Distant northern nation has much expertise to share on environmental issues and design A RELATIVELY small nation on the very edge of Europe, Finland is often easy to overlook. But Consul-General Pauli Makela said his nation's design traditions and its environmental expertise meant it still had a lot to offer Hong Kong. Although the country has an area of nearly 340,000 sqkm, it has a population that is considerably smaller than Hong Kong's. The consul-general said that his country's small population meant it was often eclipsed by nations that were geographically closer to the heart of Europe. 'There are only five million people in Finland, so as a small country we have to make a lot of noise,' Mr Makela said, adding that, being something of an underdog, Finland was keen to be seen playing an active role in the European Union. He said that although Finland might not rank high on Hong Kong companies' lists of places to invest, Finnish corporations needed no convincing of Hong Kong's worth. 'Nokia, of course, is the big one - even though it is about 80 per cent foreign-owned these days, since it is listed on the stock market,' he said. 'But there are more than 60 Finnish companies with a presence in Hong Kong.' Large Finnish companies, he said, recognised Hong Kong's importance as a service centre and used the city as a base for their regional operations. For architectural firms, the city was an important launching pad from which to reach the mainland's booming construction market. By contrast, Finland's northerly location creates the illusion that it is peripheral and hard to reach. But Mr Makela pointed out that everything was relative. 'Everybody thinks of Finland as being a long way away from everywhere, but the flight from Helsinki to Beijing only takes seven hours,' he said. That meant the country was able to act as a stepping stone between Asia and Northern Europe. He said the country would soon get closer. 'Finnair will soon launch direct flights from Hong Kong to Helsinki. That will make travel to Finland a lot easier.' Scheduled to begin at the end of May, in time for the summer season, the Finnair flights will be timed to coincide with onward connections to other European cities - allowing the airline to boast the quickest route to many Northern European destinations. Journeys to Manchester, for example, would take just 14 hours, Mr Makela said. One of the most important areas in which Finland could help Hong Kong was the environment, Mr Makela said. Finland used to have a fairly poor record on green issues, but the country has cleaned up its act. 'Although we have been criticised in the past ourselves, we have made a lot of improvements, and I feel we have a lot to share in terms of our experience,' Mr Makela said. The basis of that sharing of expertise was mostly between companies, rather than a formal co-operation between governments. He recognised that most of Hong Kong's problems with air pollution were largely imported. 'There is not much industry left in Hong Kong, but a lot of the factories across the border in Shenzhen are owned by companies based in Hong Kong,' he said. The best solution would be to approach the problem on a Pearl River Delta-wide level, he said. Making clear to the owners of these factories the importance of environmental issues could bring about a dramatic improvement in the city's air quality. He said that one of Hong Kong's great environmental triumphs was to have averted the problems caused by widespread car ownership. 'The government was clever to realise early on the importance of good public transport,' Mr Makela said. He praised the local transport system - particularly the MTR - for being highly efficient and convenient. 'It is much cheaper than Finland.' A reliable public transport network and affordable taxis essentially freed the individual from the need to own a car, the consul-general said. 'I do not have a car in Hong Kong, and yet I feel quite privileged. I really see no need to own one here. Hong Kong is one of only a few places in the world where you can feel privileged not to have a car,' Mr Makela said. Before he came to Hong Kong, Mr Makela had only received postings in Western Europe. The consul-general said that his first experiences of Asia had been quite a shock to the system, but he had adapted easily to life in Hong Kong over the past two years. 'I am enjoying my posting here so much that I am negotiating to get it extended to the maximum of five years,' he said. Postings were normally limited to three or four years by his government, he said. He also had personal reasons that made him all the more keen to stay on - his 19-year-old son just started studying law at the University of Hong Kong. 'Now I feel like I have a strong link to Hong Kong,' he said.