Serving 180,000 in Hong Kong

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp

Mr. Noel Servigon Consul-General of the Consulate General of the Philippines Interview

Mr. Noel Servigon is not the first CG that Diplomat has interviewed who addressed his nationals as ‘clients’ – but he might be the one who carries the spirit furthest. Diplomat walked into a Consulate with doors wide open, no security check, and an open door to the inner offices visibly ajar. We knew that he was of a different breed of diplomat.

Once we sat down, he seemed to find our question about his open-door policy rather odd. “I still tend to believe…that God will secure us.”

To serve and protect

Biblical principles guide his mission. “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you. That’s what I always emphasize to my colleagues. The kind of service that we want to give to our constituency, our ‘clients’, should be the service which we expect if we were on the other side.”

Diplomat wasn’t the only one who found the extreme open-door policy unusual. Staff at the Consul General had to get used to some changes after Mr. Servigon arrived here in December 2011.

“I want to think more about myself as a protector of the interests of the Filipino workers here”

Apart from “revamping all the structures” to make the CG more welcoming, two TVs with Filipino channels were installed in the visa hall so people wouldn’t be as bored while waiting (Ed: CGs of all nations, take note).

Staff meetings are routinely held to share ideas (Diplomat witnessed one about to start during their visit). He waxes enthusiastic about the application of the latest queue management theories in practice. Management offices were turned over to the ‘Assistance to Nationals’ section, a department providing confidential advisory and assistance with
the vast range of problems any community of 180,000 would encounter. His office has continued to expand, providing legal and mental health support services for the Filipino workers here. Additionally, there are regular Cantonese classes and training sessions.

The Consulate theoretically is open Sunday to Friday. Sunday is the busiest work day and Friday is supposed to be substituted for the weekend day off. However, Mr. Servigon confided that the Friday was often a full work day as well.

“We want them to feel that they can come to the Consulate, not as an authority which will collect just all these fees or all these charges, but as a place where they can maybe find help”

In Hong Kong, he is a servant to his people, seeking every opportunity to help support this community.

A Mayor in Hong Kong

The Consulate occupies the entire 14th floor of United Centre and houses a team of 64 staff members who diligently serve a community of 180,000 Filipinos – about 160,000 domestic workers plus roughly 20,000 other nationals working in a diverse range of fields. The Consulate’s constituency is the same size as a small, autonomous, city government –and bigger than nine Filipino provinces.

The community is large enough to support three dedicated newspapers and a broad range of businesses including funds remittance, food specialty, telecommunications and much more. Of course the major airlines and many regional carriers fly here. San Miguel is almost a local brand given its history in Hong Kong.

Given the fact that every two years, the Filipino workers need to renew their employment contract and every five years, their passport at the consulate, the community is in the consulate on a regular basis. And this community knows their CG. Walking the streets of Hong Kong, everyone seems to know the Consul General. “That’s the problem!” Mr. Servigon let out a laugh at our question of how he manages. “I do not have a good memory in terms of names and faces.” He makes the effort to go to all the community centres and churches. He meets with all the group leaders, talks to his people, and checks to see if there is anything he can help with.

Given his impending departure, it is a valid question as to the permanency of his reforms. “If my successor will change it, I will not feel bad. Because this is the way I see it.” This seems to match his style of getting on with the work, and not fussing too much about the politics. Politics, and trade, mainstays of many consulates, seem to be not so much his thing.

Trade? Politics? Who me?

Queried on trade, he indicated a general willingness to help business people visit from Manila. While they hosted about six trade missions a year, he felt that many Filipino business people found Hong Kong a close-by, easy place to do business, suggesting they didn’t feel the need for too much assistance.

As for politics, this Consul General seems to have an aversion to the big political questions. While China-related questions were understandably deferred to Manila and Beijing, even Hong Kong questions seemed to be of little interest, evaded with a laugh and a smile.

Political work usually is done in the Capital…we communicate, but decisions are made in Manila…but in terms of welfare issues, labour issues, many of those are addressed directly at the Consulate.

Diplomat asked about his efforts regarding the black travel warning in place by the Hong Kong government since the Aug 23, 2010 Manila bus shooting, which states: “Residents should avoid all travel to the country.”Alice Wu, in the pages of the SCMP, as recently as August 26 of this year, endorsed the government’s position as the deadline to lodge cases against the government loomed. However, he didn’t seem to think it was a major deterrent to tourism, casually noting that the people still traveled to The Philippines. The numbers bear him out. New airline routes have opened and tourist travel remains steady at about 100,000 visits a year.

Regarding the domestic helpers’ call for a Zero Remittance Day, occurring a day after our interview, he was nonplussed. To be fair, it is unclear what the impact has been of that effort, a response to an unfolding pork-barrel scandal in the government. A recent move by the Hong Kong government, threatening to refuse visas to those who were seen as ‘extreme job-hoppers’, seemed of little interest.

In previous postings he had negotiated fishing rights in the Celebes Sea, enjoyed the Europe-Asia collision in Ankara and been involved in human rights trials in The Hague (his children’s favourite posting). But in Hong Kong, politics clearly took a backseat to serving his ‘clients’.

The one political issue he was very passionate about, that he claimed to regularly bring up with the Hong Kong government, was healthcare for domestic helpers.

Healthy Helpers the Priority

Health issues are on his ‘Urgent’ agenda, aiming to have hospitals providing health checks on Sundays– the only holiday for most of the Filipino workers here.

He was very clear that many helpers were struggling to get healthcare on Sundays due to long line-ups from congestion on the weekend holiday bottleneck. Some even perished from conditions that, if caught earlier, could have been treated. He claimed to raise the issue with the Hong Kong government whenever he could, but seemed to be having trouble getting traction.

He had invited Philippine based health insurance firms to visit the Consulate and, ideally in the future, set up a permanent presence in Hong Kong. As many helpers were responsible for their whole families, it makes sense for those firms to have a presence in Hong Kong so the principal decision maker could manage their family affairs.

Humble Man, humble beginnings

Mr. Servigon’s concern for the most humble of his flock perhaps has something to do with his upbringing. Compared to numerous diplomats Diplomat has interviewed, Mr. Servigon had a rather modest beginning.

Desperately teaching history part-time in a college to survive and continue his law studies, he was simply trying to get a “better job” when he decided to take the Foreign Service exam. “My income as a part-time teacher would not be enough to buy all the books I needed to finish my studies and to review for the bar exams.” The exam was not easy and the competition was extreme. “My father was a lawyer and a teacher. He passed many government exams. He told me before that there was only one exam he failed – the foreign service [exam].” But his son did not fail and in the blink of an eye, 25 years of service has gone by.

Now at the age of 50, a seasoned diplomat, he is the pride of his family. He has also been honoured in his hometown Iloilo. He was the the first career diplomat from his high school. In honour of this achievement, U.P. College Iloilo proudly awarded him the “most distinguished alumni” award last July. Accordingly, the opening of the first direct flights from Hong Kong to his hometown, which happened on his watch, was particularly poignant.

He may take one of those direct flights home, before heading for his next in-country assignment in Manila. His tour of duty in Hong Kong is almost up and he will be back in Manila for at least 2 years, exploring an uncharted area: the business end of a bureau desk.

Given his lack of interest in high politics and enthusiasm for human rights and serving his compatriots, he would be well used negotiating for the rights of domestic workers abroad or representing The Philippines in a multilateral rights body. In a month we’ll know where Mr. Servigon is heading – and wish him well.

Mr. Noel Servigon

Former Postings

  • 2011-2013, Hong Kong
  • 2009-2011, Manado, Indonesia East
  • 2007-2009, Abu Dhabi, UAE
  • 2002-2005, Hague, Netherlands
  • 1999-2002, Ankara, Turkey
  • 1991-1997, Vienna, Austria Education Background
  • Master of Public Management, U.P. Open University
  • Bachelor of Laws, U.P. Diliman
  • Bachelor of Arts (Political Science/History), U.P. Visayas