For his first Asian posting, His Excellency Hans Ola Urstad chose Malaysia.
The Norwegian ambassador’s friends had raved about how wondeful it was to live in Malaysia, and that prompted him to put in his application.
“I love it here in Malaysia. When I first arrived I was most impressed with the road system. Compared to Norway with mostly two lane roads and short stretches, Malaysia has highways and an elaborate road system,” says Urstad who quickly waves off formality and asks that we call him by his first name.
Urstad served in Serbia and Montenegro in Belgrade in 2001 for five years, followed by four years as ambassador and Head of Mission of the OSCE Mission to Serbia and Montenegro. He and his wife, Professor Tone Dagny Sundt, have been here since 2012.
The 64-year-old diplomat who drives himself around town even takes Kuala Lumpur’s notorious traffic jam in his stride.
“I know Malaysians whine about the jams but having visited New Delhi and Jakarta – cities legendary for their standstill traffic – I appreciate KL,” he says in an interview at his residence which is also a showcase of Scandinavian design aesthetics. Urstad’s home is decorated with Norwegian furniture, fittings and arts with their signature clean lines.
“The design industry is one that has grown up locally in each of our countries. To stay competitive, we are compelled to come up with unique designs,” says Urstad.
From his office on the 53rd floor of the Intermark building, Urstad gets a good view of the city.
Looking out at the KL skyline, especially the Petronas Twin Towers, is always a treat, says Urstad.
“KL has diverse architecture; hardly two buildings are similar. In New York, for example, the old buildings look similar, in a shade of grey.”
Much to discover
As much as he appreciates KL city, Urstad is also fascinated with Malaysia’s natural attractions.
“Tourism-wise, Malaysia’s warm weather, diving and snorkelling opportunities make it a popular destination and there are more Norwegians visiting Malaysia than vice versa. So far, I’ve taken 15 Norwegian friends to Taman Negara, a 130-million-year-old virgin rainforest that we don’t have in Norway. I absolutely enjoy the jungle trips and have been on the canopy walk,” says Urstad.
It was during his canopy walk that Urstad met a native – a one-metre long snake curled up on the canopy net, which stopped him in his tracks.
“It was unnerving but amazing to be able to see nature up close this way so it was very memorable,” says Urstad, who has also visited Penang, Malacca and Pulau Redang.
“Malaysians are very lucky to have such variety in food. My wife and I are adventurous with local food. When we go to Chinatown, we just buy what looks good and you can have a good meal for only RM7. Often my lunch is between RM8 and RM10.”
When Urstad first arrived he wasn’t used to the spicy food but he has become used to it now. For Norwegians visiting Malaysia for the first time, Urstad says he would tell them that they could expect good hospitality at hotels.
“Malaysian hotels offer much better service than in Norway, and that’s partly because labour is extremely expensive in Norway. There, no one greets you and we don’t expect anyone to carry our luggage. Here the staff not only carry your luggage, they follow you to your room and explain how things work in the room.”
When one thinks about Norway, the first things that come to mind are the majestic fjords, the Vikings and the ethereal Northern lights.
As part of the Scandinavian or Nordic countries in Northern Europe – comprising Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland – Norway’s per capita income is one of the world’s highest, thanks to its abundance of oil and gas, and fishery and shipping industries.
With a population of 5.1 million as compared to Malaysia’s 30.4 million, Norway stretches over a long coastal line with an area of 385, 178sqkm while Malaysia covers 329, 847sqkm.
Malaysians wishing to travel to Norway need not apply for a visa if they are not staying longer than three months. For a stay of more than three months, the Danish Embassy handles visa applications for all the Scandinavian countries.
“English is widely spoken and I would suggest a minimum of a week as it is a big country spread out almost the size of Malaysia over about 1,800km in length,” Urstad says.
To enjoy Norway’s natural beauty he suggests a scenic trip from Bergen up beyond the Arctic Circle with Hurtigruten’s coastal steamers as well as small boat trips into the fjords.
“Travelling in Norway can be costly, so to travel on a budget one could buy fresh food and make their own meals. In restaurants, meals and alcohol are expensive. An average cup of coffee in Norway is between RM12 and RM15 while a shrimp sandwich can be between RM25 and RM30,” he says.
For anyone making a trip to Norway, Urstad highly recommends a visit to the Viking Ship Museum, of course; the Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park; The Munch Museum which has the largest collection of Nordic painter Edvard Munch’s works including The Scream; as well as the Oslo Opera that is housed in a stunning building resembling the tip of an iceberg.
Invested in Malaysia
Apart from tourism, Urstad is also keen to promote trade between Malaysia and Norway.
“I also picked Malaysia because of our business relationship and the opportunity for trade, an area I enjoy.
“The Government Pension Fund Global, commonly known as The Oil Fund, has invested RM11bil in Malaysia and there are 50 Norwegian companies here,” says Urstad.
Leading the pack is Aker Solutions, Jotun Paints and Digi Telecommunications. Another Norwegian household brand produced in Malaysia is Jordan, which was established in 1830 and is the oldest Scandinavian oral hygiene product.
“Aker Solutions, which builds Subsea systems, has a large factory here with 1,200 staff in Port Klang, with 100 oil and gas engineers from all over the world.
“Jotun Paint has two factories, in Nilai and Shah Alam. In fact, it’s great to see Jotun branding all over the country, even in smaller towns.”
Another Norwegian brand that Urstad is excited to talk about is salmon. “Norwegian salmon is really a brand. It is of top quality and we have 99% of the fresh salmon market in Malaysia. Fresh means it has not been frozen. The fish is kept at zero degrees and it takes only three days to reach the shelves here in Malaysia,” says Urstad, adding that Norway’s annual fish export is valued at more than RM30 billion. Of these, 60% of the fish is farmed and 40% wild.
A sustainable way of life is something that Malaysia can learn from Norway.
Urstad is proud of Norway’s renewable energy efforts and environmental technology, and points out that Norway gets 100% hydroelectric power from large dams located in their mountains. But it is also developing micro hydroelectric power stations that do not require large dams.
“Additionally, we are developing wind power in a big way on and offshore. Some of these will be out in the sea as it is a controversial issue especially up in the mountains, which impacts nature and animals.”
With most of Norway’s trade in oil and gas, he says Norway continues to work on sustainability to keep the air clean.
With the rise of poisonous gases as a result of oil exploration, Urstad explains that they have been injecting most of the poisonous gases back down to where it came from where it is capped to stay forever.
“The reinjection of these poisonous gases is a new technology that Norway wants to export. We have been doing this on a large scale to work towards zero gas emissions, and we are continuously working on refining this technology,” Urstad points out.
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