Many of us know the familiar, friendly face of the British Ambassador to the Philippines, H.E. Asif Ahmad who will soon be rounding up his tour of duty in the country. All of his numerous friends in the country are saddened to know this but, take heart, the kind Ambassador has been so enamoured by the Philippines and his local friends here that he actually has plans to retire in the Philippines, after completing just one more tour of duty in another country.
Ambassador Ahmad 's father worked for the BBC TV Network as a producer, and his mother was a singer. They met in a radio station, fell in love, married in Scotland and moved to London where Ambassador Ahmad was born. The young Asif left London at the age of four and travelled extensively with his parents and got to know his father's extended family of six siblings and numerous cousins from all over the world, imbibing a close sense of family not too common among Europeans but certainly a norm here in the Philippines.
The young Asif knew a perfect world as he was growing up. His father who worked later as a diplomat was based in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Japan, China, Poland and Russia and he studied in international schools. He was fourteen when a civil war broke out in Pakistan and he witnessed many atrocities at this tender age. With a new government in Bangladesh, his family suffered a reversal of fortunes and became virtual refugees. From a life of prosperity, they became mired in poverty, and Asif knew that the only way out was through education. His parents had taught him the values of humility even when they lived a life of prosperity and taught him to reach down to people who needed help and pull them up and these values served him well in later years.
He was back in London at age 17. He remembers switching to the American education system from the British system, then switching back and forth as he grew up, and this probably gained him another tipping advantage. In one of his early jobs, his employer sent him to a business school in France, rounding up his very international education.
His late father was a diplomat from 1965 to 1984, and this was the biggest influence in his choice of career, though he embarked on his foreign service late in life after working for 20 years as a banker in London. From banking, he worked for three years as a business consultant, helping small and medium enterprises. Then, as fate would have it, he read an ad in the newspaper one morning published by their Dept. of Foreign Affairs seeking out professionals interested to embark on a diplomatic career. He responded to the call, and so did six hundred other British nationals. He was lucky enough to be one of only six accepted by the government in 1999, and this was the start of his new-found career.
As early as 2003, he came to the Philippines as Director of Trade for Asia Pacific and later as Head of Foreign Policy for Asia Pacific. He remembers visiting the country every year since 2003 except for the two years that he served as British Ambassador to Thailand, so the Philippines has always been a home away from home all these years. He also talked about an opportunity back then when he had to pick up some Filipinos who stayed on for about five months, allowing him to learn more about the Filipino language even before he became posted here. He could actually follow the news in Tagalog, he said.
His first impressions of the Philippines were women in elegant ternos and men in crisp barongs and Lea Salonga in Miss Saigon, largely a cultural vision of the country. When he eventually got posted here, he saw prosperity, he said, but also saw abject poverty. He was here when Yolanda struck together with some 1,400 British military and aid personnel and witnessed first- hand the tragedy there. He also made sure he was exposed to all walks of life in the Philippines because, during his tour of duty here, he visited countless schools, drug rehabilitation centers, hospitals, factories and agricultural communities. He found a good team to work with at the embassy and decided to raise the British stakes in the Philippines. From an original staff of a hundred, this has since doubled to two hundred. Under his watch, there were some high-profile visits like Princess Anne's, and he also forged some striking business engagements. The year 2015 saw the Philippines as the second fastest-growing market in the world. Years before, there was only a handful of Philippine investments in the United Kingdom, but during his term, big companies like Emperador Whisky, Monde Nissin and other businesses were set up in the UK. People-to-people connection was vastly improved with more direct flights to London and more visa applications to UK approved from here, with a batting average of 90% approvals. This, he says, has resulted in a 24% increase in inbound Filipino tourists since he first came here as Ambassador.
The United Kingdom is now the biggest investor in the Philippines from the European Union and he appreciates the enhanced inter-country relationship of our two countries. UK citizens have donated some P7 billion to the Philippines, and the British government has generously matched this, making the UK one of our biggest if not the biggest donor to the country. Ambassador Ahmad was also instrumental in the Mindanao peace process, getting his country involved at the invitation of the Philippine government.
During his watch, our bilateral relations with UK have greatly improved with Philippine exports getting better terms. Ninety per cent of Philippine goods exported to the European Union have no import duties. Every known British brand of cars can be found here in the Philippines with the exception of McLaren, but not for long, he says. Other British businesses have also been set up here-a well-known manufacturer of circuit boards in Cebu is now a Filipino-owned British company, for instance. Some airplane components of airbus planes are made by a UK company in Bataan, and those Slazenger tennis balls used in Wimbledon are made in the Philippines. This list goes on and on, and there are now many successful Filipinos working in executive positions in British companies, like the Regional Head for Mini. On the education front, the British government has increased its funding so that from only eight scholars per year, we now have thirty Masters Degree scholars every year, on top of the generous research grants from UK. His dream is to have one big campus here that has multiple British universities and students that can share learning modules. This is what he calls the food court concept popularized in Singapore. He rues the fact that with so many home-grown Filipino talents, no new discoveries have been made here, but he hopes that the new generation can fill this gap. And lastly, the British Council here has successfully staged the Great British Festival here every year. Last year, the festival had 500,000 visitors and some 2 million Filipinos voted in Facebook for their favourite singers. A job well done indeed.
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Mabuhay!!! Be proud to be a Filipino.
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