Today, as part of The Hieno! “What is Finnish-ness” series celebrating Suomi 100 in 2017, we feature Lilian Neo, entrepreneur and the president of the Singaporean Association in Finland.
In this no-holds-barred interview, Lilian shares with us her various thoughts on Finland, the Finnish-Singaporean bilateral relationship, mushroom-picking, business and expat life.
Enjoy the interview! ♡
WW: Hello Lilian! Thank you for accepting our interview. Can you tell us more about yourself and what you do?
Lilian: I’m a self-employed owner with extensive experience in events and home interior planning in Finland for over a decade. I’d describe myself as an avid learner, motivated and proactive.
I have done different types and scope of work.
Most recently, I have gained four years of extracurricular teaching experience in arts and handicrafts with children aged 6-12years old. We focus on encouraging visual and motor skill development.
WW: When did you come to Finland and why?
Lilian: I was working as office manager for a Finnish state-owned company in Singapore for several years prior to moving to Finland.
I represented the company in all the Finnish Business council meetings and from there met up with many Finnish state officials.
I was young, naive and fearless then! So I was swept over by the visiting Minister of Trade and Industry’s open invitation to Singaporeans to come to Finland to do business.
I left my job soon after and moved directly to Finland in 1995 to set up my consultation and retail business .
WW: What is the Number One misconception foreigners have about Finns/ Finland, and why do you think it is far from reality?
Lilian: It is difficult to single out just one but I’d go with one of the most common.
“Finnish language is so difficult, so impossible to learn and sounds so crazy!”
Believe me, it isn’t true.
Finnish is actually quite easy simply because Finns don’t expect you to speak fluently. Regardless of whether you know just one word or thousands, the Finns are most likely to compliment how good your Finnish is .
When you make mistakes with your vocabulary, no worries!! The Finns won’t laugh at you.
In fact, they remain quiet .
Lilian: Yes! You may just go on for years repeating the same error until a fluent, well-meaning foreigner corrects you!
So relax and let your tongue roll on ! 😊
WW: What is the Number One misconception you think Finns have about foreigners, and why do you think it is far from reality?
Lilian: Finns go all over the world for vacation, to work, to study and for love. But they have difficulty understanding ‘ who would want to come here to Finland’!
Finns are basically self-effacing. So you get them asking you why you are here.
It doesn’t mean that they don’t want you here. On the contrary, they ask because they are in admiration of the fact that you are so brave to come.
And to live with the cold and dull weather when they themselves despise it.
WW: What are the three things you are most proud of as a resident of Finland?
Lilian: Looking back, It wasn’t an easy ride managing a business at that young age with so many formalities that had so much grey areas to comply with. I also struggled with the language and living alone for the first time.
I suppose it is completely justified to say that I ought to have many reasons to be proud of. With the very important help of my Finnish friends, of course.
Some folks think I wouldn’t survive the cold. But I love it!
Some folks also say that it’s impossible to do business for a foreigner with limited Finnish language. But I did .
With the greatest help from the kind, generous-hearted and inquisitive Finns, I survived the recession and ran a business for over a decade in Finland.
WW: How about the three things you are not so proud of as a resident of Finland? Do you think change is possible, and if so, how do you suggest change to be implemented?
Lilian: When I took a break from my business after the 12th year, I wanted to study a new skill so I was told where to get registered.
I was sent all over from one place to another. The advisors had different information. I took every instruction obediently because I trusted the system.
When I realized I was wrongly instructed, it was too late. Too much time, finances and opportunities was lost in the process.
Some of the governmental divisions are still taking too long to process even simple requests. If an application is complete with all requirements met, an approval should be made rather than prolonged for unknown periods.
Counsellors and advisors ought to have precise knowledge in order to properly guide applicants.
Looking for a job is very interesting. In an interview you may be told that your fluent Finnish isn’t sufficient because Swedish is a requirement too. Your overseas degree may be overlooked because most local firms prefer a Finnish one.
Finland should open more avenues. Embrace qualified foreigners instead of fearing the very capable, and welcome foreigners that are willing and able to contribute.
If the job does not require much talking, experience should be before language skills.
WW: Against the context of globalization,who do you think can and should define ” Finnish-ness”?
Lilian: I reckon it’s Nokia .
Nokia has succeeded in becoming a global entity and they did it without blowing trumpets. Which is very much the Finnish way.
Little known fact: Finland has the highest connectivity per capita in the developed world.
WW: What was the happiest moment of your life in Finland?
Lilian: I haven’t won the Euro jackpot so I can’t claim happiest moment yet. [TH: LOL that’s super Singaporean.]
The most spirit-lifting moment would have to be the day I discovered mushroom picking in the forest.
Picking this amazing power food requires good knowledge to identify what is edible and what is not.
So, many thanks to my great Finnish friends who are excellent guides.
So when I do find the yummy mushrooms, heehaw! I feel on top of the world!
You go through this lingering joy to find them, pick them, clean them, cook them, eat them, share them and dream on even after the season is over !
WW: Muhahahahaha!!! I absolutely love mushroom picking too!!~ Okay on a heavier note, have you ever faced discrimination in Finland?
Lilian: Whenever I am faced with a bad situation, I often regard the incident as a misunderstanding.
No matter how upsetting the case, I won’t allow myself to take it personally especially when dealing with official matters.
I would usually address the issue directly to that particular person.
If it was a case of discrimination, I would make a conscious choice not to escalate it.
WW: Can you tell us the top 3 things/ traits you regard as “Finnish”, and why?
Lilian: Finns are…
- Good listeners;
Also, let not the Finnish silence be mistaken as allusive, vague or passive .
The Finns have turned their ability to listen to people into an art form. You may find out later that behind the silence she/he has a PHD and is multilingual, or a top executive in a major firm.
Working with Finns can be a pleasant experience. They trust you with the task .
If they say they are coming, they come! Rain, snow or transport strike– they will still be on time!
You can always agree to disagree with them and still go for a drink after disagreeing! Cheers 🍻!
WW: As the president of the Singapore Association in Finland, what do you think are the top three differences between Finland and Singapore? Can these differences be viewed as strengths?
Lilian: For the Finns, joining an association is quite normal.
Most of them belong to one or more associations. Establishing an association in Finland is kept simple and open to all. Even children join activity clubs.
Finns understand their objective in joining and stay committed to the association.
In Singapore, associations are likely larger in scale and more commonly involve in charity or religion, supported by the wealthy or elite.
It is therefore uncommon for the general public to participate. Perhaps, that is why Singaporeans weigh the benefits prior to joining any association.
Singaporeans here need to be constantly reminded that we are a Finnish association obligated to abide by the Finnish law. Our aim is to maintain and promote our unique Singaporean identity and culture.
Our association is a close knit community. There is an equal proportion of Singaporeans and Finns. We enjoy Singapore-Finnish relations and regard ourselves as one big family. Which is nice.
We are very realistic about the small percentage of Singaporeans in Finland but we still believe in growth and are open to new ideas.
We do our best to promote not only our Singapore culture as genuinely as possible but to also to introduce a deeper understanding of the Finnish ways.
WW: If a friend visits Helsinki, where are the top three places/ hidden gems you would recommend him/her to visit, and why?
It depends very much on the length of stay of my visitor and the season when they visit.
Typically for shorter stays, Seurasaari, Esplanadi and Kauppatori are always on my got-to-show list. This is also because I’m based in Helsinki.
A quick visit to any second-hand market is also included.
As for longer stays, lunch at Fiskars and other traditional Finnish outdoor activities outside Helsinki are some of the must-do things.
WW: What is the one wish you would have for current and future Finland-Singapore bilateral relations?
Lilian: Get ready! I have a huge wish.
I would like to see our ties galvanize.
Perhaps Finland could open her doors wider to invigorate foreign investments from Singapore. Sometimes, the over-cautious Finns take for granted that enquiries from companies result from firms trying to sell them something.
When actually, these enquiries come from companies which could be potential buyers !
Too often, Singaporean firms contact me and ask me to make connections with the Finns on their behalf because they haven’t had any replies from their enquires.
As much as I know how people from the two countries operate, it leaves me in a tough spot. Because many Singaporeans are less patient while the Finns are way too relaxed.
Finns have to ‘Piti miettiä’ ( consider) just about everything! You live here long enough, you get used to this Finnish-ness .
Singaporeans are often sourcing for new products and Finland is known for quality production. Finland is still on a conservative side about doing business with foreigners.
My hope is for small-and-medium-size companies and students studying business in Finland to get more exposure .
I have seen some amazing projects by students supported by their institutions in Singapore. So I wish the same for Finland’s new generation and their growing interest in entrepreneurship to have similar opportunities to network with Singapore’s business students.
For instance, both sides can embark on bilateral exchange programmes related to trade, marketing and the sharing of their creativity.
Entrepreneurship is a norm in Singapore culture. It is so common. Whereas in Finland, working for a big firm is more impressive than being an entrepreneur.
To change this mindset and to see entrepreneurship rise, we look to the new young generation. Slowly but surely, we are moving in the right direction .
WW: What is the one 100 year-old birthday wish you would make for Finland, since 2017 is Finland’s 100 years of independence?
Finland , you are one of the most honest country in the world!
Please stay this way for the next 100 years! 🙂
WW: On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?
Lilian: Wherever you choose to sojourn to, let not misconceptions of that country prevent you from having your own experiences.
You can’t enter a new country and expect the country to know you right away. It is your own effort to know them first.
The culture of that country is larger than you. Culture and people are one. By separating them you will find conflict with one or the other.
With an open mind one can learn their ways and choose at his or her own will and pace where and how to fit in.
It’s the same way when others sojourn to your country. At the end, it’s all up to us where we decide home is. 🙂
We hope you have enjoyed this interview with Lilian Neo!
The Hieno! is the official partner of the Finland 100 independence programme.This series “What is Finnish-ness”? is endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office. Photographs courtesy of Lilian and Unsplash.