Northern lights dazzle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am


Swedish brands such as Ikea, H&M, Volvo and Ericsson have become household names, while Swedish engineering brilliance, especially in the cutting-edge telecommunications sector, continues to wow consumers worldwide.

A few decades ago, the country was a pioneer in opening up the mobile phone market with its ingenious technologies. Its latest 21st century innovation, Skype, has redefined and improved online communication by enabling people to call each other for free over the internet with visual images.

Engineering remains at the core of the country's hi-tech industry and economic structure, and propels the research and development (R&D) sector, says J?rgen Halldin, Sweden's consul general in Hong Kong and Macau.

R&D and innovation will always be the strength of Swedish businesses, he adds. 'Our hi-tech industry ranks very high on a global scale and will remain the backbone of the country's economy.'

Swedes are solution-oriented and highly thorough, which are national characteristics that underpin the country's technological advancement.

The country's exports for the first half of this year amounted to about US$95 billion, 11 per cent up from the same period of 2010. Export items included mainly engineering and telecom products, cars and industrial vehicles.

Imports came to US$88 billion during the first half of this year, up 10 per cent. They were mostly raw materials, fuels and engineering products.

Foreign direct investment in Sweden totalled US$30 billion last year, up from US$25 billion in 2009.

'It is a vast and sparsely populated country, so transportation, logistics and telecommunications are utmost important to Swedes. That's why we have highly mature transport and telecommunications sectors. It's a matter of necessity because we need to cope with the geographical circumstances,' Halldin says.

As the third-largest country in western Europe, Sweden has an area of 450,000 square kilometres, more than 400 times the size of Hong Kong. But it has a population of 9.4 million, which is not much larger than Hong Kong's 7 million.

Sweden is a trade-dependent and manufacturing-based nation. It offers an attractive business base in Europe as its general business practices are uncomplicated, fair and transparent. The workforce is highly educated and skilled. Swedes pay attention to details and quality, and the country boasts products that are of good quality and generally affordable.

The high connectivity rate is another advantage. Almost everyone uses the internet and the number of mobile phone subscribers exceeded 120 per cent of the population in 2009.

Sweden also provides a welcoming environment for overseas investors. Most Swedes speak English, while the business environment is accessible, fair and open, Halldin says.

'We are not concerned about cheap labour and competition elsewhere in the world because quality beats it all,' he adds.

Though a member of the European Union since 1995, Sweden has not adopted the troubled euro currency. And thanks to solid public finances - reforms including tax reductions, government spending cuts and measures to increase the flexibility of the labour market were enacted in the 1990s - the country fared better than its EU neighbours in the global economic crisis that struck in 2008.

Besides quality, Swedes attach great importance to equality in everything they do, at work and in life.

The work culture is characterised by minimal hierarchy and an informal workplace atmosphere. Everyone is valued and encouraged to speak their mind.

All Swedes can afford their own homes and land, no matter what jobs they do and how much they earn. The only difference will be the location of their homes. While the cheaper residences are further away from the city, the quality of life remains relatively high.

Swedes work hard but are also serious about striking a healthy work-life balance and have a great love of the outdoors, sports and nature.

The country has long had a rich and diverse cultural scene, producing internationally acclaimed stars such as actresses Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo, director Ingmar Bergman, pop group Abba, author Stieg Larsson and many others.

The early settlement of Sweden dates back to the Stone Age and the country has a long maritime trading history. The foundations of the modern Swedish state were laid as far back as the 16th century, and a policy of neutrality spared the country the bloodshed of the two world wars.

Today Sweden is a very open society. It has a relatively high level of immigration, with about 200 nationalities among the population. Last year 19.1 per cent of residents had their roots outside Sweden. The largest foreign group is from Finland, with 170,000 people, but in recent years immigrants have come mainly from Iraq, Somalia and Poland.

Tourism is Sweden's fastest-growing sector. 'Nature tourism' remains its biggest attraction, with visitors from around the world drawn by the country's stunning nature and untouched wilderness. Top of many travellers' wish list is Lapland, with its unique scenery and once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as the midnight sun, the aurora borealis (northern lights) and winter's deep, pure Arctic chill.

In contrast to the solitude of the north is the buzz and bright lights of Sweden's cities. The capital city of Stockholm has long been famed for its idyllic setting - sprawled across 14 islands - and its rich cultural heritage. Today the city has also built a reputation as a global centre of dynamic design, cutting-edge fashion and innovative cuisine, music and art.

On the west coast, Sweden's second-largest city, Gothenburg, has plenty to offer with its unique style of entertainment and cultural experiences.

Cosmopolitan and bustling Malmo, in the far south of the country, forms part of a thriving metropolitan region together with the Danish capital, Copenhagen, with which it is linked by the mighty Oresund Bridge.