Sweden’s Ambassador on Malaysia: “Underestimated, real potential!”

When Ambassador Bengt G. Carlsson arrived to Malaysia for his first head of mission posting, he had a re-start as beginning: the re-opening of the embassy following on a Swedish government decision to first close it down and then reopen it again.

“We arrived here in early September 2012 when just over a year had passed by since the closure of the previous embassy,” begins the Ambassador.

The new embassy is situated in an office building at walking distance from KL City Center – with a slightly slimmed organisation than what was previously the case. They used to be a few more staff on board. The Ambassador’s new deputy, Counsellor Louise Bonbeck arrived in 2014 from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sweden.


A new residence has also been acquired.

A Stockholm-based Defence Attaché also comes and goes, depending on events and activities.

“Defence trade with Malaysia goes back all the way to the 1960’s,” says Bengt G. Carlsson. “And there are several deals on the cards and at various stages. So that’s no secret.”

Yes, promoting the military defence systems from not least the SAAB Group, with the JAS Gripen fighter as an element, is part of it.

“And to assist the promotion, we have a trade promoter; Jenn Lew, re-recruited from the previous embassy team.”

“This is first and foremost a trade and business promoting embassy – we should be concentrating on offensive tasks, such as supporting business activities, and of course we have a consular service.”

In addition the embassy has four other staff.

As for regular passport service for Swedes normally the mission in Singapore handles this these days.

“Sweden now has a policy to concentrate passport service around the world. There are other embassies in the region that can offer full service, and Singapore is not really far away,” explains the Ambassador. “We can issue emergency passports but to Swedes living here we also recommend them to renew their passports when they visit Sweden – it is much cheaper and easier.”

Malaysia forgotten

Bengt G. Carlsson also compares to the much larger Swedish embassy in Thailand, where he has also worked previously in his diplomatic career – and draws a connection: there is this big difference in visitors to the respective countries from Sweden, where Malaysia enjoys significantly fewer arrivals.

“Since I know both places – and without saying anything negative about Thailand; it’s a great tourist destination – I find this a bit remarkable. Here we also have so many things to experience! I think Malaysia is a bit forgotten in Sweden; flying under the radar.”

After two years in Malaysia the Ambassador himself feels that he now should travel more and explore the many things he has yet to discover in the Southeast-Asian nation.

“I would like to see more interest in various ways. Everyone knows Thailand and Singapore, but less the country in-between… and which is a bit of a mix as well. A lot here, such as the infrastructure, is also more modern and advanced than in Thailand, and it’s half the population.”

“I am happy to make the case for Malaysia’s variety and would welcome more Swedish tourism – and vice versa.”

The embassy promotes tourism to Sweden, as much as it can, and partake when there are opportunities to do so.

Innovation as umbrella

Sweden has new recently elected government is drawing up its policies and strategies. From the Swedish Embassy we can still get a broader sense what we can expect ahead.

Innovation is a matter of the heart that the Ambassador wants to continue exploring as theme.

“The previous embassy started a broad and strategic innovation initiative in 2011. And it’s something where Malaysia now has a large interest in and where we [Sweden] have a lot to offer. The government here is very clear with that, in order for the country to achieve its grand 2020 vision of becoming a high-income nation – now they are in the middle-income trap and treading water but working hard to reach there. Then they must become more innovative. And the government here is emphasizing this a lot and we collaborate with authorities, universities and investment agencies.”

“And by matching the different needs and talents we believe we have found a good umbrella – being innovation – to work with. And within this you can include a wide variety of things, and various sub-branches. We try to support those Swedish companies already present here. That incorporates for instance transportation where we have world-class companies established with assembly plants. Then you per default get matters of interest concerning road safety, urban transportation and planning etc. There are also  “opportunities for SMEs, consultancy services etc. of interest within this,” highlights the Ambassador.

Within official Malaysia as counterpart the embassy collaborates first and foremost with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI.)

“This is a very important ministry here and they continue to be interested in Sweden. By nature this is the ministry to collaborate mostly with and focus on. There is also an innovation authority under Prime Minister’s Office that we have teamed up with together with Business Sweden and our companies.“

“We are, among other things, working on doing a roundtable discussion on innovation, trying to bring that up on a high level, including ministries and corporate leaders on various sides – for instance within productivity. We have Swedish companies such as  SKF, Volvo, Scania, Mölnlycke etc. that could have a lot to contribute when it comes to increasing productivity in Malaysia.”

Team Sweden

Bengt G. Carlsson says he has been around and done promotion work in several countries and the talk of potential is always there. But on this front he thinks that this is something that Malaysia really has.

“I think we underperform here. Swedish companies, in particular SMEs, ought to be able to have much more success here!  So the challenge is to make Malaysia more visible to companies in Sweden.”

“We, in the region, have discussed having more joint promotion activities, and we are considering doing a smaller road show in Sweden in the spring, to meet the market so to speak. I think it would have larger impact if many countries do this together rather than just one.”

“We like to view ourselves as a part in ‘Team Sweden’, where there are other legs here. Business Sweden is one and then we have the companies that we are here to support. All of us should be involved in this, and different companies depending on the activity what we are doing at the moment,” suggests the Ambassador.

“Then, whether it should be purely innovation-based or in a more specific sector such as health care or clean tech, I think it’s important that we work like this but stand united.”

“We do various activities and it’s of course important to have the Swedish companies along. That has worked well.  And it’s also important to involve also the academic world in this, to share research and ideas and as expertise.”

On the Swedish side the new government must find its way and decide which countries to visit in the near future.

“Malaysia is probably not on top of the government’s travel agenda; they are likely to start closer to home. But we’re hoping the new government will be interested in Asia and Malaysia; we’ve had very few ministerial visits here. Again, I think that has to do with this country being quite unknown. But this is my job to bring this to a higher level and making the country more visible back home. And not just praise and embellishment; rather giving an informed and nuanced view. However this is after all a country with many advantages, among the top in the world as far as the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ index is concerned, and a very pleasant and nice country to live in or visit, one cannot deny that!”

“In our yearly planning we submit promotion plans and present what we would like to do, and then we can apply for funding for example to do these innovation efforts and to attract attention in media and elsewhere. For us working actively with promotion and events out here, it is definitely very important to have access to these resources so we can combine them with funding and co-financing from other stakeholders, such as our companies here. Successful promotion events are normally very costly, there is a lot of competition from other countries as well.”

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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