New British ambassador knows his Tagalog, Twitter, and football

Why the new British ambassador is well suited for the Philippines

HOW'S YOUR TAGALOG? The new British Ambassador learned conversational Tagalog in just 5 months. All photos courtesy of UK in the Philippines.

MANILA, Philippines – New British ambassador Asif Ahmad has been here in the Philippines for only a couple of months, but he’s already creating buzz in the media and on the Internet.

He’s active on the social networking site Twitter and surprising many Filipinos when it comes to speaking Tagalog.

Ahmad has been to the Philippines a couple of times prior to his appointment as ambassador. First, as director for Asia, in charge of UK Trade and Investment, and later as the head of the team in London that covers Britain’s foreign policy interests in Southeast Asian countries, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. 

During his second visit, Ahmad noted how the UK’s experiences with conflict in Northern Ireland could help solve the crisis in Mindanao. This led to his recommendation for the UK’s inclusion to the International Contact Group that observes the negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. 

“Nothing will give me more pleasure than to have the agreement signed by Christmas,” Ahmad said. “Somehow, it feels like a personal career achievement for me as well.”

Getting into Twitter

When he arrived in Manila in late July, the ambassador tweeted:

Even before he arrived in Manila, Ahmad has been following Filipino media personalities and notable politicians on Twitter to help him get to know more his next country of assignment.

Ahmad joined Twitter while he was assigned in Bangkok in 2010. He said he wanted to be more accessible to the British community in Thailand so he set up the account. In just a short while, he saw how social media can be of great use during disasters.

One night, he was watching the BBC when a flash report of an earthquake in northern Thailand had him working at 10:30 in the evening. “I knew that with that kind of report on the BBC, the home office would be calling me any minute,” Ahmad recalled.

He immediately got on Twitter to check and ask people for details. And right before the home office called, he was able to confirm through his friends and some people on the ground that the earthquake actually happened in northeast Burma.


Aside from English, Ahmad can speak French, which he learned in school, Bengali, Kutchi, Urdu, Farsi, and now, even Tagalog.

FORMALITIES. Ahmad (R) presenting his credentials to President Benigno Aquino Jr.

Taught by a Filipina in the UK, Ahmad said he thinks his Filipino may have gotten worse when he came to Manila as everyone speaks to him in English. However, the ambassador seems to be more proficient than most of us.

One ordinary day at the embassy, members of the Filipino staff were thinking out loud for the Tagalog word for “meeting.” It was Ambassador Ahmad who put them out of their misery by giving them the answer: “pulong.”

Since Ahmad looks every bit foreign, Filipinos around him who don’t know of his linguistic prowess tend to talk in Tagalog even when he’s around, thinking that he would not understand.

At a recent reception, Ahmad said “hi” and shook the hand of a woman he had met before in one of his visits to Manila. As he turned away, the woman whispered to her companion: “Sino s’ya?” and the ambassador doubled back, telling her “Nakalimutan mo ako.” This gave the woman a bit of a shock and a laugh.


“We have identified a number of countries as emerging powers and the Philippines is one of them,” Ahmad said. This means the UK sees the Philippines not just as an emerging economy, but a nation that has the propensity to become powerful on the global stage.

Today the UK remains to be the Philippines’ biggest investor from Europe. “But we are not complacent,” said Ahmad. “There is always room for improvement, for more engagement.”

In Thailand, where Ahmad was posted prior to the Philippines, he was able to convince Thai investors to put their money in a British steel manufacturing plant which turned out to be the biggest investment in the UK.

He said he wishes to generate high level investments from the Philippines to the UK as well. “If Thailand can do it, I can’t see any reason why we can’t have someone from the Philippines doing it,” Ahmad added.


Aside from his official functions as ambassador which include promoting trade and making sure that the relationship between the UK and the Philippines remains healthy, Ahmad said he has another mission in the country: to promote the world’s greatest sport – football.

GOAL. The Ambassador at the International Labor Organization's Football event against child labor.

“Basketball is a pretty good sport but I think Filipinos should also get to know football,” Ahmad said. The Liverpool fan shared he has even talked about football with President Benigno Aquino III, noting how the Azkals are actually doing a great job.

UK in the Philippines

Ahmad is also keen on increasing people-to-people relations. Consistent with this, the UK-Philippines friendship celebrations have been extended to 5 months. Spanning October 2013 till February 2014, Ahmad and his team are going to be busy promoting British culture and businesses in Manila.

GIFT OF READING. Ahmad at a recent book donation drive, reading to Filipino kids.

Ahmad’s stay in the Philippines has just begun. Having spent his early years in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Japan, China, Poland, and the former Soviet Union, and serving in Laos and Thailand as ambassador, he has yet to see what his home for the next 3-4 years has to offer.

He has been to Tagaytay where he has already shopped and haggled for mangosteens, but he hopes to see more places, to learn how to dive, and play some golf here as well. –

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