Expat Life in Thailand was grateful for the opportunity to connect with Dr. Sarah Taylor, Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, to ask her about her posting to Thailand in what has to be one of the most difficult periods in recent years – the COVID-19 virus.
How long have you been the Ambassador to Thailand?
I was named as Ambassador-designate to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia in November 2019, and arrived in Thailand with my husband and son on 9 January 2020.
Did you arrive to Thailand from home, or were you posted somewhere else before?
We came from Ottawa, Canada’s capital, where we had been for four years; before that, we were posted in Beijing from 2011-2015. I have also previously been posted in Beijing on one other occasion, as well as in Hong Kong and in Jakarta.
May we ask where are you born and brought up?
I was born in Ottawa and spent about half my childhood there. My father was also a diplomat, so we travelled abroad a lot when I was young. As a child, I lived with my parents in Paris twice and in Moscow.
At which age did you decide you wanted to become a diplomat?
Despite my family background, I didn’t initially want to become a diplomat. I studied archaeology at university, and was also quite involved in university politics. It was only as I was completing my graduate studies that I started to think about going in a different direction. So I decided to take a chance and sit the Canadian foreign service exam. It was open to university graduates in all fields, and luckily for me, I passed it.
Do you have more diplomats in your family?
Both my father and my mother were diplomats, my father in the Canadian foreign service and my mother in the British Commonwealth office. They met when they were posted to India, and were married in New Delhi. One of my sisters is also a diplomat at our foreign ministry, Global Affairs Canada, specialising in the Middle East. So you could say that we are a real diplomatic family.
How do you look at Thailand today? Have you had many obstacles in your way since you arrived?
Actually, I have found my arrival here easy. Everyone has been kind and helpful, and we have settled in well. It did take a bit of adapting going from January in Ottawa, with temperatures of -10 to -20 degrees, to +30-degree weather in Bangkok. I am also a little frustrated in my efforts to learn Thai. It’s a tough language, and so many people in Bangkok speak excellent English.
But of course the biggest obstacle is one we all face together, that of grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the most important tasks for a diplomat newly arrived at post is to meet people and build networks – something that has become much more difficult in this time of social distancing. It has also meant that I have to connect with many of my staff virtually, and to delay our travel plans.
I have learned how much can be done reasonably well at a distance and I am really proud of the Embassy staff for the way they have risen to the challenge. But, like many others, I do miss the human contact, and appreciate well that some of the most valuable parts of diplomacy aren’t meant to be done from a desktop. When meeting with Thai officials, sitting face-to-face with Canadian companies, visiting community projects supported by Canada – the understanding, appreciation, and the impact that comes with direct human contact cannot be reproduced virtually. So I am looking forward to a time when I can do all of those things.
With the current COVID-19 pandemic, how has Canada been affected?
Because of our open borders and extensive links with Asia and Europe, Canada began to record COVID-19 infections relatively early. Like Thailand, we had experience and systems that were strengthened through dealing with the 2002 SARS outbreak, but I think we were all taken aback by the severity and speed of this new virus.
In some ways, our experience has been similar to that of Thailand. Our less populated, less connected provinces were able to limit infections relatively quickly. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – our biggest cities with the most international connections — have been hardest hit, just like Bangkok and Phuket. Many Canadians are suffering economically.
Our response is also similar to that of Thailand. Our provincial governments have a lot of space to determine how best to respond to local outbreaks, with our federal government helping to frame national objectives and coordinate efforts. I am happy to say that, for the most part, this has been successful, with different parts of the country responding to their local conditions, and with a sense of unity across the country in facing the crisis together. Outbreaks in elder care facilities have been a particularly devastating challenge – one area where Canada and many other countries need to do much better.
We have started to turn the corner in Canada, but we still have a long way to go. Our economy was hit hard. Much as in Thailand, the sheer amount of fiscal stimulus has been unprecedented. We also need to remain vigilant to avoid – or at least minimise – a second wave. That’s a challenge for Canada, for Thailand and for all countries, that we will have to face together, on a global scale.
As both Canada and Thailand gradually reopen the economies, how will this affect the relations between the two countries?
Canada and Thailand have close and good bilateral relations – the pandemic did not change that. As we reopen on both sides, I am hoping that it will present further opportunities to bring our people and countries closer together.
Canada and Thailand have both temporarily halted the arrival of foreigners unless they fall within clearly defined categories. This has disrupted the plans of many people from both our countries – for example, Thai students who were eager to start their studies in Canada. The progressive reopening means that many people will be able to continue with previous plans – with adaptations, of course – including business travel and reunions with loved ones.
Besides people-to-people ties, our countries are strong trading partners. In ASEAN, Thailand is Canada’s second largest trading partner and has been for quite some time. Before the pandemic, 2020 was shaping up to be a great year for Canada-Thailand trade. For 2019, two-way trade between Canada and Thailand increased to $4.6 billion, up 7% from 2018. 2020 will be a difficult year for global trade, but I am determined not only to get bilateral trade back on track but to see it grow even more.
Despite the pandemic, Canadian companies based in Thailand have told me and my trade team that they are maintaining operations at close to normal levels. This is positive, and means that fewer workers are losing jobs. I see the post-pandemic recovery phase bringing new opportunities to enhance our relations. For instance, we are both agricultural producers for specific commodities; exports could help to strengthen food security amidst disrupted supply chains. Canada has many advanced e-learning institutions. As the world shifts to allow for remote work and learning, this is another area that holds great potential.
Do you see any similarities between your country and Thailand?
At first glance, I think it’s easy to overlook the similarities between our countries, but Thais and Canadians actually have a lot in common. Canada and Thailand are both multi-ethnic, pluralist countries and constitutional monarchies. We are both proud of our high-quality universal health care systems and our tradition of harbouring refugees fleeing conflict. Both are leaders in recognising LGBTQI rights. While our climates are very different, Canada and Thailand are both blessed with great bio-diversity, but also both quite vulnerable to climate change.
As a diplomat I am particularly struck by our similarities as middle powers committed to multilateralism. Our countries have similar orientations internationally on a range of global issues, whether it be advancing free trade, combatting climate change, or promoting gender equality. We are important stakeholders in the multilateral system and in the institutions that underpin it, including the United Nations, ASEAN, the WTO, and international financial institutions. We are also each geographically located near one of the world’s two big powers, the United States for Canada and China for Thailand. We both appreciate the need for balance and the importance of supporting multilateral approaches that ensure that our voices and interests are considered.
Do you have children? What age are they and where do they go to school?
I have a daughter, who is 18 and just finishing her last year of high school in Ottawa. As she only had one semester of school left to complete, she stayed behind in Canada when we came to Thailand – but we hope she will be able to join us here once international travel becomes possible again. My son is 16, and just completed Grade 10 at ISB. He only had a short time on campus before shifting over to distance learning due to the pandemic, so we very much hope he will be able to get to know the campus, teachers and students better in the coming school year.
How do you look upon your work here? How does an average day look like?
It’s hard to say what my “average” day is, especially with the impact of the pandemic. Following the announcement of the state of emergency, I have been working from home much more than usual, and of course I haven’t been able to travel outside Bangkok. The pandemic also saw a pause in diplomatic social events, including evening dinners and receptions. Despite that, my days are long, starting early to avoid traffic en route to the office, and often ending with evening phone calls to my headquarters in Ottawa. It has been a nice change to have more quiet evenings to spend at home with my family.
Even if I cannot speak of an average day, there are a few core elements to most days: working with my staff to making sure the Embassy is running smoothly and is serving Canadians; making and meeting outside contacts in many sectors; learning about and understanding Thailand; and advancing Canada-Thai relations, including through media, social media and public events.
As every Ambassador, I assume you have some goals you really would like to reach/fulfil before you leave Thailand?
I have some specific goals, such as successfully celebrating the 60th anniversary of Thai-Canada relations next year, increasing bilateral trade and investment, and enhancing cooperation with Thailand on global challenges like sustainable development, climate change, gender equality and regional security in the post-pandemic world. Ultimately, though, for me the biggest success will be if I have managed to make Thais more aware of Canada during my time here. Canada is not that well-known in Thailand, and I would like to change that.
Have you travelled to Thailand in the past?
I had visited Thailand several times before this posting, as a student and as a tourist. Since I arrived as Ambassador, I managed two short trips before the pandemic lockdown. One was to Chiang Mai, where Canada has an Honorary Consul. The other was to Sa Kaeo province, near the border with Cambodia, to watch an exercise to safely clear landmines.
Do you have a favourite destination in Thailand?
It’s too hard to choose! I love Chiang Mai, and have happy memories as a student of visiting Koh Phang Nan and also the Erawan Falls before many tourists went there – we had the falls to ourselves the whole time. I also enjoy exploring parts of Bangkok that have preserved some old buildings and neighbourhoods, like Chinatown. I am sure I will have many new favourites as I travel around the country more.
When you have a day off, what do you prefer to do? Do you have any special hobby?
Reading and swimming are my favourite forms of relaxation, along with Thai massage of course. My husband and son are more homebodies than I am. During the lockdown we spent a lot of time at home, but now I am itching to get out and see museums and interesting neighbourhoods in Bangkok.
How many of your countryfolk are living in Thailand? When and why did Thailand become a desirable destination for your people?
There were about 14,000 Canadians living or working in Thailand in 2019. According to the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports, there were over 274,000 visits by Canadians to Thailand in 2019 – quite a lot when you consider that Canada’s population is only 37 million.
Given its welcoming culture, historical and culinary richness, its geographic diversity and temperate climate, and its location in a dynamic region in the world, Thailand has understandably been a popular destination for Canadians for many years. Perhaps the main limitation is its distance from Canada – it takes several flights and a long time to get here! My sense is that the diversity of Canadians in Thailand has increased over time, with globalisation and wider awareness of all that Thailand has to offer.
Certainly, an important part of the credit for attracting Canadians to Thailand goes to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which opened an office in Toronto several years ago. They identified Canada as a high potential market for tourists, with a long average length of stay and strong purchasing power. It is also interesting to note that they see the tolerance and progressive elements of Thailand as something that potentially appeals to people who are conscious of where they travel and how their money in spent – be it ecotourists, those concerned with corporate responsibility or those from the LGBTQI community in Canada.
Does your country and Thailand have an exchange programme for students today?
Our regional development cooperation programme with ASEAN has a strong focus on education. Our Scholarships for Education Exchanges and Development initiative – the SEED programme – entered its second year in 2019, and saw significant growth in numbers. For Thailand, the first year saw 18 students come to Canada, and that rose to 24 students in 2019. The programme works through partnerships between Canadian and ASEAN post-secondary institutions; in 2019, between 49 ASEAN and 33 Canadian institutions.
With each round of the SEED programme, we try to make improvements to ensure that all ASEAN countries are able to participate equally and fully. At the end of 2019, we launched the third round of the scholarships, including a mid-career component for the first time, reflecting the importance of lifelong learning. We are excited about this new opportunity for young professionals from Thailand and other ASEAN countries to experience professional training in Canada.
My own first experiences of Asia were as a student – on exchanges to China, Japan and Korea, as well as fieldwork in Thailand. I can attest personally to the importance of such exchanges. They not only teach you about another country, they give you deep personal connections to those countries, and make you friends for life.
If you could choose your next destination, where would you like to go?
I feel like only just arrived, so it is too early to say. For now I want to focus all my attention on Thailand, as well as Cambodia and Laos, where I am also accredited.
Any memory from Thailand that you would like to share with us, an awkward situation, a real fun moment etc.?
My first time in Thailand was in the 1980s, when I spent five months here as a student, working on two archaeological excavations. One was in a small village near Kanchanaburi, and the other on the grounds of a monastery near Phanat Nikhom. They were both fascinating sites, and it was also an incredible opportunity to experience ordinary life in Thailand, away from the tourist sites. I remember heading out from Bangkok soon after I arrived, to the village of Ban Don Ta Phet. I had to get there on my own, taking a long-distance bus, a local bus and then a motorcycle taxi, speaking no Thai at all. It was a bit scary, but such a fantastic experience once I made it to the site. I have never forgotten those first impressions of Thailand.
Do you regularly meet up with your community?
The short answer is yes, and it is certainly one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.
When I arrived in Thailand, one of my first meetings was with the Executive of the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce. Soon after, I participated in two major CanCham events: a seminar on women in leadership, and the CanCham annual “Great Canadian BBQ”, held at the official residence. I was delighted to address the seminar, because the subject of women in leadership is close to my heart — from 2016 to 2019 I was “Champion for Women” at Canada’s foreign ministry. The BBQ was another early opportunity to meet fellow Canadians and Thais who are friends of Canada. It was a pleasure to welcome everyone to the residence for such a fun event.
Another great early opportunity was presenting graduation certificates to Canadian Bachelor of Education graduates from the University of Winnipeg who completed their degree through an internship at the Lertlah Schools here in Bangkok. Of course, the pandemic has limited in-person meetings, but I have continued to meet with members of the business and larger Canadian community virtually and, more recently, in person again (with appropriate physical distancing). I also try to reach out to Thais with connections to Canada – for example, by meeting recently with the Thai-Canada Alumni Association – and I plan to continue my outreach to both them and the Canadian community in the weeks ahead.