Expat Life had the pleasure of sitting down with H.E. Mark Gooding the British Ambassador to Thailand and discuss his life, his first impressions of Thailand after six months of office, and his mission for the future.
He came to Thailand in early July 2021 so has had a difficult first six months coping with Covid, as everyone else in the world has. But for a diplomat whose role is to represent his country overseas and to speak for his nation to our hosts it has not been easy.
He is an accomplished linguist studying French and German at Oxford University, some Spanish and having served in China for some years, Mandarin and now of course, Thai. I was pleased to hear that he expects to be in Thailand for at least 4/5 years which certainly makes more sense than limiting his posting to the normal 3 years. He said that the Foreign Office makes the investment of giving you language training and so they encourage you to stay for a while.
I wanted to know more about the man and his origins so I started the conversation off with Where are you from in the UK, which city, where were you bought up and where did you study?
I was born and bought up in Guildford in Surrey and studied at Oxford and for all of my adult life, apart from when I have been posted overseas, I have been living in London which I now consider my home in the UK. I have just been back in the UK for a couple of weeks which I always enjoy.
May I ask you what your parents professions were?
My father was an RAF officer and my mother was a secretary. He has no other diplomats in his family.
What made you pursue a life in diplomacy?
As a teenager and in university I was very interested in politics, foreign affairs and languages which I studied in university so I was very keen to live and work overseas and be involved in international relations. The Foreign Office was a pretty obvious career choice and I count myself lucky that I got in and have been doing it now for 22 years.
Having studied languages at university I had a natural interest in foreign affairs and my first job was as a teacher in Sri Lanka. I then worked for a pharmaceutical company for about a year, then saw an application to join the Foreign Office and have been with them since. He is now 46 years old.
He has had two postings in China, one in Shanghai and another in Beijing. He was then appointed Deputy High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, a country dear to his heart because of his teaching experience there. He was Ambassador to Cambodia so he is well qualified and seems to have been destined for Thailand with its leading role in ASEAN.
This is my fifth overseas posting for the Foreign Office he said.
I have also done various roles for the government in London. Most recently I was the EU Director working on Brexit and 14 years ago I was Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary. Quite diverse, but mostly I have focussed on policy in Asia but also in Europe.
Education has become one of the UK’s biggest, and certainly the most successful exports to Thailand?
He acknowledged that fact and he said he has spoken to a number of the British school head teachers online as we have been locked down for most of the time but now restrictions are easing he hopes to visit and meet them all in person. With my past as a former teacher I am very keen at promoting education. It is very important to me and as a former student of languages I understand how important it is to teach English language learning.
How can we influence more Thais to speak English?
We discussed the role that the British Council had in assisting the Ministry of Education in Thailand in training their English language teachers under Dr. Teerakiat Jareonsettasin. The British Council also offer direct English language tuition quite extensively in Thailand but they also have various teacher training courses and online learning material for English language teachers as well as extensive free online resources for English learners of all ages which I support.
What I see here is a lot of enthusiasm, particularly from young people, for study opportunities overseas and in terms of English language overseas destinations the UK is the most popular, we have about 7,000 Thai students going to study at British universities every year. To enter a British university you have to have a sufficient level of English to study in the UK. But the Thai youth also have access to English language media, TV, films, arts and culture as well as the travel opportunities. Obviously English is widely spoken across the world so if you are going to do business it is normally the international language spoken between business people. The English language is really useful and young people usually understand that but learning any language is good for the brain as it is an excellent academic discipline.
Forgetting Covid what is your biggest challenge in Thailand so far?
It’s an interesting question as Covid has had such a dramatic effect on all our lives. I started the role at the beginning of July with restrictions in place, on meetings and travel, as well as the direct challenge of vaccinating the population. The challenge now is prioritisation. There are huge opportunities for the UK and Thailand both on the trade and economic side but also on the political and security side. As well of course as our services for British nationals and the huge demands on the embassy team so we need to try to manage those demands in the most sensible and effective way. But it is a very positive challenge and I am enjoying it and it is evident that that are many opportunities ahead.
Liz Truss’s recent visit illustrated the importance of maintaining and opening trade relations in SE Asia – how did it go?
It was excellent, obviously she is a fairly new Foreign Secretary, so for her to come to the Far East so early in her tenure shows the level of importance that she and the government attach to the region.
I was very happy that she came to Thailand in early November just after they had eased many of the travel restrictions so it really felt to me that we are back in business. We can start doing business again, seeking new opportunities in the future! She had a varied programme meeting the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and others. She attended various other events as well as the official opening of the new British Embassy. For me it was a really important moment for us to be more ambitious, more visible and really strengthen our ties with Thailand.
It is a difficult country to do business here isn’t it?
In terms of trade and business there are challenges but there are huge opportunities here. It is the second biggest economy in ASEAN so one of my priorities in the next few months will be to work with the British business community and the Thai government to identify what the barriers are to trade, where there are regulations or market access barriers and resolve those to make trade easier and therefore increase trade and commerce between our two countries.
Luckily you have a good Chairman at the BCCT in Chris Cracknell.
Yes we have, the British Chamber has been very helpful and I have a close relationship with the board. They have also been very helpful in the vaccination programme. I have met the board and will be attending their events in the future.
We agreed earlier this year to set up a new UK/Thailand Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO) at Ministerial level. This will be the forum for us to discuss how we can take the trading relationship forward. So for me working with BCCT to agree what the priorities are for British business and to make that forum a success is absolutely key.
Just how good is your Thai?
I was very lucky to be sent on a one year course, which was interrupted by Covid, which focussed on the job-related language, specifically detail on the political situation, economics and social issues. I am still having weekly lessons so I am still trying hard to master the language.
What do you and your partner most love about living in Thailand?
I have been to Thailand many times over previous years, both on business and personal trips. I first came in the 1990s as a student backpacker and travelled around for a month or so.
I love the nature, the countryside, the scenery. I found the history and culture fascinating then and now I work as a diplomat I see the opportunities for the UK and Thailand. The UK and SE Asia region generally has been very exciting. We visited many times and we were here for a few months before I started the job when there were fewer restrictions and we were able to travel around. But now things are starting to open up we are really looking forward to visiting more parts of the country. To make more Thai friends and visit new places so there is lots that we love about the country.
Any particular place that you took to so far?
Well I took an official trip to Chiang Mai a few weeks ago which I think is a wonderful city, fascinating history, with very beautiful countryside surrounding and nearby. Over the years I have been lucky to have travelled to the south to many of the resorts and beaches, to Sukhothai and Ayutthaya for the culture and history. But now I am living here permanently I am hoping to visit places ‘off the beaten track’ both in an official, but also a personal capacity.
Any hobbies or pastimes?
Travelling is a key interest discovering new places, people and cultures. I like most sports, swimming and I enjoy running in Lumphini Park in the mornings. I have a love for music, I play the piano and sing and am an enthusiastic member of the Royal Choral Society of London.
What are you most proud about the work of the embassy and your staff in 2021?
It has been a challenging year for all countries across the world due to Covid but we have continued to deliver services remotely to British nationals throughput the year. We made considerable progress on vaccinations and in easing travel restrictions.
On the policy side we did a lot of work on climate change before the climate change summit in the UK. COP 26 was a great success and we were pleased that Prayut Chan o cha the Thai Prime Minister attended the Glasgow conference and announced more ambitious emissions targets for Thailand. Earlier in the year, we agreed to establish the Joint Economic Trade Committee (JETCO). I was delighted to have the Foreign Secretary here last month. With all the travel restrictions we have had much less face to face contact so finishing the year on a high note having the Foreign Secretary here setting a direction for stronger cooperation in the future was a big step forward.
What is at the top of your agenda in 2022? Have you set some goals you really would like to fulfil before you leave Thailand?
Well a number of things actually. We have government to government regular meetings scheduled which means that we have a strategic dialogue between Foreign Office Ministers to discuss the wider bilateral relationship. Having just established the Joint Economic and Trade Committee we are intent on making that a great success. I think that there are three key areas of policy focus number. One would be on the economic side to deepen and strengthen the trade relationship but also to work more on priorities for future economic development. By that I mean science and technology, digital, education, financial services.
Secondly would be to ramp up our security cooperation between the two countries. We already do quite a lot of work on tackling organised crime and counter terrorism. I think that there is a lot more we can do on cyber security as well as maintaining our normal political dialogue.
Thirdly the UK has just become an ASEAN dialogue partner so we are looking to build our cooperation with ASEAN countries across the region so that would be an important area of work for us.
The other category is our Consular support, making sure that we deliver excellent support to British Nationals in need, particularly the most vulnerable. Obviously tourist numbers have been down for 2 years but when tourism numbers pick up we need to be prepared for different scenarios on the tourist side
Why did it take so long for the UK to accept Thai administered AZ vaccines?
Not at all, we like other countries opened up travel and our borders very cautiously. Everyone had to self isolate initially then we started recognising vaccines gradually. First those administered in the UK, then a few weeks later those from the US and EU, and then other countries. Thailand was recognised fairly quickly but this was always going to be a gradual process. Then sadly Thailand was on the red list for several weeks. One key issue is vaccine certification where we need to ensure that every country reaches the minimum certification standards in order to recognise vaccines administered there.
Why did the UK not provide vaccines for its nationals resident in Thailand like several other countries?
It was only very few countries that did, namely France and China. The UK along with many other countries lobbied hard for the Thai government to provide vaccinations for all residents regardless of nationality and based on vulnerability as we felt this was the best policy to pursue in order to protect our British residents. That is what we did in the UK and we felt that this was the most efficient policy worldwide. The Thai authorities have now rolled out a successful vaccination campaign, with over 16,000 British nationals receiving their vaccinations already.
Why are overseas pensions frozen when UK pensioners get an annual increase in line with inflation?
This is a long standing policy of successive British Governments overseen by the Department of Work and Pensions in the UK. While the British Embassy cannot change this policy, we do encourage people planning to retire in Thailand to make sure they take this issue into account as they plan their finances.
Residents in Thailand from various other countries are able to vote in their land of origin – British passport holders are not. There have been discussions about this back home but as yet no decision. Can you update us and take back our concerns along with all the others listed here?
British nationals overseas who have been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years can vote in British Parliamentary elections. There is currently a debate in the UK Parliament about potential changes to the 15 year limit, so watch this space…
Has it been finally decided what will happen to the statue of Queen Victoria?
The statue will be situated in a public park in a place of reverence and respect by the new owners of the site, Hong Kong Land and Central Patana. They realise the importance of the statue to the resident British community and visitors to Thailand.
Is it likely that we will ever purchase or build an alternative in Thailand?
In terms of are we ever likely to move we have only been in our current facility for a year so not in the immediate future but never say never. As a working environment it works well. It is different to what we had before in that it is not a big compound, but my job as the new Ambassador is to make it work.
We discussed the sentiment that was attached to the old British Embassy but the Ambassador replied that while the move took place before his arrival and he had never worked in the old compound, many people had mentioned this to him and he recognised the depth of sentiment. However, his job is to make the current situation work and I understood that.
I get what you are saying about perceptions and the actual Embassy presence is one part of that but to me visibility of an embassy is much more that that. When I look at my team we have about 150 staff in the embassy and what I want is for them to be out and about meeting people whether it is British community on our Consular side or decision makers, opinion leaders, business people and making sure that we know the people that are influential so we can build those ties between the UK and Thailand so being visible in that way is important but also being visible publicly through the media so I have done a number of media interviews so far. We are very active on social media – tens of thousands of people follow us on social media and you cannot get those people through an embassy door. So we need to make ourselves visible in other ways.
I am trying to get more top level ministerial visits to make sure people know who we are, where the opportunities are and how they can work with us.
Thank you Mark for finding time to talk to me and for being so frank.