Leader of Iceland’s ‘ministry of the future’ visits Singapore to boost links

Icelandic Minister for Higher Education, Science and Innovation Aslaug Arna Sigurbjornsdottir hopes to open more collaboration between her country and Singapore. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE – Icelandic Minister for Higher Education, Science and Innovation Aslaug Arna Sigurbjornsdottir, 31, has visited Singapore to pick up lessons to help her lead her country’s economy into the future.

Ms Aslaug, who became an MP at 25 and Minister for Justice at 28, was chosen in 2021 to head a newly formed ministry focused on bringing the universities and the cutting edge of technology in the industry together.

Tasked with dealing with artificial intelligence, telecoms and cyber security, she said: “We sometimes call it the ministry of the future.”

Accompanied by a delegation of 23 Icelandic educators and industry leaders in her first visit here, Ms Aslaug met Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, Senior Minister of State for National Development and Foreign Affairs Sim Ann, and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng.

The delegation was here from Nov 8 to 11 and visited Singaporean institutions such as the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Smart Nation Singapore.

In an interview with The Straits Times on Friday, Ms Aslaug said she hopes to foster more collaboration between the two nations in terms of student exchanges, as well as possibly seeding ground for Icelandic companies to use Singapore as a springboard into Asia.

She is here with representatives of Icelandic brands such as Kerecis, which develops products from fish skin and fatty acids that are used to treat wounds, and Ankeri, a platform that allows shipping companies to track fleet data, performance and sustainability.

All this is to move her country’s economy forward, growing companies in sectors such as healthcare and technology, and away from its traditional base in fishing and tourism, she said.

The country wants more stable economic pillars to be better able to weather storms like the Covid-19 pandemic, which deeply impacted its tourism industry, she said.

Investments in research and development have already started to pay off. In 2020, the value of Iceland’s knowledge-based economy – or economic activity stemming from technical and scientific advancement – outstripped that of its fisheries, Ms Aslaug added.

Singapore’s economy – and the strong connection between education and industry – may hold some secrets for Iceland to take this further, said Ms Aslaug.

“We want to aim higher in the quality of our education... There are many similarities between Iceland and Singapore as island nations which focus on education and rely on imports and exports.

“The people here, like in Iceland, want to move quickly and get things done,” she added.

Iceland has seven universities, including Bifrost University, which was founded in the capital Reykjavik in 1918.

Ms Aslaug hopes that Singapore can also pick up things from Iceland, especially in terms of sustainability and gender equality.

The country has committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2040 – 10 years earlier than Singapore’s goal of 2050, notwithstanding the Republic’s significantly larger population of about 5.4 million against Iceland’s roughly 370,000.

When asked about her perspective on youth and female political representation, Ms Aslaug said a diversity of voices always leads to better decisions.

In the 2021 election, Iceland narrowly missed out on having Europe’s first majority-female Parliament – about 30 of the 63 seats were won by women. Its prime minister is also a woman, Ms Katrin Jakobsdottir.

Ms Aslaug, who is trained as a lawyer, said: “When I saw that the average age in Parliament was higher than the average of our country, I decided to run...

“Many countries are looking at youth participation because the challenges we are facing will impact my generation and future generations to come.”

She added that young people should be unafraid to change things and try out solutions to impact society.

“That is what I am trying to do in the new ministry,” she said.

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