1 August 2012 - If there is someone at foreign embassies who may be said to have the so-called institutional memory, it often would be the local hires-employees who are nationals or permanent residents of the host country. Professional diplomats and service attaches rotate in and out of the embassy after three or so years, but the locally-hired translators, service staff and drivers stay on. They work behind the scenes and outside the glitz and glamor of diplomatic life, but are the silent witnesses of a foreign service mission's ups and downs.
The Philippine foreign service is no stranger to this. It is said that the success of an embassy or consulate general partly depends on the competence of its local hires. Their knowledge and familiarity with local customs and culture, ability to speak the language and having the heart to serve are what enable Philippine diplomats to carry out their missions, particularly newly-arrived ones. Some local hires are not even Filipino permanent residents of the host country but the latter's nationals. It is no surprise that many of them figure prominently in this year's Department of Foreign Affairs' (DFA) list of loyalty awardees, some of even earning outstanding employee awards.
A stellar example of this is Ahmad bin Buyong, the long-time official driver of a long line of Philippine Ambassadors to Kuala Lumpur. Working at the Philippine Embassy since 1968, Hajji Ahmad (as people in the Embassy call him) is regarded as institution as old as the Embassy itself, as he served Yusof Abubakar, the country's first Ambassador to Malaysia, and his nine successors, including the incumbent one. He is a veritable source of historical information for Embassy personnel, as he has witnessed the changing landscape of Philippines-Malaysia relations, from the often tense years in the sixties to its renaissance during the Ramos-Mahathir period, to where it is now.
Born on July 3, 1947 in Kuala Lumpur, he came to work in the Embassy as a young man. After almost 45 years, three children, a score of grandchildren and nearing retirement, he remains the efficient, endearing and highly courteous man that present and former Embassy officers and staff have cherished. Going about his work in his quiet efficiency and a forever smiling demeanor, he at times regaled them with stories of years gone by, of then Prime Minister Mahathir's attendance at the Embassy's trade exhibits and all that. As driver, he knows more than the usual share of secrets - both official and personal - but is discreet and can be relied upon to keep others' confidence.
Hajji Ahmad has endeared himself to Embassy personnel, past and present, and epitomized the DFA credo of "service with a smile", that current Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia J. Eduardo Malaya nominated him early this year for the DFA outstanding employee award. Upon learning that he has not yet been in the country he has served all these years, the Ambassador also promised him that if he was selected for the award, he will receive it personally in Manila.
This moment came last July 26.
When confirmation was received that he was to be conferred the DFA Outstanding Employee award the following day in Manila (another Embassy staff, Faith Planas-Bautista, was also selected for the award), Embassy staff members immediately made arrangements for his plane ticket and other logistical concerns to enable him to be present at the awarding ceremony. Former Embassy officers and staff now based in Manila pooled together their time and resources to ensure that Hajji Ahmad will receive the best in Philippine hospitality during his stay, including looking after his spiritual requirements especially at this time of Ramadan. After all, this was his first time to visit the Philippines.
After a quick trip to the Malaysian Home Affairs Ministry for his passport (he did not have a passport all these years!) Hajji Ahmad left Wednesday midnight for Manila, where he was welcomed by former Embassy personnel at the airport. From there, he was taken to a serviced apartment and his residence for the next few days, before he went to the DFA for the award ceremonies.
He was the only local hire-and a foreigner at that-to receive the award personally this year.
When Hajji Ahmad, garbed in his batik, was called to the stage to receive the Outstanding Employee award, he received thunderous applause. Former Embassy officers and staff cheered for him, including former Ambassadors to Malaysia Jose Brilliantes (now Foreign Affairs Undersecretary, or Deputy Minister, for Special and Ocean Concerns) and Assistant Secretary Victoriano Lecaros of the DFA's Legislative Liaison Unit.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary (Minister) Albert F. del Rosario was all smiles when he handed Hajji Ahmad his award, and gamely posed with him for photos. "Thank you for your 44 years of faithful service," Secretary del Rosario told him.
He made the customary rounds of the DFA offices the next day, including a courtesy call on Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for Asia and Pacific Affairs Ma. Theresa Lazaro, the head of the "ASPAC" office which supervises the Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. He later had a tour of historical sites around Manila, prayed at a nearby mosque and was honored in an iftar dinner by grateful colleagues and friends.
Ahmad bin Buyong left for Kuala Lumpur after four days in the Philippines, with memories of a long-awaited "homecoming," made sweeter by the recognition he so richly deserves.