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Enrique Manalo: Son of envoys, now father of DFA

MANILA, Philippines – Enrique Manalo, 64, learned diplomacy at home.

Manalo, the Philippines' new top diplomat, is the son of two ambassadors. 

His late father, Armando, was ambassador to Belgium and political adviser of the Philippine Mission to the United Nations. He was also a journalist. 

His mother, Rosario, was the first female career diplomat of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). Like her husband, she also once served as ambassador to Belgium, among other posts like Sweden and France. Recently, she was elected rapporteur of a United Nations committee to stop discrimination against women.

In his first one-one-one interview since assuming his post, Manalo recounted to Rappler that his parents had the liveliest debates, even when he was a teenager.

"Sometimes over dinner, they would debate on certain issues, and I couldn't take sides, so I have to be neutral," Manalo said, laughing.

He even remembered them debating on the Middle East – yes, over dinner. "A friendly debate," he chuckled.

I asked Manalo, "And who would win?"

"Ha? Ah, tie," he said, as he broke into laughter again. 

Best lesson from his parents

In any case, his parents' exchanges allowed Manalo to "pick up and learn tidbits about various issues." 

Eventually, he said, "It begins to grow on you, and you naturally develop a curiosity to see how it really feels to be involved in it."

Still, he said the best thing he learned from his parents was not world news, but respecting other people's views.

"I think the best thing I could learn is to respect the opinions of others, to listen to others, as best as you can, even if you may not agree with them, and to try and see their perspective, so even if you don't agree, you might be able to find ways of reaching some kind of common ground," Manalo said.

Manalo is able to use these lessons at the DFA, where he has served for nearly 4 decades.

"Part of the work of a diplomat – really probably one of the hardest things – is to listen to the views of others, especially if you don't agree with them," Manalo said.

"And that's important in trying to come up with important ways of finding solutions to any problem," he added.

Top diplomat's credentials

Manalo, a University of the Philippines economics graduate who joined the DFA in 1979, has a compact 4-page list of credentials. This includes at least 12 long assignments abroad, and nearly two dozen international meetings, most of which he chaired.

Manalo served as the DFA's undersecretary for policy from August 2007 to February 2010, under then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

He got the same position from April 2016 to March 2017, which covered the administrations of then president Benigno Aquino III and current President Rodrigo Duterte. 

He, too, served as Philippine ambassador to the United Kingdom and head of the Philippine Mission to the European Union, among others. 

Like his parents, he also once became ambassador to Belgium. (There was "pressure" having this same assignment, he said, and "naturally you try and do your best," with his parents as models. "But in the end, each is his own.")

NEW LEADER. Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo heads the Department of Foreign Affairs after his predecessor, Perfecto Yasay Jr, was rejected by lawmakers. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

NEW LEADER. Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo heads the Department of Foreign Affairs after his predecessor, Perfecto Yasay Jr, was rejected by lawmakers.

Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

On Thursday, March 9, Manalo took his post as acting DFA secretary after his predecessor, lawyer Perfecto Yasay Jr, was rejected by the Commission on Appointments over citizenship issues.

'Impressive calmness'

How will Manalo lead the DFA?

Longtime DFA reporter Michaela del Callar, who has covered the DFA for more than a decade, wrote in GMA News Online that Manalo "is a quiet but seasoned diplomat who has dealt with diplomatic crises, including the South China Sea disputes, with impressive calmness." 

In our interview, I asked Manalo about this description of him. How does he deal with diplomatic crises?

Manalo said: "First, it's important to analyze the situation and see what are the available facts. It's not a wise idea to react immediately upon hearsay." 

"You try and get as much information as possible, before doing anything. Otherwise it might only make the situation worse," he said.

On dealing with different views, he said the key is "to keep on talking." 

"Anyone with a different view, I'm sure, has at heart the good of whatever position they're espousing," he said. "And I think you have to realize that."

"The key is to find out and build on where you can actually agree," Manalo said.

Manalo on key issues 

Given these general principles, I asked Manalo about the Philippines' position on key issues.  

On the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute, Manalo stressed the need "to avoid measures that would escalate tensions" in the disputed waters. 

On an independent foreign policy, he said, "The whole idea of this is that we are not dependent on any single country or any group of countries, but we will deal with countries on the basis of our interests, and also not at the expense of other partners."

On alleged human rights abuses, Manalo said: "Of course every country has human rights abuses, and it's the job of every government, especially the Philippines, to investigate them. But at the same time, the Philippines has done quite a lot to advance the cause of human rights for women, for children, and I think we are fully committed to all those conventions that we have signed."

On passports, he said the DFA will "try and avoid unnecessary delays" in issuing these travel documents. "In a few days, I'll be discussing with our people how we can further improve this," he said.

Message to his parents

In general, Manalo vowed a "very professional" DFA as he also promised a "very smooth transition" to his successor.

Manalo spoke of a "transition" as Malacañang considers him, a career diplomat, as a "transition man." 

Duterte eyes his defeated running mate, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, to head the DFA by May, even as DFA insiders wish Manalo will keep the DFA's highest post. 

Still, Manalo assured Filipinos that the DFA will protect the country and its people's interests. "And I can assure everyone that this is a guiding light in the DFA, especially while I'm here."

And what does he want to tell his ambassador-parents, now that he is secretary of foreign affairs?

The Philippines' top diplomat told Rappler he wants to thank his parents, Ambassadors Armando and Rosario Manalo, "for all the tips" they gave. 

"And I hope that I haven't disappointed them." – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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