Narinder Kumar Aswani – Estonia’s Man in Singapore
Director of Legal Division, Consular Department
“Estonia was the first of the Baltic states to take bold steps to reorganise its economy. This country is ahead of its time and has been very reform-minded.” This is how Narinder Kumar Aswani introduces Estonia to all his visitors and co-operation partners. Aswani, who was named the Estonian honorary consul in Singapore in 2008, is known to the broader Estonian public simply as Sonny Aswani.
Aswani is not just a big fan of Estonia – he could just as easily be considered one of us. He arrived in Estonia in 1994 and established a company that provides employment to more than 500 people in Kehra and the surrounding areas as well as in Tallinn. Horizon Cellulose and Paper belongs to the global company Tolaram Group, which has its roots in Singapore. Tolaram owns companies in more then 20 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and America, and Horizon has become the flagship of the Estonian paper industry. With its € 49 million turnover, Horizon Cellulose and Paper generates 25% of the sales revenue in the entire sector. Horizon is Estonia’s only producer of paperboard, which is used as packaging material, and it exports its products to 50 countries. During the last ten years the Tolaram Group has invested almost € 70 million into Horizon, including for the development of production powered by renewable energy. In December of this year equipment supplied by Metso, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of industrial technology, was installed. This will significantly increase the company’s efficiency, resulting in a cleaner environment and savings on energy and water costs.
Legends are told about the winter of 1995 when Žanna Botvinkina, who was the director of the Kehra paper mill at the time, showed Aswani the factory by the light of a flashlight held in her freezing hand. By that time, production had already been halted for three years and the electricity in the factory had been turned off.
In 1999 the Tolaram Group also reopened the Qualitex textile factory in Sindi after a five-year pause, which provides employment to the 200 residents of the mono-functional small town near Pärnu.
The Tolaram Group has made a considerable contribution to the development of the Estonian economy. In 1996, the Estonian government awarded a prize to Horizon Paper and Cellulose of the Tolaram Group for creating jobs. In 1997 the group was presented the Best Promoter of Estonia award by the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Estonian Foreign Investment Agency for organising an investment and foreign relations seminar in Singapore. In 1998 the Tolaram Group won the Best Foreign Investor Award, which was presented by Estonian President Lennart Meri. In 1999 the group was again recognised for developing Estonian export.
“Sonny Aswani, the director of the Tolaram Baltic Group, is Estonia’s greatest regional ‘politician’ and the initiator of ‘hopeless’ projects,” Indrek Neivelt said at the opening of the Qualitex factory. At that time, Neivelt was the chairman of the board of Hansapank, which lent Tolaram 36 million Estonian kroons to set up the factory. Today the former Sindi Textile Factory has become a factory that produces tricot fabric and sewn items, with a flexible structure and the most modern equipment in the Baltic countries.
On the other hand, after spending thirteen years in Estonia, Aswani must admit that the main obstacles to the development of Estonian business are the poorly qualified workforce and the resulting low productivity. The lack of a workforce with the necessary knowledge and skills is aggravated by the aging of the existing workforce and the departure of top specialists and skilled workers from Estonia, also called “brain drain”. Other problems include the limited internationalisation of Estonian companies and the lack of markets for increased production volumes, as well as the scarcity of investments in knowledge-based industries.
But Aswani’s activities extend beyond just the economy. Already in early 1997 Aswani helped to organise the first visit by an Estonian prime minister to Singapore, which definitely promoted the development of bilateral relations. As a result of the visit, visa-free travel to Estonia was established for the residents of Singapore. The Estonian delegation returned from Singapore with a clear message – increased activity in the direction of Singapore may result in considerable investments for Estonia.
In November 2011 Aswani for once again helped to arrange a visit by the Estonian prime minister to Singapore with a very little advance notice. Despite this, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip met with his colleague Lee Hsien Loon and the Minister of Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck, as well as President Tony Tan. Prime Minister Ansip opened an Estonia-Singapore business forum and a special edition devoted to the Estonian economy appeared in the local business newspaper. Typically of Aswani, even the smallest detail of the visit was carefully planned out.
A few dozen Estonians live permanently in Singapore and Honorary Consul Answani keeps himself updated on their activities. The Estonian who has lived the longest in Singapore is one that Aswani himself took there to develop the IT capabilities of his companies.
During the time he has lived in Estonia, Aswani has also initiated several charity projects. Eight years ago a small centre was established in Tallinn with the support of the Toleram Group to teach music to children with learning disabilities. Aswani got the idea to establish the centre from the Pori Jazz Festival, where he saw a few dozen children with learning disabilities performing music. Fascinated by what he saw and the audience’s reaction, he set to work. Two recognised music therapists were brought to Estonia from Finland to teach the children how to make music and understand it with the help of objects of various colours and shapes. This marked the beginning of a music class which is currently attended by eleven children with learning disabilities. The centre has also published an Estonian-language book introducing this method – Muusika kõigile. The purpose of the entire project is to create better opportunities for integrating people with special needs into society. In addition, Aswani also co-operates with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, which provides shelter to a few dozen homeless people. Together with that group a proper soup kitchen was built. Previously Aswani has also organised several charity events to support the Deacon Hospital of Tallinn. He has also supported Estonian culture, for example as the main sponsor for the Paul Keres Memorial Festival held in Tallinn during the summer and autumn of 2004.
Aswani got the charity bug from his grandfather, who dreamed of providing education to children in Indonesia. To achieve this he started preparing small packages for children that contained a pencil, eraser and textbook, in addition to sweets and food. For weeks at a time he would travel to villages and distribute these packages with Sonny, who was 11 years old at the time, at his side.
A sparkling and energetic person, he runs a successful business, does philanthropic work, hosts high-level governmental officials and various delegations, organises dinners, celebrates Estonian Independence Day, and welcomes all the Estonians that visit Singapore. During 2011 alone Aswani hosted five different delegations, including those of Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and Defence Minister Jaak Aaviksoo.
During the next 18 months Aswani and his family plan to invest € 16 million in Estonia, some of which is allocated for the expansion of the Kehra factory and some for other projects.
This energetic man is more than just a friend of Estonia. He is a great supporter of Estonia and Estonians who was acting in the interests of Estonia long before he became the Estonian honorary consul in Singapore. In 1998 Aswani was granted Estonian citizenship for his extraordinary service. In 2001 the Estonian president honoured Narinder Kumar Aswani with the Order of the White Star, 4th Class.