Masba director Jenny Westin shares post Covid-19 benefits and challenges in Malaysia

As Malaysia is gradually coming back to its normal self, post-Covid, ScandAsia talks to the Director of MASBA (the Malaysian-Swedish Business Association), and also a long-time resident in Kuala Lumpur: Jenny J Westin.

Jenny J Westin, Director of MASBA, the Malaysian-Swedish Business Association.
Jenny J Westin, Director of MASBA, the Malaysian-Swedish Business Association. Photo: Joakim Persson.

Jenny was appointed in early 2021 to run and implement ways in which MASBA can engage and be useful for Swedish-related businesses and individuals in Malaysia, and where Covid-19 has had its impact on how things are run, with certain things still lagging behind.

She is also a mother of two girls, a SWEA member, and also a teacher in the mother tongue at the Swedish school. In addition she is running a charity to support refugees from Myanmar by selling their handmade clothes and bags, together with 5-6 friends.

Her husband who is part of running a Singapore-based start-up has to a large extent been able to adopt a work-from-home.

“He travelled to Singapore frequently prior to Covid but then discovered that he could get a lot done also working from home. So he is only away 2-3 days per month and it works fine. We chose to live in Malaysia as a preferred country, a bit more fun to live in and more cost-effective than Singapore.”

One of their children is also born in Malaysia, where they have soon spent ten years and have no plans to leave any time soon.

“It’s a fantastic country to be in – the culture, fantastic food and everything else,” thinks Jenny. “We are comfortable here, with the children in school and with English as their first language. And both are quite good at Mandarin. One does not easily get this opportunity. I must admit though that I get homesick sometimes – to the structured society that is Sweden.”

MASBA event with Lucia, flanked by Jenny Westin to the left.
MASBA event with Lucia (students from the Swedish school), flanked by Jenny Westin to the left.

The family normally visits Sweden once a year but was limited to domestic travel during Covid-19. “We like Penang a lot and visit there at least once per year. Penang has a different vibe altogether, and the east coast is also nice. And we are found of Ipoh, where there’s still a lot of the old heritage to be found. Similarly, Melaka is also very nice and beautiful – but more touristy, while Ipoh is more genuine, with a bit roughness to it and with great food.”

Jenny also praises Kuala Lumpur as a “fantastic melting pot”. However she would like to see less new skyscrapers and more protection of old buildings and architecture.

“But Malaysians perhaps want something else than what we westerners with our love for the colonial style. One must respect that. Many old buildings from the 1930s are unfortunately falling into ruins.”

Covid-19 consequences

Another observation the MASBA director has, considering the Swedish business and the expat community, is that it has gradually changed its composition: “There has been a change over the past ten years to a majority of companies having non-Swedish managers. Thus, MASBA cannot rely on its ‘Swedish vibe’ to attract and keep members. Our work must truly add value to the members, and that has been both a challenge an inspiration as we have set the course post-pandemic!”

“And I suspect that companies have noted that certain things can be operated remotely and that one can then have one person running more than one country and without necessarily having to be on site,” is another explanation she highlights.

MASBA director Jenny Westin.
MASBA director Jenny Westin. Photo: Joakim Persson.

Furthermore, the political situation has also been in turmoil during the last four years in Malaysia. “This has also meant that it has during periods been more difficult to import foreign labour here. One has had been forced to adapt to that. And the companies are interested in making profits and they are keen on employing locals that usually cost less than having foreigners on the pay roll here. So if one can find qualified employees here it’s a win-win. So I am not seeing a great influx of new expatriates, aside a few families here and there.”

Also, since physical meetings were once again allowed, people seem to have difficulty in planning something far ahead, Jenny observes.

“Before, it felt like everyone had a plan for the coming six months. And I feel this has changed; it’s much more difficult to get people to commit to things. I think the reason is that people are not really back to normal yet. It feels a bit like: six weeks from now anything may have happened! I think Covid-19 took us back quite a lot – when the dynamics in one’s daily working life got so disrupted, and for a longer period.”

So currently it is a challenge for MASBA actually to get people to sign up for events the organisation tries to hold.

It is ever so important then to focus on staying relevant which is what MASBA’s Executive Committee, under the Presidency of Mr Carl Malmqvist, has been focusing on post Covid.

“I have said that we should strive to arrange networking events with a purpose, where we try to focus on something, a topic that can be for example talent. Then we have to make sure that the member companies bring along their HR people. We must penetrate the companies better. This is an international setting, where we are trying to boost our engagement and get people on different key roles within the companies to join, precisely in order for us to be relevant and in order to do what we consider that we should be doing.”

Sustainability and talent

Feedback on what should be in focus has mainly come via the Business Climate Survey 2022 conducted by Business Sweden and Team Sweden.

“It has formed the basis also for our work, because what have come up as most important in the survey and during the meeting afterwards are the two topics ‘sustainability’ and ‘talent’. That’s where the companies want to engage and work, where there is potential and where they want us to be visible.”

Jenny says there is a need for someone to run the agenda with those topics on a larger scale. “So if we – together with the rest of Team Sweden – can function as an umbrella for these things, it will be very good.”

“MASBA has been looking specifically at the talent topic. That then concerns what domestic talent there exists and is lacking. We have a feeling there is a mismatch between those newly graduated versus what is in demand, leading to many companies setting up internal education programmes. And of course they must have those for specific things but then comes the question if those educations also cover topics that would have been covered by colleges and universities. If that is the case we can communicate to the government that maybe some education block might be missing instead of every business running its own internal education.”

Such education by companies also cost them money and official certificates cannot be issued so it does not have the same long-term value for the individual, Jenny points out

“We are talking to the companies about this and I participate in Eurocham, as we also collaborate a lot with them as a result of the pandemic – which is only positive. And the government communicated a lot with Eurocham to channel the information out to our member companies. So, EuroCham is our main entry to the key stake holders on the government side.”

As for sustainability Sweden is good at such solutions and Team Sweden wants to push the country’s excellence within this. “With the new ESG rules etc. it’s very important to promote that one is sustainability-driven – it must be communicated. And as a company one can boast about how good one is, but it’s a bit self-righteous. If somebody else in a bigger setting brings this up to a higher level – in our case as part of the Swedish branding – the companies have expressed the view that it would be excellent if we could bring attention to that,” continues the director.

Now Business Sweden has also launched ‘Pioneer the Possible’, partly to help companies already present here to promote themselves in connection to sustainable solutions.

MASBA event in Kuala Lumpur
MASBA event in Kuala Lumpur

Swedcham branding

MASBA has also initiated a pre-study to become a Chamber of Commerce by looking at the requirements. “Masba… what does that stand for… But if you say ‘SwedCham’ everyone will know that you mean Swedish Chamber of Commerce, so it’s a better and stronger brand name, we feel. There is some paperwork and we will need to prove that we operate as a chamber of commerce; that we are a networking platform and deliver to the members what they request, and are well integrated locally and regionally.”

“What also happened during Covid-19 is that I got more involved in the Swedcham APAC collaboration, and doing things together, where we can see a large interest in webinars. For us it means we are able to offer our members access to presentations from high-calibre speakers who do not necessarily come to Malaysia. We have a large audience and where webinar is the perfect format. We all learned during Covid how to connect, so that has been a positive outcome from that period.”

Another online benefit, where Jenny has been directly involved, has been to implement remote learning. During Malaysia’s lockdowns the children had online school, and it was decided that the Swedish school would also go online.

“We were messing around a bit and it took some time for us at the Swedish school, and I must say that I am not so negative towards it. I feel the children’s basic education should take place in a school environment because they need to meet and interact, but to have one or two online lesson per weeks is perhaps even a positive complement. So for isolated topics it can work. For example now within the Swedish school we run one class online for the older children because then they do not have to travel to Mont Kiara. The traffic here is quite tough and we have children living in Ampang and other parts of the city. For many children I think it has been quite positive, especially for parents who want them to learn their mother language. I’ve also had to learn this – even old dogs can learn how to sit! – including Google docs editing in real time etc. It puts some other demands on you as a teacher but once you have gotten used to that I think it feels quite O.K,” smiles Jenny.

‘Brand Sweden’ is clearly important to her and MASBA. She personally bakes and brings along cinnamon rolls every event. Sweden is also back to arranging a National Day in Malaysia instead of a Nordic Day in recent years.

“That represents Swedish branding, and we are quite many organisations that should be able to work in synergy so that we can help each other. And we all work to some extent with Brand Sweden through our conduct.

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

View all posts by Joakim Persson

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