In May Iceland’s fourth ambassador to Singapore, H.E. Sigríður Ásdís Snævarr, handed over her credentials. This was also the fourth trip ever to the Southeast Asian hub by this very experienced diplomat.
“We are now celebrating our twentieth anniversary of diplomatic relations,” the ambassador tells ScandAsia, while in Singapore.
Her return, versus the first visit back in 1995, joining a friend for a week’s tour, is testament to Singapore’s dramatic change: “I then visited the Norwegian Embassy, which is still in the same building. I could describe to you the difference in the view from the same window. It’s like a totally new world today!”
Ambassador Snaevarr is a Non-Resident Ambassador, a model successfully used by Iceland, with its limited population and resources, which means that she resides back in Iceland.
“I have been leading a group of ambassadors who live in Iceland and between us serve 32 countries. And we divide our work in groups, according to what interests Iceland has with the country in question,” she says and explains this with an example where Slovenia asked Iceland for cooperation on the gender agenda – Iceland being a top-ranking country within that field.
Iceland’s new Office of the Permanent Secretary of State is the new division for home-based ambassadors and special envoys. “Representation vis-à-vis many countries has now been moved to Iceland and put in the hands of experienced ambassadors who will carry out these tasks from the MFA in Reykjavík. The practice of entrusting home-based ambassadors with certain specified themes has been reinstated and could therefore create stronger ties to Iceland’s business community and strengthen business relationships, innovation, and the country’s image,” explains Ambassador Snaevarr
Seven home-based ambassadors are currently accredited to a large number of countries and focus areas, as well as on subjects such as disarmament, geothermal energy and equality.
At 38 she was the first woman to be appointed as an ambassador by Iceland and has served as ambassador Finland and Sweden among others.
“I became ambassador in Latvia and Estonia as well, then being among the very first two ambassadors ever to present credentials in those countries after the fall of the Soviet Union and their independence.”
Collaboration to deepen
“My interests, theme and expertise are: ‘Innovation, start-ups and new markets’. And Singapore of course falls absolutely within that scope.”
She sees potential for opportunities and partnerships within many sectors. “I can see sustainability, fintech, deeptech, the creative industry – where we have enormous resources, and soft power – where Singapore is very strong; some say we are super powers in soft power. And soft power is extremely important for a country like Singapore.”
“And we are of course both islands, we are the blue economy, the marine, the urban mobility. And we are both very good in healthtech, biotech, foodtech and edutech. You almost must ask what areas are excluded from potential collaboration!”
The fisheries sector has traditionally been strong for exports, but tourism has taken over as Iceland’s main export, while aluminium/silicon has also been important for Iceland’s economic growth.
“Now, we are seeing Icelandic companies in high-tech sectors (Marel, Össur, deCODE Genetics, etc.) becoming more and more important for our economy. These companies all need access to markets abroad, since the Icelandic market is too small for companies to grow beyond a certain size.”
“One cannot forget that because we are small countries on both sides we really depend on the international ecosystem. As diplomats we co-operate – I have been a diplomat for forty-one years and I’ve been working in some shape or manner with some Singaporean diplomats everywhere in the world,” adds the ambassador.
“These two ecosystems need to be together. There are so many similarities and so many big differences and when you have that you can put your resources together – it’s as if made to be.”
Ambassador Snaevarr is convinced that Iceland´s involvement and collaboration with Singapore is surely going to deepen in the years to come.
“We are already seeing increased business activity between Singapore and Iceland; just recently the Icelandic fintech company Meniga established a partnership with UOB, and have joined the Nordic Innovation House. Temasek Holdings are investing in Icelandic companies as well, owning a stake in pharmaceutical company Alvogen. They reasons are perhaps twofold; Icelandic companies are looking more towards Asia for their next markets and Singapore is the Asian gateway to these markets.”
Iceland has in its latest policy for the future of its Foreign Service articulated the necessity for fostering access for Icelandic companies in the growth markets of Asia. As a result, embassies in Asia were strengthened; with additional staff in Tokyo and Beijing, and with ideas for opening a new ‘business/trade’ office in Southeast-Asia.
“Singapore plays an increasingly important role as bilateral partner as well as a hub for access to markets in the region. A friend commented: ‘You go to China to talk to the Chinese, you go to Japan to talk to the Japanese, you go to Singapore to talk to the entire region!’,” says the ambassador.
Icelandic start-ups to Singapore
One of Sigríður’s skills is that she has been a management trainer for a long time, alongside her career. She describes it as her hobby. “I’m very interested in TEAMology: studying how people best work in teams. And to produce highly effective teams is a phenomenon which can be produced if you know how it works.”
This means that Sigríður can also assist Icelandic start-ups on this for them crucial point.
“And we know that the growth companies are the most important ones. But it needs to be start-ups that have grown to certain maturity to be called a growth company. They need to be scalable; need to have a certain stature in their own country and to have a relevance to Singapore,” she analyses.
“There will be some start-ups attending the Singapore Fintech and SWITCH festivals in November. And that’s like a dream come true because you would not think that a rather expensive country like Singapore would attract young Icelandic start-ups. It is a very far-away country for them, and we have no tradition in trading in this area. You put structures in place and very often things happen. We will see; I’m very positive.”
One such structure is the new Nordic Innovation House (NIH) Singapore, where the ambassador is a board member.
“I must say it was among the happiest phone calls I have received in my professional life when I was told that there was such a thing as a Nordic Innovation House to be started in Singapore, because it gave me of course – not having an embassy here or any staffing placed here – a location. I call it a Christmas Tree; a structure where I can put my start-ups almost as decoration. And imagine my joy when the very solid and popular Icelandic fintech company called Meniga, came on board the NIH as member! I do hope, by communicating back home, to get more Icelandic companies on board.”
“What this does is that you have a place, and a way. You can say: ‘Go to the Nordic Innovation House!’ Then you are so much stronger and it is so much easier trough that to raise the awareness in Iceland about Singapore opportunities, and with Singapore also the rest of Southeast Asia,” she adds enthusiastically.
Nordics highly important
Overall, claims the ambassador, Iceland is very routed in the Nordic tradition and the collaboration. Talking of which, Iceland is currently presiding in the Nordic Council of Ministers.
“I have been an ambassador in 19 different countries and could never have done it and any meaningful work had I not had the Nordic family in place. The first thing I do when coming to a new place is to go and visit every single Nordic ambassador.”
Apart from Iceland and Singapore sharing important values and characteristics (small countries with need for open and rules-based order), they are also finding common ground regarding some concrete issues as well, one being the issue about the Arctic – mainly through the Arctic Council – which Iceland is chairing for the next two years.
“Singapore told us that the arctic is not a local phenomenon, what happens in the arctic does not stay in the arctic – it has very big impact on the world’s oceans including of course in the equator. So the arctic marine environment, the climate and green energy, people and communities, and to strengthen the arctic council – that’s what we want to do in our two years of leading the arctic council.”
“The last instance of diplomatic cooperation between Singapore and Iceland is at the UN where our two nations have been chosen to take care and organise the 75 Years Anniversary of the UN in 2020 And that is incredible that they among all the countries in the world select us two to take care of organising the event!”
So just watch out for news and more activities in the Iceland-Singapore context. Iceland and Sigríður Ásdís Snævarr are going to make sure there will be progress!