The people’s king

  • Lifestyle
  • Wednesday, 10 Mar 2010

The young Crown Prince of Norway Haakon Magnus rules with heart and humility.

DURING the oil crisis in 1975, the then reigning Norwegian King Olav V, at the grand old age of 80, was photographed paying for a ticket to ride the tram with his poodle to the Holmenkollen ski jump for a bit of skiing, which is the national obsession. He was also renowned as a hugely popular and unifying monarch, competing in ski jumps and an Olympic champion yachtsman.

Fast forward to 2010: King Olav V’s grandson, the current Crown Prince Haakon Magnus and his wife, Crown Princess Mette-Marit, currently in Malaysia for a state visit, are also known for being approachable, down-to-earth royals.

“Well, I see my role differently; I look at what my opportunities and how I can contribute. I try to narrow it down a little and work from there,” explains Prince Haakon, 37, during an interview arranged for Malaysian journalists at the Royal Palace in Oslo last week, to coincide with their state visit here.

That sense of approachability and equality is evident even at the palace. It’s not often we find squealing children playing with colourful plastic spades in the snow just steps away from the palace’s front door.

Mothers pushing prams, couples walking their dogs, and of course, camera-toting tourists, are just some of the common folks trampling the pristine white lawn fronting the palace – the same spot where the Prime Minister presents his new cabinet to the King and Queen, and the people every term.

The Norwegian monarchy has its roots firmly founded on principles of democracy and its first king’s motto of “All for Norway”.

Annexed by Denmark in 1380, Norway had a succession of Danish kings until 1814. For having sided with the French in the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark was forced to surrender Norway into a union with Sweden. A struggle for independence from Sweden ensued until confrontation took place in the summer of 1905. Under threat by the Swedes, Norway sought support from the major powers.

The then government offered young Prince Carl of Denmark the throne as he had excellent alliances. The Danish royal family was connected through marriages with the Russian tsar, German aristocracy, and the British monarchy, as Prince Carl’s father-in-law was the Prince of Wales, soon to become King Edward VII.

“Our monarchy began from a king who was elected by the people,” explains Prince Haakon.

His great-grandfather Prince Carl (later named Haakon VII) sought a referendum from the Norwegian people in the autumn of 1905. It yielded an overwhelming majority favouring a monarchy. This marked the beginning of Norway’s constitutional monarchy.

“He was a king voted by the people. He was accessible and that same philosophy has passed down to us.”

Formalities of the Royal Court aside, Prince Haakon is amicable and willingly answered questions ranging from his personal opinions to the country’s renowned gender equality policies. In Norway, half of all cabinet seats are allocated to women. Fathers share 10 months of full-pay maternity leave with mothers to ensure parental duties are equally apportioned, and it’s against the law for employers to ask prospective female employees whether they plan to have a child later on.

“Our government is very conscious of gender equality. It’s good for the Norwegian economy to benefit from 100% of an innovative workforce instead of just half if we only concentrate on the men,” says Prince Haakon.

“This has worked out very well with a positive effect on the economy. It has created a good support system for parents and is well accepted within the Norwegian working community. For the system to work, it’s important that men take up part of the responsibility when it comes to bringing up children because one person cannot do everything.”

Born to be prince

Crown Prince Haakon was born on July 20, 1973, and has a sister, Princess Mنrtha Louise.

After graduating from the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy in Bergen in 1995, Prince Haakon took up political science at the University of California at Berkeley in the United States. In 1993, he received his masters degree in development studies, specialising in international trade and Africa, from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Britain.

In what’s best described as a fairy tale, he married commoner Mette-Marit Tjessem Hّiby in August 2001 at the Oslo Cathedral.

They have three children, Marius Borg Hّiby, Princess Ingrid Alexandra and Prince Sverre Magnus.

Princess Ingrid made history on Jan 21, 2004 when she was born, for she became the first ever heiress to the throne. Unlike Britain, Norway’s gender equality extends even to the royal throne.

In 2003, Prince Haakon was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with a particular focus on the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). He has travelled to Tanzania, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Guatemala and Burundi under this capacity.

“The experience of visiting different developing countries has affected me in many ways. I have always been interested in issues like poverty. So, when I was asked to become a UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, particularly to promote the MDGs, I took up the challenge. They give us new tools and a common language to talk about issues,” he says.

“Even though we are moving forward, there still exists a big difference between regions. Millions are living in extreme poverty. But there has been progress along the way, albeit slow.

“There’s a possibility for a different future for every child. There was a school project in Mongolia where 15 children were attending classes inside a tent on a garbage disposal site.

“When asked about their dreams and aspirations, some replied they would like to be a policeman, a politician, or a doctor. We have the same hopes and aspirations, even those living in dire situations. And, that is something we must take seriously. It has been fulfilling to contribute towards a cause that makes a difference, no matter how minute it seems.”

Prince Haakon has felt a deep empathy towards disparity in the world since he was young.

“I have always reacted to injustice. I always wondered why some people go through extreme hardship and others don’t. This was why I chose to study political science and international relations. My wife and I focus on specific areas which we feel we can contribute towards directly.

“Everyone has a gift of being able to do something good for others. Our lives become more meaningful when we have a sense of purpose.”

Despite having privileged access to unique experiences around the globe, Prince Haakon says that the most memorable events in his life had been, “when I got married and also when my children were born.”

“But, this isn’t the answer you were expecting, is it?” he asks with a twinkle in his eye.

“It’s one of the things that is very close to my heart. It made a big shift in my life. I have never stopped acknowledging how very fortunate I have been to have such rich experiences in my life.”

Nation with a heart

Norway covers a large geographical area of 385,199sqkm and has a population of only 4.8 million people. It has been contributing towards major causes around the world, and quietly emerged as the largest and most important international force in tropical forest conservation.

The country has committed NOK3bil (RM1.7bil) a year. It is the first country to contribute up to US$1bil (RM3.34mil) alone to a Brazilian fund to reduce deforestation in the Amazon.

Over 130 nations converged in Oslo on Dec 3, 2008, to sign a global ban on cluster munitions. Norwe- gian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store had played a vital role leading to the ban.

“I think Norwegians see ourselves as world citizens,” explains Prince Haakon.

“What happens around the world matters to everyone else. Norway wants to contribute positively towards peace and security. We have been known to facilitate negotiations and peace talks, and we host the Nobel Peace Prize.

“We are very lucky to be in a fairly safe and stable corner of the world. We have had the opportunity to build a society that is equitable compared to many countries,” he says.

Norway consistently ranks among the world’s happiest countries. The United Nations also ranked Norway as the most prosperous country for the fifth year in a row. Here, equality means a factory worker earns nearly as much as a doctor, and a state pension fund generated by Norway’s wealth in oil production ensures state welfare and health care.

“While we are very fortunate to have a safe society and we have wealth from the energy sector, I would like to emphasise that it is not oil and gas that makes us wealthy. Rather, it’s the knowledge, the human capital, how we create technology that makes it possible. It is how you administer the companies in a professional way, how revenues are used and distributed in society that matters,” Prince Haakon adds.

When asked about the ever-widening gulf between different nations, faiths, religious convictions and ideologies, he replies: “I don’t see the widening gulf between disparities among nations. I focus more on the things that have developed over the past century that have brought us together.

“We now know each other better through communication. And, we are more inter-dependent on one another. When other countries are mired in poverty and desperation, it also creates a security risk that affects other parts of the world. We are inter-connected to each other in a profound sense of the word. For example, as far as climate change is concerned, there’s not one person or country that is able to tackle a complex issue like this.

“I see opportunities for us to work together in constructive ways more than ever before,” he concludes.

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