Estonia strongly views itself as belonging to the Nordics. And for Estonia debuting in Southeast-Asia means business! Learn more about the brand new embassy and the first ambassador on the posting – Mr Priit Turk!
For the first time ScandAsia features a Baltic country in Asia, as Estonia is also the first such country to enter the region, with new embassies in Singapore and South-Korea. The Baltics are very much part of the Nordics these days and in particular Estonia is now looking towards Southeast Asia in order to drive new business.
Since the embassy of Estonia was announced as open in February 2021 the mission has been located in rented premises from Business Sweden while the own embassy is expected to open within a few months time. Estonia will then be able to also issue long-term visas for digital nomads, work permits and studies in the country. Ambassador Priit Turk, who presented his credentials to the President of Singapore on 1 September 2021, is also his country’s ambassador to Indonesia, and to the ASEAN organisation.
Covid-19 obstacles are over
Priit Turk in fact arrived to Singapore already in June 2021, when Covid-19 to a large extent was putting a dent on normal operations. But since June 2022 Singapore is back to its normal self, as we learn from the ambassador, with smooth ways for building contacts and networking once again possible.
“There are many new contacts happening now, that in normal times would have occurred earlier. For arriving diplomats and ambassadors to come, and when in our case not having an own embassy yet, Covid-19 was not the easiest of times to get going, but we still managed to organise visits to both countries, including the first ever Estonian President´s visit to Singapore in July 2021,” explains Priit Turk.
“The difficult part at the beginning has been to create contacts because of Covid-19, but since this last summer, I can understand better what the real Singapore feels like and how it functions as a hub for travel and business.”
For his family it has been uncomplicated to settle down, despite the special circumstances upon arrival. “Covid made life a bit more complicated, but otherwise it has been relatively easy. One thing similar to Estonia is also that most processes and services are digital in Singapore. As Estonians we enjoy that 99% of our government services are online – including voting or getting prescriptions from your doctor and that makes us a bit digitally spoiled. But the very developed digital infrastructure of Singapore helped in settling in and to feel at home quickly. Of course the small size of the country and similar digital mentality helped as well,” adds the Ambassador.
His wife Pirjo and two sons arrived with him; just as they have done previously on previous foreign assignments. Pirjo is an expert on gender and family planning issues, areas in which she hopes to contribute also while living in Southeast Asia.
“One son is 18 the other one 13 years old. They are attending international school here and are excited to be part of a multicultural community. The older son will leave next summer to join the Estonian army, as Estonia has conscription. Actually understanding of the security is another common view we share with Singapore as they also have compulsory military service. Our younger son was born during my first posting in New York and we were four already during my time in Georgia.”
In terms of exploring the region the family has so far visited Cambodia and Indonesia, but overall limited so far.
“Most Estonians, like Nordic people in general, like to go hiking and exploring the wilderness – and that’s what we used to do back home every weekend. Singapore I must say is greener than I expected! You really have green spots in the city where one can go and have a walk, which gives the hiking feeling and makes you detached from the busy city itself. Especially during the Covid period we did it a lot. Otherwise as Estonia just got the first snow especially my sons miss that already,” tells the ambassador and adds: “Probably we also miss the seasons. I realise for us from the Nordic countries with very precise seasons how much our lives adapts to and follows the four seasons, whereas in Singapore the weather is very similar throughout the year.”
20 years experience as diplomat
When it comes to previous Asian experience it was very limited for the ambassador. He has travelled to Asia before, but only privately. “I have come in contact with Central Asia during my previous positions but not Southeast Asia much.”
“Singapore – I approached a bit like a global city in Asia. And I think I can conclude that it was a correct assumption; it’s a very global place with a strong Asian touch, but also reminding me of the time spent in New York City, where I’ve been posted as well. It’s a very dynamic, multicultural and business-oriented, so it was something I expected. But of course it’s a melting pot of Asia, while at the same time even the countries in the region are all very different and I realise that this is an exciting global concentrate of Asia.”
“The motivator for me to apply for this job was exactly to be able to start a new embassy in a country, which is small, very ambitious and dynamic, but weighs well above its size like Estonia and in the region, which is new not only for me but for Estonia too. So I’m learning,” he continues.
Being a seasoned diplomat Priit Turk is on a new kind of mission in the sense that the posting in Singapore is very business-centric.
“First I worked a lot with multilateral issues and also humanitarian work with developing countries – as Estonia started to become a donor country at that time. Then I went to over tor security issues and worked mainly with Ukraine and Georgia. But the business promotion is quite new. As an ambassador you do such work everywhere but here, posted to Singapore, it’s the main part of our portfolio and our aim here so it’s a new area for me on such a scale and in-depth – and extremely exciting,” he elaborates.
Setting the stage for a career in the Estonian Foreign Ministry he previously studied international relations and then a Masters in international economics at the University of Birmingham. Joining the Foreign Service he says was a natural place to start his career.
As for foreign missions he has been in New York, in the mission to the UN; and Ambassador to Georgia and Armenia during four years.
“And now it has been almost 20 years already – I cannot believe it!” he smiles.
Business in focus for Team Estonia
And at this moment in his diplomatic career the time has come to play an instrumental role in building up Estonia’s relationship with Singapore, Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia, which is a team effort by small but incredibly talented and motivated Team Estonia.
“It had been a few years in the planning – although challenging for a small country as Estonia – that we should expand in Asia, and especially looking at interests of our businesses and business sectors where they felt that our embassy could be present and provide support. Of course Southeast-Asia is one of the regions with strong growth potential for the long term. The decision was to open two new embassies – one in South Korea and one in Singapore,” the ambassador explains the arrival to Asia.
“In Singapore I think business and export promotion is one of the areas, but with the country being highly digitalised I think we have bilaterally a very strong dialogue between governments on many issues, such as cyber security, smart city development or e-government issues, where there are quite strong interaction already. Bilateral MoUs have been signed. Minister of IT and Communication of Singapore Josephine Teo was in Tallinn this September already or the second time participating in Tallinn Digital Summit and similarly Estonian Minister of IT and Entrepreneurship Mr Andres Sutt participated in AsiaTechX conference in Singapore this June.”
“And of no less importance is the political side, where this region is getting more prominent because of the global attention and rivalry of the US and China, for example. Then, Singapore is definitely one of the places where the expertise of broader Asia is very much present, with think tank and research institutions communities and international conferences like Shangri-La Dialogue. The devastating war in Ukraine, which has changed the security situation not only in Europe but for the whole world, has increased also our work with ASEAN countries to bring our views to them. That is also one of the reasons to be present here,” he continues.
As Estonia and Singapore have world top level education systems according OECD PISA assessments, the education and research are promising topics of mutual interest as well. Estonia has very long experience of e-schooling and with many research-based educational applications (edtech), where there is increased interest to learn from each other’s experiences after difficult Covid times.
“Probably the most natural and promising area is the interaction of our tech and start-up ecosystems; which are lively and vibrant in both countries with great dynamics between companies and people-to-people contacts. I see new opportunities also by increasing interoperability of our digital ecosystems.”
Our plan is to first increase knowledge and awareness about Singaporean possibilities in Estonia – that our companies could come and either work with Singaporeans or find ways to spread their products and solutions in the region, while we at the same time want Singaporean companies or start-ups to expand via Estonia to Europe. Estonia for example has the quite unique e-residency program, which means as a person do not even have to move to Estonia to use our digital infrastructure, work remotely or open a company with presence in the EU. ”
Given this ease of doing business and secure digital infrastructure, Estonia and Singapore can be gateways to Asia and the EU/northern Europe respectively and benefit bilateral business between the two. “Exactly; that’s how I see it and encourage. I think as small countries, and with our governments being very agile to changing the ecosystem for start-up or tech companies, they would settle very easily, and expand easier.”
“In many fields our tech companies and start-ups had already been coming to explore. In the past few months for example the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology SWITCH and Singapore International Fintech Festival have been perfect opportunities for Estonian companies to come and look for potential for their services from deeptech to greentech and fintech. It seems participating companies returned back home with lots of inspiration. And from some of our unicorns (Estonia has 11), one of the biggest, Estonian-born unicorn WISE, is already here in Singapore since many years. Veriff is another one probably opening up in Southeast Asia, so this is definitely a place to expand also for our unicorns.”
“Our embassy will have also a business and innovation hub, similar to the Nordic countries’ Nordic Innovation House here to facilitate and support our SMEs and companies, who wish to enter Southeast Asia with practical help in terms of networks or regulatory advice.”
And there is Nordic collaboration as well. “Yes, we already work case by case with the Nordics; for example for the fintech festival we had a joint networking event with the Swedish and Danish Embassies, and on tourism promotion we cooperated with the Finnish Embassy. Finnair flying from Helsinki is a close as you get from here to Estonia, so that’s practically a direct flight for us as well.”
“We of course consider ourselves as part of the Nordic family, or Greater Nordics. Anyway, if you are in Tallinn or in Estonia’s countryside you feel it, but I think it’s even more evident when we are far away from home. If you look from Singapore towards Northern Europe we are part of the same area and business ecosystem, especially if we talk about tech companies like fintech, greentech etc. I think there’s a lot we can do jointly with the Nordics to support our companies here as well. The Estonian economy and our business sector is closely linked especially with Finland and Sweden; these are our main markets or investors, so it’s very natural that we also work together abroad,” thinks Priit Turk.
As for the region it is also important and Estonia is just establishing bilaterally in Singapore and is currently assessing how better to support Estonian businesses in the rest of ASEAN countries. “These are all very large, different countries with separate opportunities. Being in Singapore helps as it really functions as an international hub, but at the same time we need to increase our awareness and presence in these countries to support businesses there as well. I am very excited also to explore the possibilities for Estonia in cooperating more with the regional superpower Indonesia – incredibly fast growing and with a dynamic digital market. But we are not in fortunate situation like the other Nordic countries to have embassies in these countries, so we have to do it more from a distance.”
“We have honorary consuls in those countries that are helping us a lot too. As a smaller country we have to plan our resources and priorities very well and find the best and sometimes out-of-the-box solutions to support our businesses.”
A lot also depends on how the region and the dynamics will work out here, what is the potential for our businesses in Southeast Asia. At the moment I’m very positive. Especially a lot of business interest lies in our case in the digital service sector. Within digitalisation in Southeast-Asia, countries like Indonesia have done incredible growth during COVID. It has also increased the interest from the governments on cyber security and e-services, so I see a lot of potential in this regard for our solutions as well,” ends the ambassador.