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[The Hieno! Suomi 100] Interview with Michaela Istokova, a super talented visual creative.

Finnish People, Finnish Society, Foreigners in Finland, Official Finland 100 Series Endorsed by Prime Minister's Office

Today, as part of The Hieno! “What is Finnish-ness” series celebrating Suomi 100, we have the huge privilege of featuring Michaela Istokova.

Michaela Istokova is our amazingly talented designer-cum-illustrator for the The Hieno! Suomi 100 official e-book. You can view her portfolio here and here.

Enjoy this interview! 🙂

TH: Hello Michaela! Can you tell us more about yourself and what you are doing in Finland?

Michaela Istokova: Hello Wan Wei, or should I rather say “Moikka”? 🙂

I am a graphic designer and illustrator from Bratislava in Slovakia, and I am now working in an international development X design agency M4ID as a Visual Creative.

I moved to Finland about five years ago when I found a part-time job and a Finnish boyfriend Esa.

Since then I’ve been here sort of on and off, employed, unemployed, freelancing, everything.

TH: What are the three things you appreciate most about Finland?

Michaela Istokova: I am comparing Finland to what I had experienced in the three countries where I lived (Slovakia, Czechia and Malaysia). These three things stand out for me:

  • The way this country is governed and Finland’s admirable lack of scandalous corruption.
  • Quality of living in terms of the high quality of apartments and the services they offer. For example, there are communal washing and drying rooms, communal saunas, tables outside houses, etc…
  • Gender equality that I feel the most when wearing shapeless, potato bag dresses and nobody is judging me!

In my home country I would be definitely judged, most women there strive to look very feminine…Here in Finland it’s alright to look whatever way you want to look, and not just in the cosmopolitan Helsinki, but even in the countryside.

This may be different for, for example, Muslim women that are veiled, but in my case of a ¼ Asian white person, nobody judges my questionable fashion choices and the ways I choose to present myself as a woman. 😀

TH: Who inspires you the most? 

Michaela Istokova: I am inspired by people who do their own thing and create something amazing and beneficial.

For example, in Slovakia I have two friends – Miska from Puojd and Janka from Froggywear – who both create clothes but each has their own target audience. They are both successful at basically, being themselves and executing their vision and that is very inspirational to me!

So, generally I like fearless people who are going after their goal. 🙂

TH: What do you think are the unique aspects of Finnish design?

Michaela Istokova: Finland has a lot of textile design brands that create patterns that are mostly very bold, big and very bright.

Mostly it’s very graphic, maybe just Pentik does a bit softer, gentler design from the well-known brands.

Then I have also noticed that Finns like contrasting black lines, like you can see in the designs of Finlayson and the Arabia Moomin mugs for example – but obviously, Tove Jansson drew Moomins like that, and so it’s a wonderful established style.

I also like the Finnish designers’ use of motifs from the nature and Finnish cities (again, Finlayson) and their nice sense of humour evident in many designs. For example in Lapuan Kankurit’s design with many naked men in sauna!

Excellent stuff, I bought it for my mom.

TH: Ohhhhh many, many naked Finnish men!! *pervs* That being said, if Finland were a person, how would he or she look like?

Michaela Istokova: The illustration you see here is actually something I did as a personal project for the 99th birthday of independent Finland, just recently.


I decided to illustrate a lady, let’s call her Marja Lumi [which means Berry Snow :)]. This is because it’s good to be a woman in Finland. She is also blonde, because once I read somewhere that Finland has the highest percentage of blonde people in the world.

Marja Lumi is enjoying a bit of löyly in sauna, having her saunakalja nearby and wearing a wreath made of flora commonly found in Finland, including the national flower, lily of the valley.

She has hairy legs, because really, people don’t care much and that’s great!

Be hairy here, my friend, it’s alright – we are all equal in sauna. 😀

TH: Haha, and who would her enemies be?

Michaela Istokova: I think my Marja Lumi would be very annoyed at sexist, patriarchal idiots who are intolerant to her freedom, her beer drinking, her meh attitude towards shaving, her general independence and high level of attained education.

TH: What do you think are some of the popular misconceptions of Finland that foreigners might have?

Michaela Istokova: A lot of people seems to think that Finns are introverted metal lovers with alcohol abuse problems that sit in sauna all day and then swim in icy lakes.

I find that kind of funny, especially the alcohol and metal part – at least in my circles not so many people drink too much or listen to metal!

Finland is also associated with suicidal behaviour, and sadly here I actually know several Finnish people who either had someone close to them commit a suicide. Or, in one case, one friend of mine did it a couple of years ago too.

I guess mental health is not in so much in focus here, and people are just encouraged to “have sisu” but that’s not always cutting it. :/

TH: Can you share some of the most memorable experiences you have in Finland? They could be funny, weird, offensive or out-of-the-world.

Michaela Istokova: My boyfriend Esa and I went on an extended business trip (for him) and a totally cool roadtrip (for me) to Lapland last summer and that was just wonderful.

My home country is small, hilly and rather crowded, so when I experienced the vast taigas of Lapland, I was in love. In particular, approaching Kemijärvi (the town) on the bridge above Kemijärvi (the lake) was a total highlight and now I platonically love this town!

I also had a nice experience last summer in Joensuu when I was buying two woven baskets from a lady on the market. I speak (badly) in Finnish. However, she didn’t mind and she was really curious about me. Also, she was very delighted that we can talk together in Finnish. Somehow that made me feel quite integrated and accepted in this often puzzling society haha 😀

Oh and one last experience – when we lived in Tampere, there was a totally enchanted forest behind our apartment where excellent mushrooms grew in unbelievable quantities. We were picking them and drying them and at one point we had so much that we had to dry them in our apartment sauna…oh, what a dream!

TH: What is the one birthday wish you have for Finland this year, since it is its 100th birthday? 

Michaela Istokova: I wish Finland to loosen up a bit in certain aspects.

Namely, the hostile attitude towards street art and the severely restricted sale of alcohol in grocery stores.

I also wish Finland can keep up its excellent work in many other aspects.

And I wish that more people would visit here and beyond just Helsinki and Rovaniemi, because Finland has a lot of lovely places to offer!

TH: On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?

Michaela Istokova: If you can, visit Northern Karelia, it’s wonderful.

Swimming in Lake Pielinen, picking blueberries and cranberries in the big Karelian forests. And admiring the view from Koli National Park should be a must for every visitor to Finland.  =)

The Hieno! is the official partner of the Finland 100 independence programme: What is “Finnish-ness”? endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office. Feature photo by Jenni Aho. We hope you have enjoyed reading this interview as much as we did!🙂 Feel free to connect with Michaela on LinkedIn or view her portfolio here and here.

Finland Press Freedom: Really Number One?

Commentary, Finnish Society
finland press freedom

Is Finland Press Freedom really Number One in the world? I read with great amusement this piece of news by Reuters, about the recent controversy between the Finnish government and one of the most esteemed news broadcaster in Finland, YLE.


“Two Finnish journalists quit public broadcaster Yleisradio (YLE) on Wednesday, saying the company had suppressed critical reporting on politicians including Prime Minister Juha Sipilä.

The case is unusual for the Nordic country, ranked by non-profit group Reporters Without Borders as the global leader in press freedom. It follows a row over emailed complaints from the prime minister about the broadcaster’s coverage.”

I found myself LOL-ing after reading it.

Because…At this point, does anyone realise what the original dispute was about?


Do you know why you don’t know what the original dispute was about?

Well, it’s because the current media attention has successfully moved away from the topic of whether Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä and his family has indeed misused his public office for the benefit of their private businesses.

Instead, the current discourse is on how Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä was right/wrong in dealing with the journalist in his communications.

This type of reporting is called “red-herring”. Wikipedia defines it as such:

“A red herring is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue.”

Let me pose a question.

Then why doesn’t ANY Finnish media go ahead to emphasise exactly how much is involved in this so-called conflict-of-interest?

Okay let me do a simple calculation for you.

We know that the amount of money involved in this whole saga is at least 0.05 X 500,000euros = 25,000euros.

Logic: 5% of the 500,000euros contract.

This is definitely not a huge sum of money, especially when it doesn’t even go directly to the Prime Minister’s bank account. Compare this to the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib did USD1billion in terms of corruption which goes directly into his bank account, LOL.

So what further investigation is Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s afraid of? The amount is so small!

Then the next question is perhaps why Prime Minister Juha Sipilä sent 20 “angry emails” to YLE?

I find that sort of overreaction very strange.

Does he seriously think that he would be accused of “conflict of interest”, corruption or nepotism just because of at least 25,000euros which does not even go directly into his bank account?

  • If he is worried about the Finnish masses being influenced by reports which alludes to such a small amount of money, it shows that he thinks that the Finnish masses are really gullible and possibly even petty.
  • If he is worried about indeed being accused of a conflict of interest, it might imply that the real amount is way larger than 25,000euros.

We really don’t know exactly how much is involved in this so-called “conflict of interest”, because Yle has decided to halt investigation. In addition, the Finnish media is now all obsessed about “ethics” and “freedom of expression”, which draws focus away from the original issue of exactly how much in monetary value is the conflict of interest.

Therefore, the next key thing we can be concerned about is the self-censorship of the Finnish media.

Quoting Reuters again–“The case is unusual for the Nordic country, ranked by non-profit group Reporters Without Borders as the global leader in press freedom.”

So why is this case “unusual”?

Some readers might jump to the false conclusion that it is because Finland has noble values of always upholding “freedom of expression” and Finns always speak their mind.

In other words, some readers might assume that Finns are a different kind of human being than the rest of the world.

These are unfortunately stereotypes and words are cheap.

Let me posit another situation: could this Juha Sipilä case be considered “unusual” due to the some other verifiable “unspoken rules” which are broken in the Finnish context?

In this case, these unspoken rules that were broken include–

  • The Finnish reporter who had dared to publish some of the “angry emails” on social media, in the name of transparency and public interest;
  • The expectation that Finnish journalists do not do investigative journalism;
  • The expectation that Finnish journalists self-censor out of their own will, to avoid “stepping on toes”.

If voluntary self-censorship is indeed the “unspoken rule” which contributes to the norm…then what does “Number One in World Press Freedom really mean”? LOL

Nah, seriously, just take some time to think about it.

So what if Finland is “number one in world press freedom“? What are the true implications if reporters are made to self-censor, or risk stepping on toes and having to resign due to “incompatible values”?

Well, at this point in time, some Finns will start to attack Singapore’s freedom of expression, saying that I have no rights to comment on this because Singapore’s freedom of expression is shit.

Once again, that is a red herring.

However, for the sake of logical argument, I’d address this concern here.

Even if you point to Singapore and say that our freedom of expression is really shit, let me just say that at no point do Singaporeans go around telling the whole world that we have excellent freedom of expression.

We do not act all noble–we address things as they are. This leads to you and I having the same expectation that freedom of expression in Singapore is limited.

Finnish society however, actively preach that the Finnish press ranks Number #1 in freedom of expression and therefore imply that they are very noble.

Therefore, this gives to really high expectation on the parts of the public and non-Finns because Finnish politicians and foreign ministry actively preach and boast that well, Finland is awesome because, “number #1 in freedom of expression”.

Well, the truth is that the Finnish media could simply rank #1 in freedom of expression simply because Finnish journalists self-censor to avoid “stepping on toes”.

So, stop acting noble, LOL. Verifiable facts do not support the positive implications behind the stereotypes of “number #1”.

Freedom of expression in Finland is great, yes. But it is by no means “perfect”. Does No.#1 really mean anything, and can you say for sure?

Now that you know what I think about “Finland and freedom of expression”, let me share with you my take on this whole saga:

I sincerely believe that Prime Minister Juha Sipilä did no wrong. He simply lacks media training, which is perfectly understandable as he came from an engineering background.

My logic behind saying this is because nobody ever subjects themselves to being a prime minister “for money”. If Prime Minister Juha Sipilä were really “in it” for the money, he wouldn’t have ran for prime minister–he would have continued growing his business.

It is my opinion that he loves the country and really wanted to do something for Finland, in accordance to his vision. This is precisely why he got really upset with a possible accusation of wrong-doing.

Imagine already having to deal with a lot of shit constantly for entire days, and now having to deal with such nonsense accusations.

I also sincerely believe that the reporters were in fact highly ethical and want to report things for the interest of the public. It is actually very noble and brave, because YLE as a broadcasting company is entirely public and funded by tax-payers’ money.

It is possible that both parties do not really trust each other in the first place, which again is understandable because media these days like to stir shit. So, what went wrong was probably because both parties got really emotional as values they hold dear to were perceived to be compromised.

So things quickly got personal.

That being said,  I am sorely disappointed with is YLE chief editor’s handling of this issue, as he implied that both reporters are unethical. QUOTE–

“YLE chief editor Jaaskelainen, who has admitted shelving follow-up stories questioning Sipila’s role in Terrafame, denied any attempt to restrict freedom of speech.

“It seems that he (Eronen) cannot accept YLE’s journalistic principles and values… Due diligence and claims based on facts are essential in investigative journalism,” he said.”

How do you expect your reporters to make “due diligence and claims based on facts” when you don’t even allow them to continue to investigate?

-roll eyes-

Anyway, I wish both reporters who have resigned all the best elsewhere for their journalistic careers. ^_^

Better to work elsewhere than under such a strange YLE chief editor who do not even bother to defend you.

Helsinki Book Fair 2016: The secret as to why most Finns are so smart.

Finnish Society, Helsinki Events, Things to do in Helsinki

I’d always wondered why most Finns are so smart. Then I went to the Helsinki Book Fair 2016 and realised why.

My personal experience with my Finnish friends is that regardless of education level, most Finns can think on their own terms. This is of course as opposed to blindly believing in abstract subjective statements like “hard work is always good”. Dr Ed Dutton also wrote in an academic article that Finns are by far the most intelligent Europeans, with an average IQ of 111.

Average IQ and education levels aside, why are Finns so smart?

Today I found out another reason…

…It’s because Finns read a lot!

And this is why it was such a huge privilege for me to cover the Helsinki Book Fair 2016! 😀

The Helsinki Book Fair 2016 is Finland’s largest book event, featuring 1000 performers on the fair stages over four days. Arranged for the 16th time, there are 314 exhibitors and invitations to 48 international writers from 8 different countries in Helsinki Book Fair 2016.

It was quite fun! I met really random mascots too:


Oh if you are wondering why there are chocolates in the picture collage, it is because the book fair was held in conjunction with the wine-and-food fair.

Happiness in The Helsinki Book Fair!

Oh yes, the themes of Helsinki Book Fair this year are the literature and culture of the Nordic countries, immigration of our time and education. The Book Fair commenced on Thursday for example, with opening words from Jari Tervo–author of the book Matriarkka, a book on immigration from the eyes of migrants.

Interestingly, there is also a focus on how Finland’s own history in terms of immigration and minority groups are often conveniently forgotten–not just related to the Swedish speaking minorities, but also the Sami people, Jewish, Russians and Romanians.

Related to the literature and culture of the Nordic countries, I dropped by the Nordic Culture booth, and read quite some stuffs about Icelandic and Danish literature!

They were really fascinating. I’d never considered Icelandic literature before prior to this book fair–sounds so exotic right? I mean, as Singaporeans we know the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” that was filmed in Iceland, and that’s it.

So it’s great to know that there are many, many interesting Icelandic literature too. Especially after the following Ms. Iceland’s video went viral, I’d been more interested in what Icelanders are taught. Considering how brave she is, I’m sure Icelandic literature must have been quite brave too!

I deviate, haha.

One thing I appreciate most about the Helsinki Book Fair is the concept that”reading promotes empathy”. I think I used to be quite a non-empathic person in Singapore until I came to Finland where the culture of humility toned me down a lot.

I remembered that some time last year, my cousin brother applied for his scholarship in UK and I helped with his interview preparation. He asked me a question–

WW, why must we have empathy?”

I couldn’t really answer. But! I went home to google and youtube the question, and found this TED talk:

I guess reading a lot of books and having a high level of empathy is consistent with the notion that Finnish people are in general calm, agreeable and with a high level of conscientiousness.

Interesting, right?

Okay, I think I’d go downstairs to walk around more now–I’m at the press room right now. The Helsinki Book Fair 2016 is still ongoing tomorrow, from 10am to 6pm, at Helsinki Exhibition Centre Halls 6 and 7.

Do visit and have fun!~ =) Do check the website for Sunday’s programme and more details.