(Feature Picture: Her Excellency Paula Parviainen with our Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong!)
Today, as part of The Hieno! “What is Finnish-ness” series celebrating Suomi 100 in 2017, we feature Her Excellency Paula Parviainen, the Finnish ambassador to Singapore.
An experienced diplomat with over 20 years of experience in the Finnish Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Paula regards her posting to Singapore with fondness having first served here as the Deputy Head of Mission from 1996-2000. She has also served at the UN, in Paris and in Beijing in addition to serving as Press Attaché to the Finnish Minister for Foreign Trade. In September 2015, Paula became Finland’s 7th Ambassador to Singapore.
Singapore’s also Paula’s first ambassador posting, and everybody loves Paula!!~~
Enjoy the interview! ♡
WW: Hello Paula! Thank you for accepting our interview. Can you tell us more about yourself and what you do?
Paula: Boring as it may sound, I am a Finnish civil servant.
I have been a career diplomat at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs since 1995. I joined on the same day when Finland became a member of the European Union.
It was the beginning of a new Era for Finnish diplomacy.
Since then, I have held about ten different jobs in the Ministry, and some of them so different from the previous that it is almost like changing your profession.
From Middle East peace process in the United Nations to press attaché of your minister for foreign trade, and from Paris to Beijing…in very different cultures.
That is the fascinating aspect: you have to be humble and admit that you know very little at the beginning of a new posting.
And then on hindsight, you can see how much you have learned in just one year!
WW: What motivates you in becoming an ambassador?
Paula: I think that most career diplomats want to become ambassadors one day.
As an ambassador, you are nominated by your country’s President to represent him and the people in another country. It is an honour but also a huge responsibility.
I was very happy to become ambassador of Finland to Singapore. I started my diplomatic career here 20 years ago, and I still have many Singaporean friends from those times.
I feel that there is so much that we can do to strengthen the bilateral relations between our countries and increase trade, investments, student exchange and tourism.
WW: I really liked the point you said about tourism! So many Singaporeans are now travelling to Finland and the Nordic regions to see the Northern Lights. Having said that, what is the Number One misconception foreigners have about Finns/ Finland, and why do you think it is far from reality?
Paula: That it is so faaaar and so cooooold!
When you have a direct flight between Singapore and your destination, I tell you, it is not far.
‘Also, Finnish summers and even autumns are at their best very warm and pleasant. I have really learnt to appreciate the changing seasons – they are not only four, but twelve!
All months are different and the length of the day is the crucial factor.
And, in Finland, you never freeze indoors, like here with the artificial cooling of places like movie theatres – I bring my down jacket to the movies….
WW: Haha. On a more serious note, the Finnish economy has not been doing well since 2007. How do you think the Finnish welfare state can continue to take good care of citizens and residents in Finland?
Paula: We have to continue to be an inclusive society and support each individual to find his or her place in the society and use his /her full potential.
Our welfare system has made people too passive in certain cases. Sometimes, the system does not always motivate one to work harder, since you get the basic income even if you don’t work.
We have to continue to educate our people, since a small country only has its brain power.
The welfare system should have more incentives to people to work in Finland and pay their taxes. If there are more beneficiaries than tax payers, then it just is not sustainable…
We have to continue on the path of lifelong learning to help even the older generation to keep up with the fast pace of digitalisation.
Also, we have to do a better job in integrating the foreigners coming to Finland.
WW: What are the three things you are most proud of as a Finnish citizen?
1) Our education system, which is still world class and leaves space for creative thinking. Increasingly, it is also encouraging entrepreneurship among young people – and still free for all.
2) The equality between women and men, and the role women play in our country–be it in politics, public or private sector, arts and family life.
Finnish women are pretty strong and independent and most men are used to it.
3) Our nature, and how we seem to appreciate it more and more.
A weekend in a Finnish summer cabin, with sauna, tree–hugging :), berry picking, fishing and doing basic, physical chores like taking care of the forest etc.
It is just priceless!
WW: How about the three things you are not so proud of as a Finnish citizen? Do you think change is possible, and if so, how do you suggest change to be implemented?
- The increase in protectionism and prejudice against anything foreign.
When times are economically harder, some are scared that there will not be enough for them, if they have to share with “outsiders”.
However, healthy competition is good.
- The stubbornness of some Finns, who don’t understand that good old times are not coming back (and were they so good anyhow?).
More flexibility and forward looking attitude is needed.
- Jealousy. I think a lot of these negatives are explained by our history and historic position first as part of Sweden, then as autonomy in the Russian empire.
The younger generation is born to a global and more open world. I believe that there will be a generational change taking place naturally.
WW: Against the context of globalisation, who do you think can and should define “Finnish-ness”?
Paula: Anyone who has lived or visited Finland can define “Finnish-ness” and all opinions are valued.
Maybe you can have an opinion of Finland by only meeting Finns abroad, or by hearing from those Singaporeans who have visited Finland.
There are no minimum criteria to who can define the term….
WW: What is the happiest moment of your life in Finland?
Paula: Becoming mother in Jorvi hospital, 26 years ago when my first son was born.
The second one was born two years later in Capetown, South Africa.
And that was a pretty amazing experience as well …
WW: Can you tell us the top 3 things/ traits you regard as “Finnish”, and why?
- Finns are original, we don’t pretend to be something that we are not.
Even if it makes us a bit “juntti” or blue-eyed, I still think that by just being yourself you can conquer the world 😉
- “Sisu” is a definition that is hard to translate but is actually a very descriptive adjective of Finns, especially the older generation.
Finns are strong and united when times are tough.
We all admire our grandparents spirit in the time of Winter War and how they built Finland from an agrarian to industrialist country.
Increasing complacency however, is a risk to the future of a nation.
- “Global” is the adjective I would use to the younger generation.
For example, my two sons and their friends take it as very natural to travel the world to work and study in different countries – this is a big change already when comparing with my generation…
WW: You’re so loved by so many Finns and Singaporeans! What do you think are the top three differences between Finland and Singapore, in your view? Can these differences be viewed as strengths?
Paula: Haha 😉 I don’t know who you are referring to?
Finland and Singapore are similar in many ways. Be it the size of the population, open economies, countries in gateway position to a wider region – EU and ASEAN.
Actually it is easier to find similarities than differences. Of course, the climate is different, but we are both affected by climate change.
The tax system is very different!
Finland is more homogenous. Singapore is a cultural melting pot which makes it interesting for culture, food etc.
But on the other hand, Finland has also been part of Sweden and Russia, and has taken influence from both eastern and western cultures…
Finns are probably more creative, we had to find solutions to our problems by ourselves.
But we are not so good in doing business and selling our innovative creations in international markets – this is really where we could work more with the business-minded and well-connected Singaporeans.
WW: If a friend visits Helsinki, where are the top three places/ hidden gems you would recommend him/her to visit, and why?
Paula: If I were personally hosting these friends, I would invite them to sauna on our island, 100 kms from Helsinki. But beware, there is only a dry toilet.
Helsinki has made the sauna culture available to even tourists and this is something I would recommend. Sauna Hermanni is an old fashioned, “Aki Kaurismäki” movie styled sauna, then there are the new Löyly, Culture sauna and Allas… definitely worth trying.
If they are visiting in winter, I’d recommend that they also try the ice swimming!
Helsinki has an incredible street culture, available to all.
Inventions such as Restaurant day, Cleaning day, open air dance parties, dinner under the Finnish sky etc are all started in Finland and many of such inventions have now spread overseas.
In November, the only reason to come to Finland, if you are a “techy” or an investor, is during SLUSH. SLUSH is the major ground–up start-up event in Europe.
The first SLUSH Singapore was a success in September, and next year it will be bigger!
In late summer, take a hike in one of our natural forests or national parks and with the help of your local guide, experience the berry picking and mushroom picking.
You can enjoy the everyman’s right, that is, you don’t have to own the forest to be able to collect your food from there…
During summer months, Finland is full of cultural festivals that are really world-class.
And of course, the Aurora Borealis – northern lights are something not to be missed. Now they are abundant, because there is so much of solar activity.
WW: What is the one advice you have for aspiring young Finns who want to become a Finnish ambassador like yourself?
Paula: Go for it! The most interesting job I could imagine…
But beware– it is not just a job, it is a lifestyle!
And not always easy to combine with traditional family life…
WW: What is the one wish you would have for current and future Finland-Singapore bilateral relations?
Paula: That there would be more business, investments, tourism and student exchange between our two countries.
That there would be more awareness of one another.
There is so much potential for us to do more. We are complementing each other in many ways.
If we knew each other better, we could create more business together.
WW: We hear that there are so, so many exciting things lined up for the Finland 100 programme in Singapore! Can you tell us some of the events we can look forward to?
Paula: The calendar of all events is still in the making, but the main themes where we want to build bridges between Finland and Singapore are:
- In education, especially early childhood and lifelong learning;
- In healthcare, elderly care and wellbeing;
- In innovations and start-ups, so SLUSH will be even bigger next year; and
- In design.
We are working on partnerships with our local Singaporean friends to do a lot together.
We want to bring Finnish culture, such as music, cinema, design and fashion to Singapore and continue our meetings with the young people.
Many of them have already said that they want to participate in volunteering in our events!
WW: What is the one 100 year-old birthday wish you would make for Finland, since 2017 is Finland’s 100 years of independence?
Paula: It is great that we know our history, there is nothing to be ashamed of. But we can not live in history.
Just like Singapore, we have to take bold steps to look into the next 50 or 100 years and be brave to make decisions that are needed for us to succeed.
It is of course harder in a multi-party democracy with strong opposition, but we should not be too idealistic when we talk about the economy.
I am proud of the values that Finland is based on.
We should be still more international and open and bear also our global responsibility while investing in the educational excellence in our schools and universities.
We hope you have enjoyed this interview with Her Excellency Paula Parviainen!
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 Paula. Feel free to follow Paula on twitter @paulaparviainen. ♡