9 Serving Ambassadors in the Philippines Share What They Love About This Country
Friendships among nations can never be undervalued for the blessings they bring. Political goodwill, economic activity, national and regional security, and cultural exchange—to name a few. On the front line of striking and strengthening such friendships are men and women honed in tact and diplomacy: the ambassadors. They go into another country to represent their own, promote trade and cultural relations, encourage investments from home to host—and vice versa. In the following pages are nine of them, some at the beginning of their diplomatic mission while others in midstream. Curiously, everyone, bar none, is already holding something dear about the Philippines.
Steven James Robinson, AO
The Philippines is familiar territory to His Excellency Steven James Robinson. He spent one New Year’s vacation in Zamboanga and Cebu as a university student travelling with his parents; he visited several times in the last 10 years as a government official involved in the collaboration between Australia and the Philippines on counter-terrorism.
What he discovered then was still what greeted him now: “Prior to my arrival I expected to find the same warm, friendly, and generous people I had met many years before. I was not disappointed. Our welcome, particularly for my wife who was new to the Philippines, was all I could have hoped for. The people are what makes the Philippines; the country’s beauty and potential are additional bonuses,” he says.
Only eight months into his diplomatic assignment, he has already captured a lasting memory: meeting 214 Abu Sayyaf surrenderees. “I purposefully shook the hand of each of these former fighters and will never forget their expressions of surprise, as well as their enthusiastic and warm response,” relates Robinson, who wants to be remembered “as an active, warm, and engaged ambassador who represented his country with distinction, and who advanced our bilateral relationship to our mutual benefit.”
He is sure that when he leaves, he would have formed strong friendships that will continue long into the future. With what he has accomplished in so short a time, the legacy he wants to leave behind will surely come to pass.
For His Excellency Bjørn Jahnsen, his posting in the Philippines is “a perfect fit” with his background. As Norway advocates peace both in the autonomous Bangsamoro region and between the Government and the revolutionary National Democratic Front of the Philippines, he is able to build on previous experience. Prior to taking over his post, he worked on the Colombian Peace Process in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo.
Norway’s role in the peace process in Bangsamoro has taken him to Mindanao more often than to any other part of the country. It is thus not surprising to hear that of his memorable experiences here, high on the list is meeting mothers and wives who have lost their sons and husbands, without knowing their fate or whereabouts, in the insurgency. “As a father and a husband, this made a lasting impression,” he says. The other big part of his job is promoting business, particularly in the maritime and energy sectors, which comes naturally to him after having managed a Norwegian company in the energy sector.
He says he would like to be remembered as “the one who conveyed the image of a modern and dynamic Norway in the Philippines.” Arriving a year ago, Jahnsen is assimilating well, enjoying the beauty of our marine life as a scuba diver and even rattles off the few Filipino words he has learnt so far: Salamat po [Thank you], bangus [milkfish], balut [duck egg], adobo [stew], Mabuhay [Cheers]—and in tongue-in-cheek humour, “out-of-stock.”
“Legendary!” This is how His Excellency Gerard Ho defines Filipino hospitality. “I have never felt so welcome in any country that I have been posted before,” he says. He is still awed by how helpful everyone has been. “People whom you just met will go out of their way to help you, even at great inconvenience to themselves,” he adds. He admits to doing a bit of an adjustment when he started to live here just early in the year. “There is always an initial period of adjustment for Singaporeans when we move to live in another country. We get used to things working in a certain way and subconsciously expect the same elsewhere. But we are also pragmatic and practical, so we learn to fit in eventually,” the ambassador says. Manila is not a strange city to him, having visited many times, especially during the Philippines’ chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017.
Those visits have formed some impressions in his mind. For one, he says, “The sheer talent of your people!” This, unfortunately, has led to another conclusion: “Going to karaoke with Filipinos is a very intimidating experience!” He is practically still at the stage of settling down; there are many more places to visit, things to learn, and experiences to savour. The young diplomat is raring to do all these. After all, he wants to be remembered as someone who “reinforced the positive traits Filipinos associate Singapore with, and reduced any negative stereotypes that you hold. As a Singapore diplomat, I would like the Philippines to always see us as a steadfast and reliable friend,” he says.
Jose Miguel Capdevila
In his 35 years as a diplomat, His Excellency Jose Miguel Capdevila of Chile has concluded: “No matter where you are in the globe, what always makes the difference between a bad or a good experience is the people, the ordinary people, the day to day routine with the locals.” And in this area, he declares, “The Filipinos excel by far.”
The Philippines is his first Southeast Asian assignment, but he had good inside information from his sister who had lived in Manila in the nineties and had summed up her experience in one word, “Awesome!” Two years into his stint and he has started putting together his own “awesome package” that includes magnificent sites (“perhaps the best on the planet”) for snorkelling and diving, and his morning swimming sessions “when Manila is awakening, and the sky’s colours change every minute.”
The ambassador has prepared himself well for a life in the diplomatic service, having graduated from the Andres Bello Diplomatic Academy of Chile, plus a bachelor´s degree in social science from the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes in Argentina. But over and above his education is a sincere interest in people.
He wants to know more about “the Filipino way of life and cultural roots through periodic exchanges with ordinary citizens.” He speaks warmly of “genuine smiles” and “extraordinary gentleness” that greet him at work and everywhere else he goes. He values the cultural bonds, the religion, and “even the sense of humour” shared by Chile and the Philippines. All this prompt him to strive to deepen and enhance the best relationship ever for the two countries.
A diplomatic post in the Philippines is, in many ways, a journey of discovery for His Excellency Nicolas Galey. “My diplomatic career had been primarily focused in the Middle East and on issues concerning that region. I had been to Asia just a few times and did not have many preconceived ideas about the Philippines. Coming to the Philippines was a great opportunity for me and my wife to discover this beautiful, welcoming, and dynamic country,” he says.
Of his experiences in the country, he remembers an extraordinary helicopter flight between Manila and Palawan. “It was an exceptional opportunity to admire, at low altitude, the variety and the richness of the landscapes,” he says. He does not find life here particularly difficult. “Everything is readily available, everyone speaks English, and the people are very warm and helpful,” he elaborates.
He may cite “traffic” as a challenge but in the same breath, sees positive sides to it as well. “It does help you to do your best in planning ahead. Also, people are tolerant when you’re late because everyone else is facing the same problem,” he says.
Galey says that the legacy he wants to leave after his stint here is “fairly classic,” which are: “to have succeeded in concretely strengthening the relations between our two countries and our two peoples, and to have been able to launch sustainable projects, hoping to leave a good memory to all our Filipino friends.” And yet he knows that he will leave with the memory of “the wonderful discovery of an ambitious country, which has many assets to be a major player in the international scene. And of course, leaving with great memories of this country, of the strong friendships created, and of the beauty of nature.”
If His Excellency Koji Haneda suddenly spurts out big Tagalog words like malasakit [compassion], bayanihan [barn raising, simplistically] and utang na loob [a sense of indebtedness], do not be surprised. He started his diplomatic career in the Philippines in the early ‘80s and considers himself a “balikbayan” and the country as his “second home.” The time of his posting could never have been better.
“We have now embarked on the ‘golden age of strategic partnership’ as President Duterte stated,” he says. One of the things that he looks forward to is Japan’s subway and commuter railway projects “that will surely help mitigate congestion in Metro Manila.”
Beyond economic and political partnerships, Haneda sees the betterment of the relations between the Philippines and Japan in wider cultural and grassroots exchanges. He would like to focus on this area where he sees “more room for growth,” citing one of his plans: “I would like to drum up more interest from young Japanese people to visit and experience for themselves the beauty of the Philippines.” This plan fits like a missing piece to a puzzle in his desire to be remembered as an ambassador “who is a champion of promoting people-to-people ties.”
He believes that the two countries’ excellent partnership in trade, investment, and development would continue to grow, but a significant chunk of their social and cultural relations rests on his shoulders. “So, what I have earnestly strived to do from day one is to be the lead campaigner in furthering the friendship and mutual understanding between Japanese and Filipinos,” he avers. A good takeoff point for realising this is the friendliness and openness of Filipinos, which is also what he likes best living in the Philippines.
There is however one thing he does not relish here. “Typhoons. The Philippines offers a plethora of must-see destinations for rest and recreation, if only it does not get spoiled by sporadic typhoons which are a norm here just like in Japan.”
Ahmed Abdelaziz Ezzat
Just three years after graduating from Cairo University with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, His Excellency Ahmed Abdelaziz Ezzat joined the foreign service in 1987. He rose through the ranks to become an ambassador and now finds himself as his country’s top diplomat in a place he has never been to before.
He has read a lot about the Philippines though. “However, the picture was never complete without the most important element, which is the people. This made the real picture more colourful,” he declares.
Coming from another continent that is also quite a distance, he faces the challenge of geographical barrier. “A diplomat who wants to make himself a bridge between two cultures and countries, and to encourage people to travel and work in or with his country must be careful not to add too much flavours to the actual scene—and vice-versa,” he explains.
Challenges notwithstanding, he loves being in the Philippines. So does his whole family. But it is not just about enjoying life in this country, it is about learning from it. “The most attractive and admirable thing about my living experience here is the people themselves, how they deal with life in a very easy going, smiling, patient, take-it-as-it-is attitude. For me, this is worth learning from,” he elaborates.
Such a mindset resonates with his overall objective of “consolidating more the relations between our peoples, to push more people to get to know more about each other’s country and culture.”
She was delighted to discover that her country’s national food, roast pig, is very similar to the Philippines’ lechon; that the country is as warm and endowed with beautiful beaches as she had imagined; that the reputed English competency of the Filipinos is, indeed, a fact. Still, Ambassador Jana Šedivá was unprepared for the richness and the vibrance of the Philippine culture—from the languages to the textiles to the practices—that is “not enough to encapsulate in one picture.”
One of the youngest ambassadors at 45, she graduated from the Charles University in Prague and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and in Sinology from Beijing University. She is now focused on “facilitating deeper relations especially on business, hoping to work more with the local communities through partnerships with different NGOs, and introducing the Czech Republic as a strategic partner and friend of the Philippines.”
A big plate for a petite ambassador but she works hard to get things done, travelling all over the country to connect with people like when she re-opened the honorary consulate of the Czech Republic in Cebu, visited the Bicol region, Batangas, Bohol, Bataan, and Laguna. And of course, Davao, where another Czech honorary consulate exists.
A mother of an eight-year-old daughter, Šedivá would like to be known for her hard work, everyday dedication, and the ability to execute her duties beyond expectations. Unbeknownst to her, she has already reached this bar she has set on herself.
Jorge Moragas Sanchez
His Excellency Jorge Moragas, ambassador of Spain to the Philippines, has very strong roots in this country. His mother, Vicky Sanchez Brias, was born here, and he has been visiting since 1978. Now fate has cemented this connection with a lasting remembrance: a scar from a motorbike accident in Batangas. “The scar will accompany me for the rest of my life. It’s more fun in the Philippines!” he echoes the country’s tourism slogan.
A lawyer by profession, Moragas has worked directly under three presidents of Spain and served its government in different capacities—like as chief of staff of the president, as congressman for Barcelona for five terms, and as ambassador to the United Nations. Coming to the Philippines with such a broad and deep perspective, Moragas sees growth and youth to be the country’s assets other than its people.
“Since I came for the first time, the Philippines has tripled its population. Nowadays, its economy is growing at about six per cent and the average age of its people is 23,” he says. Keeping this observation close to his chest, Moragas works towards increasing investments and involvements of Spanish companies in Philippine projects in infrastructure, energy, defence, and water. “Of course, I would also like to encourage a more profound knowledge of Spanish in the Philippines,” he cites something his ancestors did not do in their 333 years of Philippine colonisation.
In fact, he extended the first gesture. “Nag-aaral ako ngayon ng Pilipino [I am now studying Pilipino],” he proudly states. His vision of closer ties between the two countries is clear. He articulates it in his wish to be remembered as “someone who enhanced the friendship between Spain and the Philippines, improved the understanding between our peoples, and renewed the appreciation of our common cultural heritage.”
- Words Chit Lijauco
- Photography MJ Suayan
- Art Direction Monique Madsen
- Make-Up Johnson Estrella
- Hair Johnson Estrella
- Location Palacio de Memoria