His Excellency Simon Featherstone, the British High Commissioner, arrived in KL 20 months ago to a rather damning complaint. “Prime Minister Najib had expressed disappointment at what he personally described as Britain’s ‘benign neglect of Malaysia’,” Featherstone explains carefully. It was not a good start.
“It had been over 17 years since a visit from a Prime Minister, and five years since a visit from a Cabinet minister,” he admits, “so my biggest challenge has been working to alter that ‘benign neglect’.”
This task has been one that to which this soft-spoken Oxford graduate has risen impressively, and in his two years here, Featherstone has already welcomed British Prime Minister David Cameron to these shores, as well as hosting all manner of Cabinet ministers. His piece de resistance, however, is to come in the Autumn when the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall – Will and Kate to those readers of gossip magazines – will be spending a few days here on their overseas Jubilee tour taken on behalf on the Queen.
“I feel that the period in which Malaysia felt neglected by Britain has been put behind us,” he remarks, “and I am really thrilled about that.”
Featherstone exudes an easy-going, open manner, but a few anecdotes are enough to reveal that this sedate exterior conceals a tenacity that has ensured his career is dotted with moments of which he can be exceedingly proud. The self-confessed highlight was his involvement in the lengthy, difficult process of handing Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997, something which was, he concedes, “quite challenging. It took a lot of patience.”
Featherstone’s connection with China goes back further than that extraordinary event though, as it was the location of his first overseas posting and a place he has found himself for two subsequent postings. He was recently in Shanghai and involved with preparing the British pavilion for the World Expo 2010 – another stressful role, as he joined the project when it was failing badly – and was based in Beijing as the Embassy Science Officer. He is, it seems, capable of turning his hand to anything the role of a diplomat demands. “I love the variety of this job,” he tells me with a smile, “and I love to travel. It’s a good combination.”
The passion for travel is perhaps hereditary. He was the only child in his family not born in some far-flung region of the globe as his parents travelled the world. “One brother was born in Iran, and the other was born in Calcutta,” he explains. “Each summer we would go in a van and travel all over Europe.”
He interest in law led him to a degree at Oxford University, but it was the “travel itch” that distracted him from his dreams of being a barrister. “I love the drama of the courtroom,” he explains, “but being an advocate for your country is not dissimilar from being an advocate in court. In diplomacy, you get the added element of being able to live and travel abroad.”
The young Featherstone completed the application to join the foreign service while taking his Finals, and was one of only 15 people out of a staggering 7,000 who made the cut. He hasn’t looked back, hitting the ground running with a role in London dealing with Afghanistan/Pakistan relations, before following his time in China with stints in Brussels and Switzerland.
In the early years, the family came along for the adventure, but the trio of Featherstone youngsters – now all in their 20s and back in the UK – are carving their own life paths in different directions to Dad. “My son works in retail, my daughter is studying languages, while the eldest works for a children’s charity in London,” he explains. An upcoming trip to the UK is planned, and while Simon looks forward to spending time with the family, he also anticipates other home comforts.
“I miss small things,” he explains. “Listening to Radio 4, the newspapers, the seasons… Living abroad increases the attraction of the UK.” It will most probably be his retirement location when that day comes, and he plans to “work on getting my golf handicap down! But I would also like to use the skills I have learnt in my career for something useful, perhaps charity or education work.”
Before that, however, there is much to be done in Malaysia, and a last posting in China is something he hopes will be within his reach before he settles down for a well-earned rest in his native country.
“The most common misconception about this job is that we ambassadors have a rather lazy lifestyle and don’t really do a lot for foreign relations.” The difference he has already made to Malaysia-British relations stands to contradict that. “I don’t often get time to put my feet up and sit around!”
The opportunities for putting his feet up will get even scarcer as local elections are on the horizon, as are various Olympic-themed events. Plus there is that small matter of arranging a Royal visit.
“You know I meant to apply for a lot of other jobs in my final year at University,” he muses thoughtfully, “but I was too busy. In the end this was the only job I applied for. I certainly haven’t regretted it.”
Source: The Expat July 2012
Click here for your free print subscription and free delivery of The Expat.
" ExpatGo welcomes and encourages comments, input, and divergent opinions. However, we kindly request that you use suitable language in your comments, and refrain from any sort of personal attack, hate speech, or disparaging rhetoric. Comments not in line with this are subject to removal from the site. "