Election Talk gives candidates running in the municipal elections a chance to discuss their views on the increasingly international aspect of Finnish society, as well as how this will affect their work if they are elected. Voting will take place on 9 April 2017, with advance voting between 29 March and 4 April. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Helsinki Times.
An interview with Tino Singh
Many people in Finland know Tino Singh. Whether this is from his days in musical theatre and dance, his pop music in the 1990s, his business activities, or his role as an activist, he’s a popular chap. Taking a break from his busy schedule, I sat down with Tino to discuss his life in Finland and his decision to stand as a candidate for his hometown of Helsinki in the upcoming municipal elections to be held on April 9th, 2017.
Peter: Tell me about your background? At what age did you move to Finland and why?
Tino: My parents moved to Finland when I was about five years old. That was in the mid-1970s. They were in the restaurant business, and they owned businesses but they’re retired now. So, I used to work in the restaurants: I peeled potatoes and carrots and cleaned the toilets and stuff.
Peter: What do you remember about your first years in Finland?
Tino: I remember that it was difficult language-wise and having been born in India, it was difficult, for example, finding milk in the store. We were used to seeing them sold in baggy containers and not these cardboard boxes. I can remember helping my mother by asking the store workers where we could find the milk. Aside from that, I can remember that seeing snow for the first time was exciting, and I remember that we felt a bit like circus animals. When we used to walk on the street, some people used to stare and some people would even come and ask to touch our hair or skin: they’d never seen people like us – it was just pure curiosity in a good way, but there were some people that would shout “You Negros, please go home!”, although we didn’t have the energy to correct them! I guess that there was a lot of hostility because we stood out from the crowd. The number of foreigners in Finland back then was limited to a few thousand, I’d say.
Peter: What was it like being a student with an immigrant background in a Finnish school?
Tino: Well, I remember that being the only representative of a visual minority in Jakomäki – a troubled suburb in north eastern Helsinki – brought challenges because we lived around people of lower socio-economic status and that meant a lot of bullying inside and outside school. In general, I feel that my youth was mostly spent trying to get acceptance – to be a part of the local neighbourhood. For example, I couldn’t ice skate since I was already five, so that meant I was out of the hockey team. So, there were certain limitations because of my background – plus, my parents couldn’t skate so they couldn’t teach me!
Peter: In your youth, way back in the mid 1990s, you danced and performed in musicals, how come?
Tino: Well, while I struggled to be accepted, I soon realised that I could dance, so it became my way in – my way of being accepted. As a result, I ended up attending dance schools and winning some local competitions. Eventually, dance became my profession.
Peter: And you have also represented Finland internationally? Where and when?
Tino: I think that it was in 1994, me and my dance partner Marianne Järvinen won the show dance category at the World Championships in Hamburg. After that it was sort of an anti-climax. I came back to Finland and found myself thinking “Is that it?”, so decided to take my chances and got into musical theatre. There was an audition for a musical in Swedish in Helsinki and I took the opportunity and to my surprise I got in! What’s more, to my greater surprise, that musical became the most successful musical in the history of musical theatre in Finland. After that, one thing led to another and I released a couple of albums – please don’t go on Spotify and search them! [laughs] – which then led to me hosting a Finnish TV gameshow called Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, which was a localised version of a Channel 4 format from the UK. That became my claim to Finnish fame and it launched me into the consciousness of the larger population. At that time, I really felt accepted in Finnish society.
Peter: You are an entrepreneur also. How did you come to set up your own businesses and what have you learned from this?
Tino: Acutally, I started my limited company back in 1995 when I was doing my show biz stuff: I was managing my band and did the tour operation et cetera. What I learned from this is that you need two things to have a company in Finland: one, you need a lawyer, and two, you need a good accountant. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble and worries if you have them.
After the fame part, I helped to found a ladies’ high fashion brand with some Finnish designers. It didn’t work out, but the brand still exists today. After that, as it was the Dot Com era, I worked for an online sports store called Sportus, which was owned by a Swedish company. They quickly realised that I could speak several languages, so would send me around the place to do the technical rollouts- This really suited me as I’ve always been a bit of a secret nerd inside, spending my youth building computers and the like.
After a while I moved to Holland. This was really nice, as it was the first place that I didn’t feel like a foreigner as soon as I landed. So, I lived there for three years doing some digital marketing and project management stuff. When I returned to Finland I worked with event marketing and was recruited to a big international marketing agency and ended up running the digital marketing for Nissan in the whole of the Nordic countries. After a while, me and some colleagues chose to try our luck and started our own agency. That was around 2009.
Peter: So, what do you do nowadays – perhaps you could tell us about your latest venture? And what do you think your greatest achievements have been?
Tino: Yeah, sure. So, having done fast-moving consumer goods marketing for about seven years, me and my business partner, Sami Kuusisto, after both had our respective kids, we found that helping large corporations to sell sugary drinks and yoghurts felt wrong. We questioned the ethics of helping companies sell products that neither of us wanted to give to our kids.
As a result, we began to ask ourselves what brand we, as parents, trusted and knew that they had our kids’ best interests at heart. After a lot of thinking and researching we realised that there wasn’t one, so we thought that we’d better make one. We’ve now started a new company called Two Dads – that’s my current start up. The idea behind the company is to look at the holistic wellbeing of kids. Currently one in three kids in Europe are obese, and in Finland about twenty-four percent of kids under the age of seventeen are. This is a global trend and it’s not funny. It’s not simply that they are fat, but that it leads to long-term circulatory diseases.
Anyway, we were shocked by this and wanted to do something. This thing was that we weren’t experts in this, so we got in touch with some doctors who wanted to join the company and we have collaborated with experts in kids’ nutrition and food technology at the University of Helsinki. From this we decided to create health alternatives for kids. That’s what we’ve been doing for about a year and a half, and they’ll be hitting Finnish supermarkets before the end of the year! We’re starting out with breakfast cereals and boxed juices – they’re Two Dad’s first products. It’s been a lot to take in, but we’re very proud to be able to offer health products to the next generation.
Peter: You also started the Facebook group “My Finland is International” – why did you do this?
Tino: Well, back in 2009 – around the time I was about to become a dad – my friends and I noticed that there was a lot of online hate speech going on. We noticed that there were interesting patterns – it wasn’t just people who were worried about immigrants, but that the same responses and comments were being posted in different channels, and we realised that this wasn’t an accident, but was being orchestrated.
So, with some friends who were running media websites, we saw that under a single IP address there were several aliases being created and that these were discussing with one another, claiming and boosting false information. We could see that it was being done at quite a professional level, and we realised that nobody really knew how to counter this. So, first we started to try to answer them on these online discussions, but that didn’t help.
Out of frustration, I started the Facebook group, My Finland is International, but to my surprise some thirty-five thousand people joined within a few days. This showed us that a lot of people felt the same way and that something needed to be done.
Peter: “My Finland” now has more than 50,000 followers – did you expect it to be such a success?
Tino: No, of course not. I’m not sure if it’s a success, but it does show that there are a lot of people who feel the same way! While we first tried to counter the arguments of these anti-immigrant people, we soon realised that they weren’t there to perpetrate their lies about immigrants. As a result, we decided that we needed to have a forum that gives another point of view and gives positive news stories: stories that challenge the right-wing view of immigrants – a counterpoint to xenophobia and racism.
Peter: For many people, you became known as an activist in organizing different kinds of demonstrations, like after Anders Behring Breivik’s attacks in Olso and Utøya in 2011, and after the tragic death of Jimi Karttunen last September following a senseless attack by a Neo-Nazi during their protest at Elielinaukio in central Helsinki, and you have also been as a speaker at “Meillä on Unelma” in 2015 and, more recently, at a concert in support of the asylum seekers’ protest against the handling of their applications by the Ministry of the Interior and Finnish Immigration Service. Why have you been active in these events?
Tino: Well, I wish that I didn’t have to be! Around the time that the horrible events that took place in Norway, we realised that Finnish politicians are not going to challenge the extreme right. There’s a demand for consensus in Finnish politics, which means that you shouldn’t rock the boat too much. As a result, while the international press showed that Breivik had contact with the far-right in Finland – sending his manifesto to them and even quoting Jussi Halla-aho (Perussuomalaiset MEP) in it – Finnish politicians didn’t really do much more than pay lip service.
If they weren’t going to do anything, we felt that we should. Over time, the size of the demonstrations have become larger as the Perussuomalaiset have become part of the government and they are controlling a lot of municipal councils due to their popularity, and I think that it’s really, really important that we demonstrate in order to stand up for those who cannot protect themselves.
Equally, while demonstrating has been important, as I’ve been involved in organizing demonstrations, I’ve come to realize that somebody needs to stand up for these things. In a way, that’s why my candidacy has emerged now. In standing for office, my message is pretty clear: Let’s vote the Nazis and the racists out of the council! I don’t think that any other Finnish candidate will say it that openly. I don’t think that they want to challenge things so openly and call a spade a spade. So, I think that’s what we need: no more baloney. People try to understand and accommodate the extreme right, but as they do this the more power they take over and the more human rights they’re ready to trample. We can see this in the openly inhuman and discriminatory policies that are put forward by politicians in the Perussuomalaiset and other political parties.
If we look beyond immigration policy, we can see an antagonistic approach towards minorities in attempts to cut language support from immigrant kids, the recent cuts to YLE’s English language news, Selkokieli Uutiset – the simple Finnish news, and they’ve made cuts to the Swedish language channel. And, by the way, the latest change is that they’ve removed the word “multiculturalism” from the agenda of YLE, which from my perspective shows that it’s an organized campaign to undermine the rights of minorities.
Peter: What motivates you and what are your key values in life?
Tino: Obviously, my biggest value in life is my son who is seven. I want to secure an equal opportunity for him in the future in this country because there is rhetoric both in the media and among the police that states, for example, when kids fight, there were four Finnish children and two with immigrant backgrounds. This shows an excusatory way of thinking exists and I don’t think that my son should be thought of or treated differently just because his father happens to be born in India. That’s what’s currently driving me in this.
I’ve started thinking about the world you come into and the one that you’ll leave behind. I’m not audacious enough to think that I can really change this country, but if I can make Finland and indeed the world just a little bit better, I’ll be happy. I’d like to contribute to making a more equal and just society, but I recognise that I can’t do it alone. The defeat of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands recently shows that we can work together to undermine the far right.
Peter: You are now a candidate standing in the municipal elections for the Green Party, but you have previously been a candidate for the Svenska folkpartiet i Finland (SFP) too – why are you a candidate? And why have you chosen to join the Greens this time?
Tino: Well, I do speak Swedish and I realise that for a long time the Swedish People’s Party of Finland (SPP), as they’re called in English, have been the de facto party for minorities in Finland, and to be honest they have done a great job. I mean, if you look at the work Eva Biaudet and Astrid Thors have done, I really have to respect them for their achievements.
However, I’ve made the move to the Greens as I’m hopeful that we can become the majority party in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. This will mean that we can make practical changes in how funds are allocated and what projects are funded. Also, I think that the Greens have a more liberal agenda and I’ve come to feel more at home in the Green party. This isn’t to say that I’m adverse to working with the SPP. In fact, as a fluent Swedish-speaker I’m happy to work together with them and I’m sure that the Greens and SPP will have a lot of opportunities for cooperation in the coming years.
Peter: That’s true, but what do you want to achieve in politics?
Tino: In politics, civil rights issues are one main thing that we’ve already spoken about, but alongside this, I believe that education is one of the key competitive edges that Finland has and I think that it is a crying shame that this, among other things, is where our current government has decided to make cuts. Having my own child who will be going to school next autumn, this is obviously a matter that plays on my mind. I’ve spoken with friends who are kindergarten and primary school teachers, and what I’ve heard is not very good – what’s happening is that because the number of kids in school in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area were diminishing, they cut heavily from both the staff resources and the facilities that schools have. Obviously, you don’t want to have empty classes when there are less kids, but they have neglected repairing a lot of these facilities and there are a lot of problems with the air – there’s mould in some schools that make our teachers and our kids sick. So, I sincerely hope that help to get education back on track. It’s like the saying goes, “It’s the education, stupid!”
We need to ensure that it is one of the priorities of Helsinki, and in practice, I think that we need to give our teachers more resources and cut the bureaucracy they encounter. We need to cut the class sizes because currently in a lot of schools they are getting close to thirty students and over. This means that there is much more stress for both the teachers and the kids, and it results in concentration difficulties and less time being spent on each student. According to some studies the largest class sizes should be no more than somewhere between twenty-four and twenty-six students per class, so it’s not a dramatic decrease – it’s doable! That would mean that the teachers would have more time with each child and all would be less stressed.
Regarding the facilities that schools have, for example, in Ressu school in central Helsinki – a school at which kids can study in English – over a hundred children applied, but they were only able to take sixteen. It’s sad but they simply don’t have the facilities needed, despite there being a massive demand! They don’t have anywhere to put the kids. So, we need to find space. In fact, in the Helsinki area there’s thousands of square metres of empty offices and Helsinki city even owns a whole bunch of empty real estate, so why don’t we look at concerting what we have for this purpose?!
Also, there’s an acute problem with the quality of air in our schools due to mould – there are toxins in the air in over fifty percent of schools in Helsinki right now! Some funds have been allocated to repair schools with mould problems, but this takes three or four years to get done. Would you want your kid to breath toxic air for three or four years? No! This can cause long-term respiratory problems for both students and teachers.
I think that we need to give teachers and our kids a break and make them a priority again. Every year there are about one thousand more kids in the Helsinki area and they need to go to school, so let’s make sure that we have good facilities for them!
Peter: What are three main themes that your campaigning on?
Tino: In addition to campaigning on a social justice and education platform, as I’ve mentioned above, my third campaign theme is parenting. Simply put, I think we should give more resources to parents.
Currently we are lucky because while the government has cut the subjective right to day care for parents who are unemployed, the city of Helsinki has chosen not to enforce this rule and still offers day care places to all families who wish to have them regardless of parental employment status. I hope we can continue with this as it has wider implications. If we look at immigrant families for example, we see higher unemployment. Practically speaking, this leaves them at a disadvantage as if one parent is unemployed, he or she has to stay at home with the children as they no longer have equal access to day care. This presents further challenges as the parent can no longer spend his or her time studying – this negatively impacts their opportunities to integrate in to working life or build important social relationships.
Additionally, in providing resources to parents, I’d also like to increase fathers’ active participation in parenting. Here, studies show that fathers who actively participate during pregnancy and during child birth actually reduce stress for both the child and the mother. There are less complications during delivery which means healthier kids and healthier mothers. There’s also studies showing that if the father is active after the birth of the child, the likelihood of the mother suffering post-natal depression is reduced. That again reduces the stress on the whole family and reduces the need for healthcare services. So, there’s a lot of good reasons why we should be encouraging fathers to participate more.
While currently about eighty-five percent of the information is directed to mothers, much less is focused towards dads. What I hope that we could do is to do more to organised different facilities for dads – have father and child group activities and peer groups, for example. I think that there’s a lot we could do to encourage fathers to use their paternity leave. I think that, me included, a lot of fathers feel guilty for using their paternity leave. It raises questions like, “If they fire me, what’s going to happen?” and there’s a lot of insecurity around it. We should address all these issues and re-normalise having a family!
Peter: Finally, what would you like Helsinki to be like in 2020?
Tino: Well, by 2020, according to the estimates of Statistics Finland, twenty-five percent of the population in the capital region will be non-native Finnish, Swedish or Sámi language speakers. I hope that by then the public services will be better designed to cater to people who don’t speak domestic languages as their mother tongue. We’ll need to have more education for teachers, for example, on how to encounter children from different backgrounds – currently that’s one of the biggest stress factors as teachers sometimes don’t know how to cope with multicultural education.
I also think that one key aspect that has already been proposed by the Green party is that children already start learning foreign languages before school age. In my view this will be decisive in the way that people get along with each other, and it will help us sustain our economy, as not too many people outside Finland speak Finnish! These methods will encourage kids in Finland to be more open-minded and savvy to other cultures. I think that will bring us a better economy.
Lastly, I hope that we’ll rise up against right-wing extremism. I hope that in 2020 we won’t tolerate the inhumane policies being proposed. Sadly, these people won’t go away if we just ignore them! We know that as the richest city in Finland, Helsinki has the opportunity to make its own decisions about a lot of things, and that’s why municipal elections are so important. Who we elect to the municipal council will have the power to impose or choose not to impose the policies our government puts forward. Helsinki can decide that refugees who come here, for example, are given sanctuary – that they are given a safe place to be as Helsinki has the funds and the resources! We could make Helsinki into a multilingual, open-minded, and outward looking city, because we need to compete with other places like London, New York, Berlin and Stockholm. We need to compete to bring the brightest and the best people in, keep those that we already have, and get foreign direct investment.
I think that Helsinki is doing a great job in many ways, but there’s a lot of things that we could do!
Peter: Okay. That’s great. Thank you for the interview and good luck in the elections on April 9th!
Tino: Thank you.
If you have any questions for Tino Singh regarding his candidacy, you can reach him via the following social media: www.facebook.com/tinosingh2017
If you wish to vote for Tino, his candidate number is 713.
Written by Peter Holley