Paalam, Pilipinas
LONDON EYE - Stephen Lillie (The Philippine Star) - June 27, 2013 - 12:00am

When I was appointed British Ambassador to the Philippines four years ago a colleague congratulated me. You will have a fantastic time – just don’t try to change anything, he said. Over the years, and in different capitals, similar advice has been given to different foreign ambassadors here.  But it is no longer right.

Such advice represents an old view of the Philippines – justified to some extent by history, but not by recent events. I have been fortunate to serve here at a time when the world has woken up to the Philippines.  Credit ratings have gone up along with the growth forecasts. New businesses are setting up, in different parts of the country, and not only in business process outsourcing.  The campaign – More fun in the Philippines – is not only catching eyes overseas: it is a statement of renewed Philippine pride in the country — as well as a testament to the Filipino people’s love of life.

In 2010 my own government made a strategic decision to increase engagement with the Philippines. This was part of a wider push to develop our relations with South East Asia. For lots of reasons – economic outlook, shared values, size of population, strategic location – this was clearly the right decision. Certainly there are many challenges that remain here, but old terms like the Sick Man of Asia are well beyond their use-by date.

The current Philippine administration and business leaders are showing that things can change here. Having received a strong report card in the mid-term elections, it will be important to consolidate what has been achieved. Transparency, fair competition and anti-corruption can become habits that are difficult to break, but it helps to have the right laws to underpin them and deliver us from temptation. Passing laws to entrench competition, counter protectionism, and drive forward infrastructure development should in my view be priorities for the next three years.

I also disagree with my colleague’s suggestion that diplomats cannot support this process.  Important steps like the signature of the UK-Philippine Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty and Extradition Treaty happened because of Diplomatic activism. So did British participation in the International Contact Group on the Mindanao peace process. Diplomatic advocacy by embassies and international organisations has also helped on issues like sin taxes, reproductive health, and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. These are decisions which were taken by the Philippine people through their elected reps.  But I supported these measures because they will help the country. Increasingly, international diplomacy is about friends sharing ideas that have worked in one country and will help achieve prosperity in another.

My colleague was still half right though. My family and I have had a fantastic time in the Philippines.   A modern-day ambassador ends up working most hours that God gives, but it’s immensely fulfilling.  And in between the work we have managed to see a good bit of this wonderful country: beaches, volcanoes, historic churches, tarsiers, whale sharks, coral reefs and islands. And at every turn we have enjoyed and been so grateful for the warm welcome of the Filipino people.

In conclusion, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to serve in the Philippines for almost four years. It was an extra honour to be a columnist for the Philippine STAR, and to make a small contribution to one of the Philippines’ great strengths – its ever vibrant media. I may be moving physically but I will remain in close contact with the Philippines and this region in my new role at the Foreign Office in London. This wonderful country will continue to have a special place on my desk , but above all in my heart.  Mabuhay ang Pilipinas!

(Stephen Lillie is the British Ambassador to the Philippines)


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