In Praise of Ambition, Slush 2015 and Vision: My Open Reply to Tim Walker.

Commentary, Finnish Culture, Finnish Economy, Foreigners in Finland

[This post is edited because the version which I attempted to explain the idea of “moving towards an open economy” seemed to have caused controversy. So I removed the term “open economy” and reverted back to my previous draft.]

Dear Tim Walker,

Thank you for addressing your blog post directly to me–I’m humbled! I liked how you agreed with and complemented my post “Finland is not for the ambitious” with your “Finland is for the balanced“.

However, since you addressed me directly, I shall pick just two relevant points to elaborate on. The first point is this: You mentioned that despite lacking in ambition, “Finland ranks 4th on the innovation index by Bloomberg“. I beg to differ–I think innovation is the result of Finnish smartness, not ambition.

It is smartness which results in innovation, but ambition which will bring Finnish innovation to the whole world.

And it is this ambition that I desire for Finland because I see immense potential. Finns are already smart due to the exemplary primary school education system–they can go so much further with ambition. Do check this interview my team and I did with Ms Irmeli Halinen, the Head of Curriculum Development of the Finnish National Board of Education. A lot of our Asian readers loved it and it generated a considerable discussion on the Straits Times Forum (Singapore’s broadsheet).

In spite of all my happy memories here, I’m ambivalent towards Finland because the current system discourages ambition–it’s bad to stand out, terrible to articulate a different opinion, and a disaster to outshine your peers.

Take my rant post which went viral for instance. Seriously, who cares about a rant post by an unknown Singaporean in Finland?! I was in a foul mood when I wrote it. Yet, simply because I– just ONE Singaporean entrepreneur-cum-masters-student — hold a politically incorrect opinion towards the system, I have had my name dragged in mud, and have been called “spoilt”, “ungrateful” and “just shut up and fuck off”, for instance. These people–thankfully a minority– don’t even read my argument properly, know the context I’m making the post from, or know ME.

For my entire happy Finland experience, here is how much I support Finnish fashion, Finnish chocolates Part I, Part II (I eat Fazer everyday) and the amount of respect I have for Finnish education Part I, Part II. I watch Pasila too and I love the Karrelle Palanut Enkeli Rai-Rai-Rai song; I always play it on loop. I like Finnish boys, think they are very cute and always want to pinch them. And I wrote about how awesome Finland is on Helsinki Times. And it was Kimi Räikkönen’s birthday yesterday.

You get my drift.

Ambition–or going all out to do something you believe in–currently doesn’t seem to be rewarded in Finland. Be it via a systematic wage pegged to productivity/ value-added, or positive social affirmation. It would be myopic to think that ambition is all about money–Competition can be positive and healthy too. So instead of scratching your neighbor’s car out of jealousy, you can endeavor to buy an equivalent– or even better– shiny one for yourself.

The second point I would like to comment on is your use of the 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Index. And I quote your statement–

“Despite Finland’s economic woes, The World Economic Forum, in its 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Index, ranks Finland ninth among 140 economies. I’m wondering which economic assessment the public should believe: The World Economic Forum’s or yours?”

Since you’d wondered, I’d explain. The public should believe in BOTH.

The reason is simple. Statistically, you are referring to a point the Finnish Economy is currently at in 2015/2016–9th place out of 140. My macroeconomic post however, is talking about a direction: I’d prognosticated that if the chaotic parliamentary situation were to persist, this place would fall even further for the next 1-5years, even 10. Finland’s economy is crippled since exchange rate policies cannot be used to decrease the relative price of exports in the short term as Finland is in the Eurozone, affecting the competitiveness of Finnish products.

If the Finnish system had allowed Finns to be more ambitious, this global competitiveness index should have been higher than a 9th place, AND nobody should be predicting it to fall over the next five years. Why–? Because Finns are smart and Finnish products are excellent! In particular, this sentiment is echoed by the very esteemed Finnish policy expert Risto Penttilä, in his piece Ulos Eurosta tai Markinnatalous, written on Kauppakamari just two days ago. He spoke about the difficult Finnish scenarios of either leaving the Eurozone (so as to enable the devaluation of currency), or moving towards the market economy. Yet, he ended by urging all Finns to be ambitious, with this wonderfully encouraging, realistic and non-delusional statement, and I quote —

“Tilanne on synkkä, mutta toivoa ei pidä menettää. Kaikkea muuta! Suomessa on uskomaton määrä ihmisiä, jotka haluavat muuttaa maailmaa ahkeruuden, yrittämisen, kokeilemisen ja riskinoton kautta. Heitä löytyy julkiselta ja yksityiseltä sektorilta, urheiluseuroista ja yhdistyksistä. Heitä on eläkeläisissä ja työttömissä. Heitä tulee pakolaisina koko ajan lisää. Meidän on päästettävä nämä ihmiset töihin. Meidän on vapautettava heidät ylisääntelyn kahleista. Oikea aika toimia on nyt.

To translate, it means:

“The situation is grim, but we should not lose hope! Finland has an unbelievable amount of people who want to change the world through diligence, entrepreneurship, experimentation and risk-taking. They can be found in public and private sector, sports clubs and associations. They are the pensioners, the unemployed, and refugees. We need to let these people work. We need to release them from the shackles of over-regulation. The right time for action is now.

Such eloquence by the very wise Risto Penttilä! I am always heartened when esteemed Finnish leaders with the power to influence political decision show the will to implement bold changes to the current Finnish system. It gives hope to a nobody like me. When I speak about Finnish “slackness”–I am referring to the bold parts of his words: Massive unemployment and underemployment that the Finnish economy is currently plagued by. If I were to stay in Finland upon graduation, I’d most likely be part of that group due to the current system.

Let’s return to my original post.

It has been a HUGE pleasure responding to all 100+ comments on my blog–again, this blog is non-commercial and personal– because I learnt from readers who took the time to sincerely share a glimpse of their life and worldview with me. The comments were truly diverse and rich! Many–a few of rather high profile– have added me on LinkedIn and Facebook as a result of the post too, and this can only mean that I now have a broader Finnish network to engage with and contribute to. I’m heartened and humbled by the fact that some esteemed thought leaders actually made the effort to reach out to me, because this could only show that they actually bothered to empathize with–not judge— what a Singaporean entrepreneur/ Masters student like myself is thinking about.

Also, from the comments to my blog, I’m actually starting to see some hints of ambition from youths in Finland! Slush 2015, for instance, is the event I am greatly looking forward to cover as a media associate. The content marketing arm of my Singapore-registered company–IKIGUIDEwill go all out to market aspiring Finnish startups we meet at Slush 2015 to the Singaporean and Asian market. I just checked the list of companies on Slush and I can’t wait to meet many of the talented people, just as I did last year!

I am afraid I have to turn down your invitation of staying a while more in Finland, because I already know very clearly what I want to do in Singapore, and exactly how to get there.

Who did I learn this vision from? I learnt it from my Finnish role model–a professor at Aalto University– whom I also dedicated my masters thesis to (check page 2). I think this professor is ambitious, exceptional, awesome, shiny, and truly walks the talk as a great educator–and because I’d met this professor, I’m inspired and aspire to always want to be the best version of myself. Also, if you are interested, here is a video I did in March (on readers’ requests) on the 3 reasons why Aalto University is awesome. Of course there have been hiccups here and there with school since I come from a vastly different non-Western background, but who is to say they can’t be resolved with open dialogue?

And I just want to reassure you that whatever future success I have in Singapore, Aalto University and my professors get full credit, because my Masters in Public Relations is from Aalto.  🙂

Yours sincerely,

Wan Wei

(Photo by The Boyfriend.)

P.S. At the risk of being provocative again, I want to urge Finns to consider treating their Asian friends better. Americans/German/Canadian/Nordic foreigners in Finland are usually treated very well by Finns because of a more similar worldview and culture. But honestly, here’s a note to everyone–stop blindly assuming that Asians can’t speak English, or are poor, or are in Finland to take advantage of the great welfare system, for instance. The argument that “Oh other EU nations treat Asians like that too” doesn’t make sense–isn’t Finland supposed to be a champion and regional leader of noble values? If Finnish companies really want to expand into Asia, it might be a good idea to start treating Asians IN Finland with a little more respect and love. Asia is a culturally rich and diverse region, and Asians have a LOT of talent to contribute and great perspectives that will prevent group-think. Here, I’m speaking only to assholes who have been treating Asians badly. If you have been treating your Asian friend awesome, that’s great for you!! ^^ Have a Fazer!

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  • Reply
    October 18, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    Thanks for your reply, Wan Wei! Tim Walker here. I’m understanding your perspective better and I wish you all the best in Finland, Singapore and beyond! Also, I’m reaching for chocolate right now. Hope you get to enjoy a slow moment with a cup of coffee sometime soon. 🙂


    • Reply
      Wan Wei
      October 20, 2015 at 6:28 pm

      Hey Tim! 🙂

      Apologies, I just saw your comment. Yep. Fazer is always good! ^-^

      Kindly too,
      Wan Wei =)

  • Reply
    October 20, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    great argument that you are having you two. well documented too. thank you for this.

    as a foreigner in Finland, i understand both your viewpoints.

    i also understand you are at different stages in life: one is free of bounds while the other is tied to a family.
    i often tell my friends to live their youth in usa, singapore or Hong Kong where the life runs hundred miles per hour. but when my children came, i had to choose if i want to see them grow or see my work grow.
    it turns out finland allows for compromise leaving room for both.

    and very importantly, regardless of my choices (choices that can turn into success or failures), my children will be little affected. more precisely, if my engagements turn into success, they will benefit well. if they turn into failures, my kids will still have same very good opportunities in their own life. they will not pay for my mistakes. that’s a big safety net that finland offers.

    having this issue (and others) removed from the picture, anyone is free to experiment wildly. this in my opinion is the root of Finnish innovation talents: really anybody can try. wealthy or supported, educated or less, old or young.
    but it is also true that the lack of pressure takes away the hunger and urge to win and conquer that can be seen in other more competitive cultures. iam not convinced that it is a big loss in a world more and more governed by rules and laws anyway aiming at leveling the playing field.

    written from a phone, i apologize for the typoes.

    • Reply
      Wan Wei
      October 20, 2015 at 6:32 pm

      Hello Iem,

      Thanks for your comment! I feel your heart full of love as a parent. 🙂

      When I have kids I’d definitely want to stay in Finland too. But I think it would be wise then, to work towards a business model that allows female foreigners to have kids and still sort of have a highly productive career. (i.e. work less and earn more per hour)

      Apart from the welfare state system, I think there is another part of the system that can be addressed, that is, “the societal expectation of having to always do the ‘right’ thing” in Finland. It seems to me that my Finnish friends are terrified of being judged. To me, this is what I term “the system of perfection”. For instance, where does the fear of success come from in Finland? In Singapore, there is a strong sense of failure (like Finland), but I think Singaporeans are not restricted by a fear of success. In FInland however, there is a strong fear of success and I can’t understand it.

      What do you think?

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