Intern gains fascinating insights into APEC operations

New Leadership Network member Klara Klippel was just settling into her Foundation internship at the APEC Secretariat in Singapore when the full impact of COVID-19 started to become apparent. Although the pandemic cut her internship short, it also provided her with invaluable insights into how the international community responds in times of crisis.
Klara and a friend leaning against the sides of a large letter A, which is part of an installation

During her time with the APEC Secretariat, Klara accompanied senior officials for meetings in Putrajaya, Malaysia.

On January 28 this year, the day I departed for Singapore, I frustratingly told my parents for what felt like the millionth time what APEC, the organisation I was going to work for for three months stood for, “Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation – an inter-governmental forum made up of 21 economies that promote free trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region, obviously”.

As a Fonterra graduate working in the Trade Strategy team, I had realised my passion for trade policy and international relations, and now I was on my way to see where it all begins.

I never imagined a global pandemic would cut my three-month experience short. Stepping out of Changi Airport into the 34 degree heat, the only sign of COVID-19 was my taxi driver’s face mask.

I met up with my new flatmate and we wandered around my new neighbourhood, stopping for dinner at our local market – nothing pandemic-y about that!

Singapore was quick to react when the situation began to intensify, and I caught a glimpse into the speed and efficiency of which the Singapore government can act.

APEC’s HR team quickly put measurements in place to keep staff safe, amending our work hours to help us avoid commuting in peak-hour traffic and providing hand sanitiser and thermometers to everyone.

Until mid-March, new cases were steadily increasing by only 3-5 cases a day and were all able to be tracked and traced. I continued to explore Singapore, however ensured I remained cautious, avoided crowded areas and followed the government’s advice.

Klara having a meal in a restaurant with a large group of colleagues

Klara says the friends she made among the international community living in Singapore made her time there all the more rewarding

COVID-19 seems to dominate the conversation when I talk about my life in Singapore; however, there was so much I got to experience in my seven weeks. I learnt that Singapore is a gigantic noodle bowl of languages, cultures, food and people.

It is one of the most unique places I’ve ever been to and a city packed with activities you could never get tired of. Whether I was walking through the Gardens by the Bay with its huge manmade trees, marvelling at the physics-defying Marina Bay Sands, tasting my way through local food markets or sunbathing on Sentosa Island, there was never a shortage of things to do.

My favourite place in Singapore was the Botanical Gardens, a 10-minute walk from my home and a place I frequented most days. With its immaculately cut grass, beautiful flora and fauna, it was a peaceful sanctuary in the middle of a concrete jungle.

In the weekends, I liked to visit the hawker markets with friends and share a variety of local delicacies like char kway teow (fried noodles with seafood), stingray (delicious!), chilli crab, and satay chicken.

I also loved exploring Singapore’s tiny neighbouring islands where you can rent bikes and ride through the jungle (encountering monkeys!). I understand now why people flock from all over the world to live there; there is familiarity in the expat community, intertwined with the sights, smells and tastes of an exciting new culture.

Klara at a formal event in a group chatting

Klara chatting with Mark Talbot, NZ senior official for APEC, and the executive director of the APEC Secretariat Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria during a coffee break at the Senior Officials Meeting in Putrajaya, Malaysia

The APEC Secretariat is a melting pot of different cultures and I felt instantly included and welcomed by all my colleagues. I had multiple lunch offers and after spending only six weeks there, the Secretariat was a workplace I looked forward to going to every day.

My projects at the Secretariat were fascinating for me and aligned well with my interests.

I helped facilitate a session where staff drafted new organisational values – a unifying experience and a chance to have meaningful internal conversations about the value-add of APEC. I also had the amazing opportunity to attend the Senior Officials meetings in Malaysia, where government representatives from the 21 economies met (China video conference-ed in due to the closure of their borders) to talk all things trade and prosperity.

My trade experience was limited to a corporate context, so it was fascinating to be able to change my perspective and experience trade policy through a governmental lens.

I thought, what better organisation could I be in, than a forum that promotes not only free trade but also prosperity, equal opportunities and the health of people in the region. I also saw first-hand how diplomats were responding to the unfolding events of COVID-19.

There is something incredible about officials from 21 economies managing to physically meet several times throughout the year to make tangible action plans that will improve a slew of problems affecting the Asia-Pacific region. As New Zealand gears up to host the APEC meetings in 2021, it was also a great opportunity to see where members’ priorities lay and how New Zealand can make our mark.

Singapore comes with a glowing recommendation from me and is a place I cannot wait to return to. I feel so fortunate to have had this experience, and while my time was cut short, for seven weeks, Singapore truly felt like my home.

Enough from me-lah, go see it for yourself.