British Ambassador Asif Ahmad goes the extra mile to connect with people.
Before he came to Manila, he studied the language with a Filipino teacher in London and watched some local films.
Now, the diligent student personally answers tweets, sometimes in broken Filipino.
“If you only speak English here, then you’re only listening with one ear,” Ahmad said.
He observed that while most people initially talk in English, “halfway through they switch to Tagalog. It gives you an insight into the culture.”
Ahmad said the move to learn Filipino has paid off.
“You can watch the news and TV; you can understand the jokes and nobody can keep anything secret from me,” he said.
Knowledge of the language also helped him tremendously when Britain joined “Yolanda” relief operations after the supertyphoon hit Leyte and neighboring provinces.
Ahmad had barely warmed his seat in Manila when it happened.
Ahmad recalled that at the height of relief operations, mobilization of vital resources around the Philippines prove difficult.
“We had no prior agreement (about British) defense forces coming here, or aid workers. We don’t have an established office. When you are doing things in a hurry, sometimes you are insensitive. I was able to talk to people as friends. The local people, too,” he said.
Ahmad’s personal supervision of British troop involvement in Yolanda relief operations also led to meetings with Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Emmanuel Bautista.
“We sent 1,300 military personnel, two ships, helicopters and aircraft,” said the ambassador. “At that time, we had no existing defense agreement with the Philippines. We started from zero. From that base, we ramped up our delivery. Because the Philippine government was so welcoming and facilitated the movement (of) our people, we can now (look) forward (to) better defense relationships.”
Committed to peace
The ambassador noted that Britain, as a member of the UN Security Council, is committed to peace and security throughout the world.
“There is no part of the world that we think is not important. Our role here is to make sure that tensions don’t arise, and that you have good defense capability. This is important (in) helping people when needed. You need transport aircraft and amphibians that can rapidly help people move from one place to another,” he explained. Apart from its involvement in Yolanda relief operations, Britain had also been helping the Philippines in the peace process in Mindanao since 2008.
“We are that close in reaching a comprehensive agreement with the Bangsamoro,” he said.
Before becoming ambassador, Ahmad has been visiting the Philippines for the past 10 years for trade and foreign policy commitments.
So his new appointment felt “like coming back to an old friend.”
Ahmad recently made new efforts to reach out again to Filipinos when he met with the media at the culmination of the Great British Festival at Bonifacio High Street.
The event was the highlight of a five-month promotion of food, culture, sports, exports, entertainment, trade, education and visa applications.
During the talk, it was established that Britain remains the Philippines’ largest investor from the European Union and was the biggest donor for Yolanda relief.
The embassy had also increased its staff to 200 and works with a bigger budget as part of efforts to enhance the strong ties between the Philippines and Britain.
To date, Ahmad’s office has already eliminated the queues for online appointments. It issues over 90 percent of the visa applications within a target of 15 days. Priority services can be had in three days.
“You book an appointment online. You know exactly when you’re going to be seen. You can sit in an air-conditioned room and wait for your turn. It’s done fairly quickly. You pay and you wait. You track on the website exactly how far we’ve got on the application,” he said.
Ahmad advised Filipinos interested in visiting his country to study Britain’s rules and regulations for employment since the country is open to skilled Filipino workers.
Ahmad stressed that Britain should not be regarded as “a place where people should look for large-scale migration. We don’t have an OFW intake program, but we love the Filipinos who are living and working in the UK now.”
He also clarified that his office is very prudent about inviting investors to the Philippines.
“It’s not to say that you should invest in this place or this industry. We explain as honestly as we can what the rules and regulations are; what are the advantages and difficulties. Through the British chamber and our trade office, we would like to show them around so they make up their own mind,” Ahmad explained.
He also noted that bilateral trade agreements should ultimately serve the interests of the consumers of the countries involved.
Asean countries, he pointed out, want to secure a trade agreement with the European Union, the largest integrated market in the world.
“If you’re dealing with one European country, you’re dealing with all of us. It’s in the interest of Philippine businesses to sell into the EU. (Likewise) in the interest of businesses who invest here, they can sell their goods and services not just here but also in Thailand, Malaysia and other Asean countries,” he said.
To date, Britain is at the stage of reinforcing an already strong relationship with the Philippines based on trade, mutual security interests, contacts and education.
“This is our story (of) engaging with Asia as a whole and the Philippines in particular,” Ahmad said.