For Danish interests in Malaysia recent times brings changes to arrangements that had lasted for several decades. At the heart of this is the closure in 2021 of the Embassy of Denmark Kuala Lumpur. Meanwhile, the Malaysian Danish Business Council (MDBC) has taken several steps to the forefront of things. MDBC hired an Executive Director (ED) for the first time in 2020 and also functions as the coordinator for the new Denmark Asia Business Alliance (DABA). The ED Trine Sofie Tveen Nielsen, voted as ‘Women Icon’ (by Asia Biz Today), talks about these changes and about her personal Malaysia adventure so far, including her take on the business climate.
When Trine Sofie Tveen Nielsen and her business partner Nima decided to move their LinkFacility business from Qatar to Malaysia in 2016 it was no doubt a stroke of luck for the Danes in Malaysia, given how she has been involved since then and contributing to the establishment of DABA. In the wake of Covid-19 they were forced to close down the business however, but on a positive note this meant that MDBC could offer to hire Trine for her full time services. And in 2021 MDBC’s role will increase in significance as Denmark will no longer have an embassy based in the country!
“I’ve been on the board of the MDBC since 2018 and only a few days after I informed the board about the closure of LinkFacility, I was offered the position of director of the organisation. MDBC has existed since 1992 in Malaysia, and yet the organisation until today never had an executive director so, the position had to be created first before I could be appointed,” explains Trine about her appointment.
“It was a wise move, as in 2020 there has been a greater need than ever for MDBC and its Danish corporate community. The need for sparring, advice and special reception of important information in relation to the frequently changed conditions for business operations and not least that the members can speak with one strong voice to influence their conditions, has seriously proved the need and necessity of the organization.”
“Furthermore, we face a scenario where the Danish embassy in Malaysia will close down in the summer of 2021, and there have been some concerns among our members as to how this will impact the business and trade relations with Malaysia, which makes it even more important to define and prepare for the future role of MDBC,” she adds.
One of Trine’s first and most tasks were therefore to ensure continued good cooperation with the Danish embassy in Jakarta, which will be the mission serving Danish companies and individuals in Malaysia into the future.
“I am happy to say that after a few motivating and relationship-building meetings with Ambassador Lars Bo Larsen, Head of Trade Jacob Kahl Jepsen, and MDBC’s Chairman Allan Jensen there is no doubt that both Danes and Danish businesses are in good hands and we look forward to a continued good collaboration with the Danish Embassy.”
Trine’s reason for coming to Malaysia in the first place was also a business decision.
“Malaysia has over the years emerged as an attractive regional hub for foreign investors and also as a springboard or centre for regional expansion into the ASEAN countries in light of its strategic, central location and English spoken mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian populace. So when Malaysia opened up for foreign investors having 100% ownership my business partner Nima and I considered relocating our LinkFacility headquarter from Qatar to Malaysia, explains Trine.
Said and done; Nima went first, in 2016, to research the Malaysia market and explore opportunities. Trine joined in the summer of 2017 to incorporate LinkFacility Global Sdn Bhd.
“We celebrated the grand opening on 15 November in the same year.”
With high expectations of their new life in Malaysia Trine brought with her a family of two sons aged 8 and 13 and her husband, who alternates working offshore with longer home periods. For him it was not crucial to live near his workplace.
The today defunct business, was as a consulting firm, functioning as an international incubation platform for careers and companies. “We helped our clients establish global portable business and career solutions, organised by a unique and innovative international entrepreneurship program and provided by a large network of consultants and business partners spread all over the world.”
Trine explains that in 2019 they launched with great success a unique program for employers of global mobile talents, e.g. expats. This helped the accompanying spouse to build a career or a business that they can bring with them in the suitcase for future international relocations.
“The market is floated with expat spouse programs, but this program was tailored to the ambitious expat partner and all about career and entrepreneurial solutions – nothing else. Various international studies and analyses prove that more than 80% of early terminated international employments are due to the partner not willing to sit in the back seat. If the partner won’t succeed in maintaining his or her financial independence and professional identity they’ll return back home to pick up their career where they left.”
The program itself saw immediate success attracting the large international companies as customers – as it had great sustainability and high ROI. But then Covid-19 arrived onto the scene, changing everything.
Danish business community job
“We were just about to finalise our first two-year contracts with international companies when COVID-19 emerged by end of 2019 and when fast developing into a pandemic it quickly became clear to us that the forecasts for the market were not good for several years to come. It came at an extremely critical time and the impending business expansion crackled when the contracts were not executed. To limit the financial losses, we decided to close the company in March 2020.”
So, instead Trine moved on to work with the Danish business community full time, including to become the Co-Project Manager for the new DABA alliance.
The first ever Asian-wide Danish partnership between national business associations is now reality, with its first joint activity held as a webinar in December 2020. DABA’s initial formation is as an alliance between 12 Danish chambers of commerce and councils across Asia with the aim of building a bridge across countries and chambers in the region for knowledge sharing and strengthening of Danish business operations in Asia.
“The collaboration idea between the Danish chambers of commerce and business organisations in Southeast- and East Asia has been discussed for many years. Then, only a few years ago Leon Ota Stokholm, ED of the Danish Chamber of Commerce in Japan took the initiative to contact Asia House in Copenhagen.,” explains Trine.
A workshop was arranged, which was also preceded by a comprehensive survey among the Danish organisations in the region.
Asia House, DanCham Japan and the Danish-Thai Chamber of Commerce facilitated the gathering, while EAC Foundation and Thai Airways International supported financially.
“The alliance and cooperation have been concluded in the best diplomatic way to ensure we all pull in the same direction. Now we must first define our objectives, activities and mission,” says Trine.
DABA has started off as a contact, communication and a knowledge sharing portal. “How the structure for this will be, there is still no definitive strategy for. But the point is to create a bi-layer system where one layer connects the Danish chambers in the region and another layer connects stakeholders with key contacts and organisations. Once this is established, it can form a strong foundation for other layers of activities that are adapted to needs and demand.”
“There is no doubt that DABA has enormous potential and the alliance is likely to become more formally established as a legal entity over time,” believes Trine. “But like all member-based organisations, the strength and potential, as well as the risk, lies in the collaboration, which has the first priority and highest focus to get established and strengthened here at the early stage.”
Members of the respective alliance organisations naturally sit on highly valuable experience and knowledge when it comes to operating and setting up in the respective countries.
“Hundreds of Danish companies in the region will be able to benefit greatly from the fact that the chamber of which they are a member gets access to knowledge and insights in the surrounding markets. There are more than a few Danish companies in the region that look across borders for opportunities, whether it is production, logistics, trade, innovation or something completely different. Not to relocate but to expand.
The chambers can do business matchmaking, introduce key partners, acquire knowledge and over time also play a greater advocacy role for members regionally,” comments Trine.
She points out that this is still early days, where the alliance must be given the chance to grow organically. DABA will also look into opportunities for collaborating with trade and industry organisations in Denmark.
“We see DABA as what you could call the future ‘Gate to Asia’; a platform of key-contacts and knowledge sharing based on the Danish Chambers’ many decades of experience and network in the region. DABA constitutes a landing platform in Asia – a key point for local and regional knowledge, networking and influence.”
MDBC member interviews
Locally, Trine also refers to EUROCHAM Malaysia, which she says has done a phenomenal job of creating a confidential knowledge sharing forum for affiliated chambers. “This has resulted in several improvements of terms in business operations or business development for both the chambers and their members in Malaysia.”
And within MDBC one of the latest initiatives the ED has introduced is a series of member interviews. “There we meet one on one with our corporate and SME members to gain insight into the state of the companies. We define barriers, achievements and initiatives. It’s a real eye-opener and gives us the opportunity to adapt our membership benefits so that they meet the real needs of the companies.”
Trine explains that this also brings clarity on what sectors, industries, products and structure of organizations MDBC members represent. “We now know that more than 70% of our members represent the manufacturing sector; that Food & Beverage, Green Tech and Healthcare are the most prominent industries among Danish businesses operating in Malaysia. Also, these members and including Medical Tech, are among those managing very well despite the pandemic crisis.”
Commenting on the impact from Covid-19 Trine says: “Despite all good intentions it’s not easy for foreign investors to navigate the frequently changed SOP’s [standard operating procedures], lockdown and the state of emergency as well as what follows in the form of travel restrictions, tightening of the rules for hiring foreign talent as well as changing protocols for business operations.”
“Having said that, foreign investors in Malaysia are facing barriers for sure, but we have to keep in mind that this is the situation in many other countries in the region and also worldwide. I experience that pessimistic news, warnings and doomsday prophecies are plastered all over the media everywhere. I prefer we focus on what actually brings us forward and in this regard I must add how impressed I am with the resilience and adaptability of many of our members in these times of adversity and change. We are proud to see–among others–how the Food & Beverage, Green Tech, Health and Medical Tech companies are undergoing great progress and how other companies have adjusted the production line aligning with the lockdown so that they can deliver products and services that can sell locally and, in some cases, even help alleviate the COVID situation in Malaysia,” she continues.
The silver lining from Covid-19 in MDBC’s experience (and also on European level is that more members are requesting to be introduced to other members for the purpose of exchanging experiences and sharing knowledge, or exploring opportunities for working together).
“I cannot help but draw parallels between the ancient instincts when the storm comes, people move closer together and finds strength in the community and collaboration. And I’m glad and proud to see it applies to both people and organisations. As EUROCHAM Malaysia says; ‘We are stronger together.’ And I would like to add to that: ‘And with industrial cooperation, collaboration and consensus, we are imperishable!’”
Overall Trine has a lot of praise for Malaysia: “I see opportunities and resources wherever I turn to in Malaysia and the region and not only from a business perspective but also personally. Malaysia’s beaches and islands are second to none and jungle trekking, river rafting and all of the fauna and flora that comes with it have left an everlasting imprint in my family’s shared experiences. The infrastructure–land, sea or air– is among the best in the region.”
She is not surprised that Malaysia is one of the most popular locations for expats or foreign industries in Southeast Asia.
“I must however add that I hope that greater measures will soon be taken to protect this beautiful nature which unfortunately bears more and more visible scars due to lack of legislation for the discharge of pollution and predation on natural resources.”
With a Danish sustainability mindset Trine is though both pleased and honoured to see Danish clean tech companies making a great effort for information, education and implementation of green technological solutions in the region.
“Businesswise it is one of the best alternatives in the region–despite political uncertainty and frequent changes in legislation. Malaysia offers a broad spectrum of opportunities for foreign investors. It requires good research, a strong local network and key connections and not least cultural awareness, but it is worth the effort, and I stand by the fact that it is worth the effort if due diligence is exercised.”