Paula Parviainen has returned to Singapore after 15 years. In the period from 1996 to 2000 she was on her first posting as the Second Secretary and Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Finland. Now she is back as the Ambassador of the Republic of Finland.
“It’s a little bit like coming back home,” she says.
But 1996 was not the first time her Excellency Paula Parviainen saw Singapore. From 1984 and up until she graduated the Diplomat course in Helsinki in 1995 she was a Flight Attendant.
“My first visit in Singapore was already in the late eighties, where I was working for Finnair, so I already knew what I was in for.”
From Beijing to Singapore
The Finnish embassy in Singapore consists of only five people, which nowadays is smaller than what it used to be, and considerably smaller compared to her previous workplace in Beijing, where approximately fifty people is employed at the Finnish embassy.
Paula Parviainen has done several other postings than Singapore. From 2003 to 2007 she was the Minister Counsellor at the Embassy of Finland in Paris, where she was following the French economy and EU policies. From 2007 to 2009 she was the Minister Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations in New York. The latest posting was from 2011 and up until her arrival to Singapore in August, where she was the Minister and Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Finland in Beijing.
“Beijing was a really good time and a really good job. As the deputy you have to cover it all; you’re the personnel manager, you have to do the budgeting and coordinate a lot. It was sort of a good university to become an Ambassador, because you covered it all.”
The Ministry for Foreign Affairs rotates the diplomats between different postings abroad and the Ministry in Helsinki. So in between postings , she’s been back in Finland with her family where both her sons have decided to do their education. She now has four years as Ambassador in Singapore.
“To have an Ambassadors post is what we aim for. So it feels good. But of course you can always be an Ambassador in a bigger or more important country for Finland,” she says but also stresses that Singapore was her first choice.
“It’s like writing to Santa Claus, where we can hope for something when we have the open ambassador postings. This time I was lucky.”
Singapore and Finland are both countries small by population and their ties have been blooming since they established their diplomatic relations in 1973.. The most prominent fields of cooperation are within education, ICT, innovation policy and health care.
“Finland was known in Singapore for Nokia and the IT. But the Singaporeans are interested in our education system. They’ve already done changes within equal opportunities and training of the teachers to a higher level and they’ve been going to Finland for twenty years to learn about our educational system,” Paula Parviainen says when asked to describe one of the successes by the previous administration at the embassy.
Another sector that is showing great promise towards cooperation between Finland and Singapore is within the start-up enterprise sector, and especially the technology start-ups has seen a recent booming in Finland.
“This is partly explained by the fact that we’re in the post-Nokia time now, and there are a lot of well-trained engineers with a lot of experience in international operations. We’re good at inventing and technology, so we see a lot of new start ups in Finland, and quite a few of the innovative solutions are within the health sector and well-being,” the Finnish Ambassador explains.
With its business friendly environment and low taxes, Singapore is quickly becoming a start-up hub, ideal for start-ups seeking to expand their business to the Asian market. A way in which the Finnish Embassy is trying to exploit this is through the Team Finland Network, which purpose is to promote Finland’s external economic relations and country brand, to internationalise Finnish companies as well as foreign investment directed at Finland and to intensify cooperation between Finnish players in the mentioned sectors.
“All the Nordics has these publicly funded institutions that try to help the companies to internationalise, and we realised that all these institutions were basically doing their own things instead of a common effort. So in order to have a bigger impact, we had to coordinate better, and all these institutions are now moving to the same place – a Team Finland House in Helsinki. This at the end also makes it easier for the companies, who want to internationalise their product.”
The Team Finland network consists of the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Culture, as well as the publicly funded organisations and overseas networks whose performance they oversee. More than 200 Finnish health care companies are already represented under the Team Finland umbrella.
“Our embassy is getting an additional posting for three years, which is a Team Finland diplomat. This will make it easier to actually go deeper into doing the platforms and making these matches between the Singaporean needs and the Finnish offerings,” Paula Parviainen says.
Action plan for Southeast Asia
A lot of the Finnish embassy’s focus is on the business sector, with Singapore being Finland’s largest trading partner in ASEAN and more than 80 Finnish companies based in the country. In a recent publication published by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, examples of how to deepen cooperation and how Finnish businesses could make use of the increasing opportunities in the region. The Plan covers eleven countries whereas Singapore is one of them. The publication is called Finland’s Action Plan for Southeast Asia and here Singapore is described as an important regional gateway to Southeast Asian markets and beyond in Asia and the Pacific.
“I think the business orientation goes for all embassies out here. Singapore is a business city, and we’re following their politics. Singapore is more ‘business first’ and is much bigger than its size in international politics as well,” she says.
While we see a lot of cooperation with start-up companies and education, it is not the new Ambassadors main area right now.
“I’ve been here three months now, and I made it my first priority to learn everything about the health care and the elderly care,“ she explains.
The population is aging very fast both in Singapore and Finland, and the need for health care services is growing. In just 15 years, Singapore will have the same demographic profile as Finland where one in five people are 65 years or older, and in both countries, the search for health care innovations and new technologies is on.
Another initiative her Excellency is pushing for is a way to engage with the Finnish and Singaporean community, and a way to unite the two.
“We want to start an alumni association, and we’re in the very early stages of it. There are Singaporeans students who study in Finland and then we loose touch with them when they return. But it would be great to link them with the Finnish Business Council, so the Finnish business, who wants to find someone who understands both the Finnish mindset and business, can look at this alumni of people who have studied in Finland,” she explains, and tells that the same was previously done in Beijing.
“I’ve been in the ministry for twenty years now, and I always say that it feels like I’ve changed profession twenty times. All the jobs are so different,” she says when asked how much she can draw on her previous experience in this new position, and explains how some jobs have involved a lot of communication, others a lot of political knowledge.
“Even if you do so many different jobs and are moving around a lot, it’s easy because you’re with the Finnish community and ministry everywhere you go. You’re not starting from scratch, because you will always have these support networks,” she says and further adds:
“It’s lovely to see, that some of the people I knew twenty years ago is still working in the same sectors in Singapore. I’ve been reconnecting.”
Besides building her network and joining the close cooperation with the other Nordic ambassadors in Singapore, Ambassador Paula Parviainen has a lot of plans for her next four years in Singapore.
“We have our first brainstorming with the Finnish community as we’re in the process of planning the big century year of Finland 100 year anniversary of independence in 2017. And I think that could resonate really well here in Singapore when they’ve just had their 50-year anniversary and help make us more visible,” she says and stresses the importance of the Finnish brand being a known brand:
“I think an important job for the embassy is to help the Finnish brand get stronger and better known, which will also help our companies with some background support.”