‘Dad, what do you do…?’

Published November 3, 2019, 4:51 PM

by Ambassador Jose Abeto Zaide



Ambassador José Abeto Zaide

Ambassador José Abeto Zaide

One Sunday afternoon before the turn of the last century, a bright nine year old asked the question of a Philippine Ambassador. Putting down his Der Telegraf, the ambassador explained to his son a diplomat’s duties — his National Day receptions on June 12th, why the mother must be the gracious hostess at dinners, his occasional calls on the Foreign Office, his urgent despatches telexed or via the diplomatic pouch.

It was a brave, erudite effort for an accomplished ambassador, one of our last US State Department-trained diplomats in our young foreign service.  After patiently listening, the boy asked, “Yes, Dad… but are you a doctor? Are you an engineer?  Are you a teacher?  You must do something useful…?”

These fourth graders at International School, they know everything!  They compare notes, including what their fathers do for a living.  And if we cannot explain it to our sons and daughters in fourth grade, we should probably ask ourselves if what we do is really worth doing!


The quip about a diplomat being “an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country” is out of fashion in an age of open covenants and CNN communications.  (A small but serious nation cannot build its reputation on fibbing).

With barely one-half of one percent of the national budget, the Department of Foreign Affairs conducts Philippine intercourse with the rest-of-the-world.   DFA promotes our bilateral relations through 60 embassies abroad and fosters multilateral cooperation with groupings of states and international organizations.  In many cases, our envoys are concurrently accredited to several other posts.   Moreover, modern-day diplomacy requires that we pay equal attention to economics. Symbiotic commerce underpins and consolidates political goodwill.

Former President Fidel Ramos put it well, “All summitry is only up in the clouds, unless it translates into the marketplace.”  The Philippines even coined the term “economic diplomacy” in the Sixties. Our envoys may draw standing ovations and move mountains of resolutions at the UN, but the bottom line is the added value of the exercise to the Filipino people.  Because foreign affairs is only an extension of domestic affairs.

On top of its traditional diplomatic work, DFA carries two additional baggage  —  ODA and OFW.  Official Development Assistance augments the meager resources of a developing country struggling with the Sisyphean rock in the face of natural and man-made disasters.  Our diplomats have to be practiced at donor-beneficiary relationship, but without the begging bowl syndrome.  Unlike others, Filipino diplomats are also expected to be sensitive to the needs of Overseas Filipino Workers.

On my first foreign posting as vice consul in Hamburg, I admonished the sinner, fed the hungry, visited the imprisoned  —  practically all the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy…except to clothe the naked.   (We occasionally had to take visiting VIPs to the Reeperbahn,  that infamous den of iniquity where sailors and tourists go for entertainment).  There were times when I had to rise from the family dinner table to rush to the police precinct because Filipino seamen had gotten into bar brawls.  There were mornings when our kids would wake up and find stranded strangers sleeping on the couch.

As a consequence, we inoculated our children from diplomatic service, and they subconsciously prefer to live normal lives.

One time, Consul Florencio Dumapias and I were invited by Indonesian Consul General Sarni and Consul Tantomo to the priciest Japanese restaurant in Hamburg, the Daitokai.  After the main course and banter, towards dessert, we would discover the price of the hospitality.  Consul General Sarni began affably, “I wonder if you know Mr. Consul, that your seamen nearly killed your national hero…”

“What do you mean, Mr. Consul General?” Dumapias and I chorused.

“Filipino seamen,” Consul General Sarni delivered the coup de grace, “stabbed an Indonesian student named José Rizal Panduwinata…”  Rizal, as we all know, is honored not only by Filipinos but by the entire Malay race.

Fortunately, the Indonesian José Rizal would recover.   In memory of the original José Rizal and to keep the peace in Hamburg, we advised our respective communities to stay away from Reeperbahn until things cooled off.

While it is not our raison d’etre, serving our people abroad has become second-nature to us.  (We even have an acronym, “ATN,” for assistance-to-nationals). Cutting teeth in consular work and ATN cases was long before the Flor Contemplacion tragedy.  And my crew, and all foreign service officers who came before and after us, took ATN all in a day’s work.  It is curious to be told now by a vigilant press and by our political masters to do what we have always been doing.

On top of all the foregoing overload, with the passage of the oxymoronically-named “absentee vote,” our foreign service will preside over polls abroad that could possibly decide national elections.  As our former secretary of Foreign Affairs, Ka Blas F. Ople, put it, we are privileged “to serve in the universal and the international stage, as well as in the local and the parochial… and there is joy in both theaters.”


But that’s not the end of the story.  To return to our bright young fourth-grader, a generation after he asked his father, the ambassador, the question, he also took the foreign service exams  —  and topped it with a score that has not been equaled in the annals of our foreign service exams.

I congratulated him as a brand-new foreign service officer then, and asked if he, too, likes to do something that was “not useful”!   This promising diplomat has been on fast-track, was at the right elbow of two foreign secretaries, and is now a second generation ambassador himself.

Postscript:  Ambassador Evan Garcia was the 9-year old yearling who asked his father, Ambassador Delfin Garcia, that poser.  Evan is succeeded (followed) by his son Emil, who also passed the Foreign Service Officer’s exams and is the third generation diplomat in our Philippine Foreign Service.

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