweden and Malaysia are countries that focus on peaceful relations with the world and want to be friends with everyone when possible. Both countries are traders, and the more friends you have, the more you can trade. Historically both countries have had neutral foreign policies and have been active voices within the United Nations and other multilateral organizations,” the diplomat explains.
Sweden and Malaysia enjoy strong relations and dialogue on a range of issues and the Ambassador of Sweden feels there is great potential to further strengthen the ties between the two countries.
“I spend a lot of my time with the Swedish companies in KL, trying to purposefully help when I can. The goal is to advance the agenda on sustainability. That is something we have a strong consensus around,” Bergström explains.
One of Bergström’s many interests are promoting innovation and sustainability. Sweden’s strong emphasis on sustainability has driven the Nordic country to become a global hub for innovation. Through dialogues, seminars, and collaborations, Sweden seeks to share its expertise and learn from Malaysia’s perspective. Sustainable practices, gender equality and inclusion are some of the key aspects that form the Swedish brand in Malaysia.
“I hope that Sweden and Malaysia can work together long term on a broader range of issues in the future,” Ambassador Joachim Bergström says.