When he was in his early 20s Mr Antti Vänskä, on route to a summer job in Australia, sent a postcard to his parents back in Finland from Singapore, describing the city as wonderful but an awfully hot place for Finnish people. Now he is back, as no other than Finland’s new Ambassador to Singapore!
Antti Vänskä, who has been in Singapore since June, tells ScandAsia that he coincidentally found this postcard just recently. Now, the Ambassador, together with his wife, two teenage children, and their small dog, have just moved into Finland’s new Ambassador’s Residence, having transfered here all the way from his previous posting as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Finland in Washington DC, USA.
The Ambassador had applied for a few positions within Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including the Ambassador posting to Singapore – which he is very happy to have been offered as his first Ambassador appointment.
“This is a very dynamic country and with lots of things to do. There are many popular places in the world but Singapore definitely belongs to those that many Finnish diplomats would like to work in,” says the Ambassador.
“I’m also very fortunate to have my family with me and during the time here our kids will finish their school and move on to something else. But right now we are all here and everyone seems excited. We have been to Singapore as tourists, so we had an idea of what Singapore is like and everyone had a very positive image of it so in that regard it was easy and we were looking forward to coming here.”
It was back in 2014 that the Vänskä family visited Singapore, as a stopover on a trip to Bali.
“Geographically it is not that big so we managed to get an idea of the city state. It seems like a dynamic place which is changing all the time, where construction is going on all the time,” Mr Vänskä reflects.
International relations strong interest
The family is used to foreign postings, as the children were born when he worked at the Embassy of Finland in Berlin between 2001-2004, but the children have also had some of their youngest years back in Finland, including when father Vänskä served as the Special Adviser to the Prime Minister of Finland (2010-2014).
Apart from during those years he was served the MFA continuously since 1996. Also during the years in the Prime Minister’s office he worked intensively with the MFA as his role was as a diplomatic adviser.
Mr Vänskä’s reason for applying to join MFA connects to his strong interest, ever since his teenage years, in international relations and issues and other cultures.
“I did not know what I would be doing as an adult but I knew it had to be something to do with international things and other countries, and after finishing my high school I wanted to travel a little bit and move around and see other countries. I first went to Sweden for one year to improve my Swedish language. I spent a fantastic and very memorable year at a school in the very south of Sweden.”
Later, Mr Vänskä graduated from Turku School of Economics and Business Administration in Finland with a Master’s degree in Economics.
“MFA recruited new people yearly. For me, it was not an obsession to get a job at MFA, but it was something that sounded really interesting – I was willing to give it a try. I have been happy with very interesting postings ever since I was accepted.”
Three years as Indonesia Desk Officer in the Unit for Asia also meant he could develop his Asian understanding.
“I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about Asia before so those years did really widen my horizon. I learnt a lot about the Southeast Asian countries as a whole, mostly dealing with Indonesia at the time, being the desk officer for three countries, also including Myanmar and Timor-Leste. It was therefore a very good practice for this posting I am having now.”
“And, by coincidence, at that time the peace process negotiations in Aceh took place, which was led by the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, so I was lucky to become involved in that as a junior, supportive staff member. It was a unique process and something that I will always remember,” he remembers.
He also got to visit Indonesia a few times during those years.
Singapore a business hub
The Finnish ambassador describes himself as a generalist. “There are those who are specialists, who have done the same thing throughout their careers; concentrated on some specific issue. They might have worked with for instance trade or security policy, or one specific country or region. I have worked in Europe, in the U.S and in Russia, done a little bit of the economic side but also security policy issues – so not concentrating only on one specific issue.”
Mr Vänskä now looks forward to the work ahead, together with the specialists on trade and education/science that Finland’s mission in Singapore is currently also equipped with.
“I expect that economy and business will be the most important sphere in my job and of the embassy as a whole. Singapore is a very dynamic city state and there are surprisingly many similarities actually between Finland and Singapore; both countries are investing heavily in human capital, education, innovation – all these things in order to be in the forefront of development in the new economy. Another similarity is that both countries are big proponents of the multinational system – in trade but also otherwise, so I see a lot of chances for continued connections and good cooperation.”
“Singapore’s role in, and big promoter of, the ASEAN co-operation is also interesting to follow how it develops its regional integration,” he adds.
In a well-functioning country like Singapore the many Finnish companies present can stand on their own feet, however the Ambassador believes they also appreciate if the embassy is willing to facilitate in situations where its presence is welcome – which it is definitely willing to do.
“I am happy to see that there is a lot of interest among Finnish companies towards Singapore and that goes for SMEs and start-ups as well as for the bigger, listed Finnish companies. It’s a good mix of Finnish companies being active in Singapore and also with Singaporean companies being interested in the Finnish start-up scene and vice versa,” thinks Mr Vänskä.
On Singapore’s role as a hub, he thinks it is strengthening: “I guess there was a time some years back when people thought that it was enough to go directly to China, somewhat questioning how the hub of Singapore would continue, but it looks to me that now again this position Singapore has as a hub is very strong and appealing. Many foreign companies know that it’s easy to establish your company here and Singapore really wants to welcome foreign companies. “
“At the same time – something that I tell Finnish companies when I meet them – Singapore is a very competitive market so it’s not easy in that regard. There is a lot of competition and everybody wants to make it here, so you have your product or services in good shape and your strategies well thought-out when you come here.”
Promoting Singapore and Finland
One such occasion is the annual road show taking place in Finland. This year, connecting to the annual meeting of the Heads of Finnish Missions abroad in August, the turn had come to the town of Espoo (Finland’s second largest municipality).
There, the Southeast Asia Ambassadors together informed some 30 Finnish companies about their respective countries.
“There seemed to be a lot of interest. We try to tell what this region is like and of course this region is far from homogenous; there are different types of countries, which at the same time mean that there are different opportunities for different types of companies. There might be companies mostly interested in Vietnam and then there are others who are mostly interested in Singapore and some might mostly look at potential new opportunities in Myanmar. So it depends on the plans of the company as well.”
“And of course we also try to tell the same about Finland to Singapore. It’s two-way traffic we like to see, not only about Finnish companies coming to Asia and doing trade and selling services – investing in Finland is one of the themes in the Business Finland philosophy. We want to promote Finland as a good destination for Asian investments, it’s a well-functioning country and with a friendly business climate. And it is a safe and secure and can also be seen as a hub to the wider European or Russian markets so that’s definitely one of the ideas. We are here to inform about our country in many ways, with economy and trade being of importance.”
Invest in Finland is the official investment promotion agency for Finland. In 2018 a record-high figure of 479 million euros was invested into start-ups and early stage growth companies in Finland in 2018, of which foreign investments accounted for 291 million euros.