Alpine nation holds the aces

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am


Asked to name an archetypal Swiss, most people would pick tennis champion Roger Federer, even though his mother was born in South Africa. Besides being at the top of his game, quadrilingual Federer puts as much effort into his charity work as he does on court, and is rich even by the standards of his homeland.

Estimates vary, but the 29-year-old is reckoned to be worth at least US$140 million, having picked up US$62 million in prize money since turning professional in 1998.

In fact, 1998 was the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the Swiss Federal Constitution, although the country traces its roots back to the 13th century. In the intervening years, Switzerland has become steadily more prosperous, keeping itself well out of European wars - and well out of the European Union.

Its policies have paid off in spades. Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world, with a nominal per capita gross domestic product of US$69,838.

Last year, Switzerland totted up the highest wealth per adult of any country, with US$372,692 for each man and woman over 18. What's more, Switzerland has one of the world's largest account balances as a percentage of GDP, only lagging behind a few oil-producing countries.

Zurich and Geneva have been rated second and third respectively as the cities with the highest quality of life in the world, while last year, the World Economic Forum ranked Switzerland as the most competitive country in the world.

And, just to put the icing on the cake, the European Union rated Switzerland as Europe's most innovative country by far. Not a bad result for a landlocked nation with a population of just under 8 million.

As an idea of just how well Brand Swiss does in the international market place, consider some of its top companies. Glencore is one of the foremost mining and commodities operations, Novartis is more or less synonymous with pharmaceuticals, Hoffmann-La Roche and health care go hand-in-hand, power and automation technology are the mainstays of ABB, and Adecco, a human resources outfit, employs nearly 750,000 professionals.

Adding to this mix are financial giants UBS, Zurich Financial Services, Credit Suisse, Clariden Leu, Credit Agricole and Swiss Re. And where would the world be without fashionable timepieces produced by The Swatch Group? Needless to say, hundreds of similar, if smaller, Swiss corporations are performing very creditably.

If Switzerland shines on the commercial front, it must be in part due to its excellent education system. The oldest of its dozen universities was founded in 1460 in Basel with a faculty of medicine, which still maintains a strong tradition of chemical and medical research.

The biggest tertiary institution is the University of Zurich with almost 25,000 students. In business and management studies, the University of St Gallen and the International Institute for Management Development are the recognised leaders.

Students flock to Switzerland's tertiary institutions from around the world, especially the hotel school in Lausanne, which has laid the foundations for many a Hong Kong hotelier's career.

Over the years, many Nobel prizes have been awarded to Swiss scientists. The foremost was physicist Albert Einstein, who developed his Theory of Relativity while working in Bern. More recently, Vladimir Prelog, Heinrich Rohrer, Richard Ernst, Edmond Fischer, Rolf Zinkernagel and Kurt Wuthrich have all been honoured.

Geneva and the nearby French department of Ain jointly host the world's largest laboratory, CERN, which is dedicated to particle physics research. The laboratory has made headlines, thanks to its work with the Large Hadron Collider, and it was also the birthplace of the World Wide Web.

The Paul Scherrer Institute was responsible for such notable inventions as lysergic acid diethylamide, the scanning tunnelling microscope and the virtually indispensable Velcro.

Other Swiss technologies enabled the exploration of new worlds. The pressurised balloon of Auguste Piccard is the best example, while the bathyscaphe allowed Jacques Piccard to reach the deepest point of the world's oceans in the 1950s.

Apart from Federer, there's another Swiss who may not be as well known but who deserves to be equally popular. Daniel Peter started out making candles in the town of Vevey in the 19th century, but he found himself out of work due to the growing popularity of oil lamps. He decided to switch to the confectionary business and came up with the recipe for milk chocolate, which he finally perfected with the help of an even better-known Swiss food manufacturer, Henri Nestle.

As millions of sweet-toothed devotees would agree, this is probably Switzerland's greatest gift to the world.