For members


The Ambassadors: ‘I find Sweden’s egalitarian social space interesting’

Malaysian ambassador Nur Ashikin Mohd Taib speaks to The Local about the things she's found surprising about life in Sweden.

The Ambassadors: 'I find Sweden's egalitarian social space interesting'
King Carl XVI Gustaf with Malaysian ambassador Nur Ashikin Mohd Taib. Photo: Sanna Argus Tirén/Kungl. Hovstaterna

“It’s been a good four years. I’ve got to know Scandinavia quite well,” says Taib, a career diplomat with a career spanning almost three decades, speaking to The Local’s Sweden in Focus podcast just before finishing her tenure as Malaysia’s ambassador to Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

Sweden and Malaysia have enjoyed diplomatic relations since 1958, the year after the Southeast Asian country gained its independence from the British Empire.

“I always say that Sweden is our development partner. Malaysia is now a high-middle income country, and much of our development is due to investments and trade by countries like Sweden. So Sweden is very much present in Malaysia,” says Taib.

The Malaysian community in Sweden is small, but close-knit. In 2021 around 1,800 people born in Malaysia were living in Sweden, according to Statistics Sweden.

“There are about 100 Swedish companies in Malaysia. Many of the Malaysians here came to work for these companies in Sweden and decided to stay on. And some came for love, they got married, settled down here and raised their families,” says Taib.

“There are professionals, engineers, accountants, doctors. They are business owners, and those working in the service industry, and also in civil society. So it’s quite a mix.”

Before the pandemic, Malaysia used to welcome tens of thousands of Swedish tourists every year, as well as students, and Taib says she would love for those numbers to increase now that the country has lifted pandemic restrictions – just as she would like to see Sweden climb from its current position as Malaysia’s 45th biggest trading partner.

“We import a lot of machinery and that kind of equipment from Sweden, and we export palm oil products, electronic products and rubber products. We’ve had a lot of trade exchanges over the years, but not as much as we would like to,” she says.

Taib explains that although Malaysia enjoys a well-developed welfare system, it is not as comprehensive as that of Sweden, where the flexibility of working life as well as the social safety net enabled many to work from home during the pandemic.

“I think that’s something Sweden is very much a leader in. It’s a model to look at. Of course our countries are different in the sense that our population is 32 million, so we cannot adopt everything from here, but there’s definitely a lot to aspire to,” she says.

LISTEN: Malaysia’s ambassador Nur Ashikin Mohd Taib reflects on her four years in Sweden

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One particular area in which the two countries differ is in terms of hierarchy.

In Sweden people normally call each other by their first name, regardless of whether it’s a friend, an uncle or a manager, which Taib says isn’t the case in most Asian cultures. But the lack of clear markers of showing respect to seniors doesn’t mean Swedes are rude – in fact she’s found them surprisingly warm.

“One of the things that I find very interesting here is the egalitarian kind of social space. And the fika culture! I didn’t think that that would be something that the Swedes would do, because the stereotype of Swedes is that people are distant and cold. But the fika culture is a good way of socialising in the office and with friends. It’s very friendly.”

Taib was also surprised by how often Swedes prefer to do things themselves rather than hiring someone to do it, such as home improvement – or even haircuts.

“After living here for a while we realised why we see so many hardware stores and all that, and I think it’s the cost of living, it’s because the labour charges are very high. My husband goes bald, because he says it’s the most cost effective,” she laughs.

Interview by Paul O’Mahony and article written by Emma Löfgren

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For members


US Ambassador: ‘I’m always impressed by just how engaged and candid Swedes are’

In the last of our current series, we sat down with United States Ambassador Erik Ramanathan to talk about everything from trade ties, military support and taxation to how much he has come to appreciate Swedes’ candour.

US Ambassador: 'I'm always impressed by just how engaged and candid Swedes are'

When US President Joe Biden appointed a new ambassador to Sweden he chose a man who’d already been visiting the country on and off for more than three decades. As a young backpacker, Erik Ramanathan stayed at af Chapman, Stockholm’s floating hostel; now, he’s happily ensconced in Villa Åkerlund, the US Ambassador’s residence, with his husband of 32 years and their teenage daughter.

Unlike many of his counterparts in Stockholm’s diplomatic quarter, Erik Ramanathan is not a career diplomat. Before becoming ambassador in January 2022, he was chairman of the board of a national public health organisation, Heluna Health, while his other previous roles include board chair at Immigration Equality, a legal services group for LGBTQ and HIV positive immigrants.

‘A whirlwind year’

At the height of the Covid pandemic, the health organisation he chaired was busy on multiple fronts including running vaccine clinics, distributing protective equipment, and supporting clinical trial work. Given that he arrived in Stockholm after the worst days of the pandemic were over, the new ambassador might have been forgiven for expecting a quieter life. But then Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Sweden’s long-standing opposition to Nato membership evaporated almost overnight.

“It’s been quite a whirlwind year, but it’s really an exciting time to be here, and there’s really a lot of important work to be done,” Ramanathan tells The Local.

With a Nato application in the works and worried about how Russia might respond, Sweden required security guarantees, and countries including the UK, Germany and, crucially, the United States were quick to step up.

“All the time we’re doing military exercises together in the region. We have interoperable militaries. Sweden’s already an invitee to Nato. So we’re working together in many contexts already within the Nato framework,” says Ramanthan.

He adds that Sweden’s “moral authority” already sees the two countries working frequently together on multinational issues, and when it comes to trade too Sweden punches above its weight in the US.

“There’s over 1,200 American companies here in Sweden and there’s over 1,100 Swedish companies in the US. So there’s a lot of people with different business connections and business interests trying to figure out how to take our relationship to the next level,” says Ramanthan.

“Altogether, the foreign direct investment between Sweden and the US is higher than it’s ever been, over $30 billion, and Sweden is the 13th largest foreign direct investor in the US.”

Listen to more from US ambassador Erik Ramanathan in the Sweden in Focus podcast

The depth of the countries’ relationship is rooted in nearly 400 years of friendship, says Ramanathan, also pointing out that almost four million Americans trace their lineage to Sweden.

‘I have heard concerns expressed about taxation’

As for Americans in Sweden, nearly 25,000 people born in the US called Sweden home in 2022, according to official statistics. And when US citizens get in touch with the embassy it’s generally for things like renewing a passport or registering a childbirth. But when asked about FATCA (​​Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), Ramanathan says that the embassy does also get asked about these kinds of taxation issues too.

FATCA is a law that was intended to target tax evaders, but many Americans see it as an unnecessarily high burden.

“This is not really something that I was familiar with before I took up my post, but I have heard concerns expressed about taxation, generally, and on FATCA in particular,” says Ramanathan, noting that embassies around the world report back these concerns.

But, he adds: “Tax policy ultimately comes from Congress. So our recommendation to folks who are experiencing challenges in this area is to engage with their senators and representatives in Congress to seek changes that would make that an easier system to navigate.”

‘It’s really nice to be able to have honest discussions’

Now well into his second year in Sweden, Erik Ramanathan says he is “enjoying every second of it” and is finding his hosts refreshingly well-informed and straightforward.

“I’m always impressed by just how engaged and candid people are. That’s from the woman on the street to ministers and parliamentarians and others. People are very, very engaged,” he says.

“It’s really nice to be able to have these honest discussions and talk about what people are hearing. I learn so much by doing that, and can really, of course, share about US policy as well.”

As for what the future holds, Sweden might well remain home for many years to come. 

“I serve at the pleasure of the President. So I expect I’ll almost certainly be here as long as his first term in office and there’s a very decent chance I’ll be here beyond that.”