The Queen’s ‘Asia Guy’


British Ambassador Stephen Lillie is a true fan of the Philippines. PHOTO BY EDWIN MULI


British Ambassador to the Philippines Stephen Lillie is exactly where he wants to be. He never wanted anything else but to become a diplomat. Never a doctor, a pilot or a superhero, like most young boys dream to be. Even as a child, the London born and bred envoy always had his eye on politics and government.

During a visit with The Manila Times editors at the Intramuros offices, Lillie passionately talked about going into Foreign Service for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

“I always wanted to be involved in jobs concerning foreign travel, and government and politics,” the Englishman began his story. His eyes focused solely on this path, he took up Modern Languages from the prestigious Oxford University in 1988 and immediately joined the Foreign Service upon graduation.

With lady luck on his side, his desire to travel to regions and nations that are extremely different from England in terms of culture, tradition—and yes, of course, the weather—his repeated postings in Asia were a dream come true. To find himself in the middle of developing societies so unlike the United Kingdom was both an eye opener and an enriching experience.

Since then, the ambassador happily related he has learned to enjoy being “an Asia person.” His very first Asian posting was to Hong Kong where he was tasked to learn Mandarin, which is a valuable skill he uses to this very day, especially when talking to taipans and Chinese diplomats.

Asian roundabout
From 1988 to 1989, Lillie was assigned as Assistant Desk Officer of the Middle East department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Thereafter, he spent 1989 to 1991 studying Mandarin in London and Hong Kong. As a Chinese-speaking officer, he was posted from 1992 to 1995 in Beijing as the Second, and eventually, First Secretary for Economic and Political Affairs.

After his stint in Beijing, Lillie went home to head the FCO’s European Union Department from 1996 to 1997. Then, from 1997 to 1998, he headed the organization’s Hong Kong Department; and from 1998 to 1999, served as Deputy Head of the China-Hong Kong Department.

Taking a break from foreign postings for three years in London, Lillie was again sent out to be Consul General in Guangzhou in China from 1999 to 2003, after which he was posted as Counselor for Economics and Director of Trade and Investment in New Delhi, India from 2003 to 2006.

Before arriving in Manila in 2009, which is his first assignment as ambassador, Lillie spent years as head of the Far Eastern Group in the Asia Pacific Directorate at the FCO in London.

Besides being Britain’s ambassador to Manila, he is also an envoy to Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.

Lillie is currently wrapping up his diplomatic tour of the Philippines. He will be leaving sometime in July, but quickly added he will remain “London’s Asia guy,” as Head of FCO’s Asia Pacific affairs.

“Hopefully, I will get the chance to visit the Philippines in that capacity. The next time you see me in Asia, I will be accompanying foreign secretaries somewhere in the region. But I shall continue to take very close interest in the Philippines,” he promised.

Filipino fan
Spending more than four years in a foreign land is never an easy feat, but Ambassador Lillie said the warmth and hospitality of the Filipinos made his posting to the country a truly memorable one.

“What we’ve really enjoyed about the Philippines, obviously, is that it’s such a friendly and welcoming country. I think it’s hard to think of a country where people make you feel as welcome as the Philippines. That’s definitely a big help when you’re a diplomat.”

As ambassador, his duties were not only limited to inking agreements, overlooking projects and monitoring the developments of the country and the region in general. The travel enthusiast was happily able to tour the country in both official and unofficial capacities.

One of Lillie’s most memorable trips outside Manila was when he swam with the butanding (whale shark) in Sorsogon. He said the experience tops all the other trips he, his wife and two sons, have had around the Philippines.

“People keep saying [they]went to Donsol and didn’t see any butanding or only saw one. But when we went, and we saw lots of them! They didn’t even know I was ambassador, so it wasn’t especially staged,” he joked.

‘Tourism ambassador’
As a tourist admiring Vigan’s beautiful churches to overseeing Britain’s noteworthy development programs in conflict-torn Mindanao, Lillie has indeed seen the best and the most problematic sides to the Philippines. But he believes the good outweighs the bad in the country, especially with the abundant blessings of nature.

“It’s a very diverse country,” he began. “You’ve got great beaches but you’ve [also]got the old churches. You’ve got the volcanoes.

“And there’s a lot more variety than the beaches and palm trees. When I went to Ilocos, I saw the old Spanish churches, and when I went to Abra, I saw the mountains. And then I went to Bukidnon, which is of course very different. It’s quite cool, which is nice for a Brit.”

Even as others tend to think Englishmen are not so adventurous with their food, Lillie happily shared he also embraced the Filipino’s love for eating. He singles out lechon and sinigang as his favorites, and even talked about a meal at Jollibee with his sons.

“There are a lot of great things here. I am very sad to leave,” he rounded up.

But with the way he talks about the Philippines, the friends Ambassador Stephen Lillie and his family have made here can be sure they will be back as often as they can. And with his expert and firsthand knowledge on the must-see places and experiences a traveler should have in the country, he will certainly continue to be a valuable ambassador of the Philippines, even as he ends this mission for The Queen.


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