Inspirational speaker Fredrik Härén: ‘I feel like Swedish tonight’

Almost in its entirety Mr Fredrik Härén’s fabulous speech as ’Inspirational speaker’ at the inaugural Sweden–Southeast Business Summit Asia 2016 in Singapore is shared with ScandAsia’s readers. The Swedish Singapore resident and author of nine books, including ‘The Idea Book’ spoke at the gala dinner, on the need for innovation and why Sweden are so good at it, and about communality between creativity in Sweden and in Singapore.

Fredrik Härén began by going back to when the mass emigration to the United States took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries during which about 1.3 million left Sweden.

“However, hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t want any change whatsoever the stayed home.

‘Even if I’m starving to death, I’m going stay right here,’ they said.

How on earth can a country based on people who don’t want change a hundred years late be one of the most innovative countries in the world? This is a mystery. But people ask me this question I tell them: ‘Don’t be fooled by the average Swede!’ The average is someone who doesn’t like change, who likes rules and everything to be the same.

It is not the average Swede who is creative; it’s the outliers!

A few people who can leave their country where everyone wants to be the same and can still say: ‘I’m going to be different.’ If you can be creative in a country where everyone wants everything to be the same then you become super strong – and creative.

But that’s not the true story; the true story is I actually truly believe that Swedes are creative. But this is a Swedish Southeast Summit, so I thought if you’re going to talk about Swedish creativity, we have to look at what are the similarities between us, the Swedes and Southeast Asia. Maybe there are some similarities in creativity?

The problem is that when we talk about Southeast Asia, when we talk about creativity we tend to talk about it not being here.

Many have been talking today about how Southeast Asia has a reputation of being and un-creative part of the world, but how that might be wrong by looking at it in the wrong way. The problem for the people here in Southeast Asia is that they themselves tend to look at it that way; they tend to believe themselves that they are not creative.

In Sweden, if you ask them if they think they are creative, they will answer: “Yes, we think we are.” You go to America – every American think they are creative. In most Southeast Asian countries less than fifty per cent will raise their hands and think they are creative. It’s a problem in this part of the world. And nowhere is it a bigger problem than in Singapore – because Singapore is the country with the lowest level of creative confidence. Just 20 per cent of Singaporeans will raise their hands and say that they are creative. 20 per cent. That makes them second worst country in the world.

In Singapore they respond: ‘Yes, we’re number two.’ Singapore is obsessed with being number one, it doesn’t matter if it’s from the bottom!

In a way, just like in Sweden, Singapore is a country that is stuck on rules, and stuck on doing things the right way. That is why Swedes feel comfortable when they come to Singapore. We like rules and we like to follow things in a way.

In an apartment building where they had a playground they had a sign that sat there for eight years and no one said something. The sign said, on the playground: ‘No running or playing allowed’!

Welcome to Singapore.

Why living in Singapore? My kids are born in Singapore, and I raised my kids in Singapore because I think Singapore is the best country to live if you want to be a creative person!

They say to me: ‘You only say that to get PR.’

But I truly believe that it is, because Singapore is a creative place!

Singapore is actually number six on the same list that we were number two on [Global Innovation Index 2016]; so there are statistics.

They are highly intelligent, highly creative people. And the most creative part of Singapore is the way that the Government of Singapore is run. People say: ‘That does not count, show me the company.’

I think it does count; as we heard over and over again is that the governments here are saying: “We are going to play a role in making this part of the world creative, by being flexible and change our legislations to what needs to be done. And this is what Singapore does; it makes it extremely easy to run a company here.

If that is not creative, I don’t know what is! And Singapore is creative.

So, I will tell you why I live in Singapore and why I think it’s the best place to live. Because Singapore is mixed, especially in this world we’re living in now where things are becoming more less about being global, and more about nationalistic: Brexit, Donald Trump…

Singapore is a mix of all different countries, and all different religions. 40 per cent people living here are foreigners, 50 per cent of people who work here are foreigners. And it works brilliantly.

Of course there are small tensions between people as everywhere, but it works. And what makes Singapore so fascinating is that they have Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Muslim, Singaporean culture and you combine all of that into Singapore.  But they also have the western culture; they have the British heritage. Of course they have the American, and if you combine that, they tend to feast on different parts of that the world.

They take other things and learn and combine those things.

In a way that is very difficult to find somewhere else.

N.Y is the capital of the world? It is not; it’s a global city inside America. London is a global city inside the U.K But Singapore is a global city inside what? Singapore! It’s just a global city – that’s it! And that’s what makes it so fascinating and that’s what connects us back to Sweden.

Here is the connection: What does it mean to be creative like Sweden? I thought a lot about it and then suddenly two years ago I was invited give a speech for the national team of cooking in Sweden.

Have you heard of the Culinary Olympics, where nations compete on which country has the best chefs in the world? And the Swedes do know this, but a non-Swede may not know it: Sweden, again, tend to win. We tend to be number one, two, three, or ten – always in the top!

How is this possible? As a Swede, have you ever asked yourself; how on earth is this possible!? We are a country of ten million. We are competing with India, population of 1 billion, and China 1.3 billion… more importantly: we are not famous for any food at all! For the non-Swedes here: when is the last time you said to your loved one: ‘Honey, I feel like Swedish tonight.’ No: ‘I feel like Thai tonight, Japanese, Italian…’ But you will never say: ‘I feel like Swedish tonight.’  That won’t happen.

Here’s for the Swedes: this is going to be the most depressing part of this evening; I’m going to ask the non-Swedes here: if I say ‘Swedish food’ – what gets into your head? What did you think about? Exactly, Swedish meatballs! If Ikea is here, don’t be insulted; but we are famous for one thing; cheap meatballs in a furniture store!

‘How can a nation of ten million people famous for cheap meatballs in a furniture store beat food giants like Italy?’ I asked them. ‘Tell me, how is it possible?’ They said: ‘All the French chefs think that French cuisine is fantastic. Everyone knows it, French cuisine is the best in the world.’ So from the French chefs we learn everything we can about French cooking. But in Italy none really likes French food. ‘It’s just snobby. But everything likes Italian. So the Italian food must be the best in the world.’ But the Japanese say: ‘Yes, everyone likes Italian, everyone also likes Japanese food and the quality of Japanese food is just better than Italian food; it’s just much more… expertise! It takes seven years to become a sushi master chef. It takes two days to learn how to cook pasta.’ So the Japanese knows that Japanese food is the best in the world.

But the Swedish chefs know that the Swedish food is not the best in the world, so they leave Sweden. And, as they told me: We go to France and we work in a three star Michelin restaurant for six months and we learn everything we can about French cuisine. Then we go to Italy and work in a five star hotel and learn everything we can about cooking pasta. Then we go to Japan, and we work for seven months, not seven years, and learn as much as we can about making Sushi, an then we go back to Sweden and learn everything we can about meatballs. And then… we go to the food Olympics, and we do herring sashimi with lingonberry pasta. And we win!’

That is communality between creativity in Sweden and in Singapore; this ability to go around the world and look for the best ideas. There are those famous Swedish companies that were started a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. How could we have these innovative companies? Well, the founder of Ericsson, he went to America and saw the telephone. And he went back to Sweden and he started Ericsson and hired all those Swedes who didn’t want to invent anything but just a stable job!

Volvo went to America, saw the car, went back to Sweden and started a car company. Alfred Nobel left Sweden when he was nine years old, and travelled around the world. Alfred Nobel, the most creative Swede that we’ve had, not because he lived in Sweden, not because he was born in Sweden, but because he left Sweden!

And Sweden is perfect with this; you cannot fill up with ideas from the rest of the world unless you realise that someone, somewhere else might have something to teach you. And the bigger the egos are, there more blind they are to the fact that great ideas might be somewhere else. That is the communality between Singapore and Sweden, we don’t have those egos; we will happily learn from someone else.

If you tell the American: ‘I think you are un-American’, they will be personally insulted. If you are telling a Chinese: ‘I don’t think you are Chinese. They don’t understand what you are saying. If you say to a French: ‘You are un-French’, they will hit you in the face. But if you say to a Swede: ‘I think you are un-Swedish.’ You know what we say? ‘Thank you very much!’ It’s a complement!

[There is a] difference between looking at the world from your country and thinking: ‘What we do here is the best,’ or thinking: ‘I’m going to take the best ideas I can from anywhere in the world and I’m going to implement those ideas.’

I’m going to end with a word, it’s not a Swedish world, though we have a similar word in Swedish. It is an Icelandic word, and my favourite word of all the words that I know. Because the cool thing with Icelandic language is that it is the same language that the Vikings spoke. If you speak Icelandic, you can go back and read a thousand years old book.


A thousand years ago if you were an Icelandic Viking you were supposed to build a ship, rent some men and sail south, sail down to Scotland, to Norway, Germany, Turkey etc, – and you should steal. As much as you could; cows, weapons and gold… whatever you could. But most importantly: you should steal ideas. How do they make weapons in Turkey, how do they farm in Denmark? You would go around the world and pick up the best ideas that you coul and you bring them back to your farm. If you didn’t do that, you were a heimskur.

Heimskur means: moron, stupid person. I think we might have the same in Swedish: ‘hämmad’. If you just stay hemma you become hämmad. And the opposite of that is a person who is open to ideas regardless of where we happen to be in the world right now, and this is not an Asia century, this is the global century, where people are inventing things everywhere, from the digital payments in the Philippines to mobile advertising in Indonesia, to new global standards for internet in India – all over the world people are innovating. And the people who have the possibility to look at ideas anywhere in the world and pick up those ideas, those will be the winners. Those who don’t do that they will be heimskurs and Swedes are the best in the west to do this and Singapore is the best in the east to do that. So let’s join together and talk between our two countries and pick up ideas from each other – that’s the purpose of this conference.”


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