[FNPFP ORIGINAL] Musings of the Psychologically Unfit: On the Recruitment of Philippine Foreign Service Officers

Carlo Llana Santiago
Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In 1957, the Philippine Social Sciences and Humanities Review published an article by the visiting American professor Edward W. Mill entitled “The Personnel of Philippine Diplomacy.” The article dealt with various aspects on the nature and composition of the Philippine Foreign Service, which included a reflection on the ideal qualities of a Filipino diplomat. At the time, Professor Mill was an undeniable authority on the subject matter as he was the person primarily tasked by the US State Department in 1946 with the training of a select group of young Filipino professionals who would go on to form the officer core of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

For Professor Mill, there were five essential qualities needed, namely: character (integrity); intellectual training and excellence; readiness to serve (adaptability); effective and friendly personality; and devotion to country and people. Out of the five, Professor Mill gave due importance to character, which he considered as the “bed-rock quality for entrance into the diplomatic service.”Moreover, he pointed out that “a diplomat to be effective and respected must have personal integrity” since “every foreign affairs official bears with him not only his personal honor when he acts but the honor of his country.”

I revisit Professor Mill’s words, written more than half a century ago, for three reasons: first, to shed light into my relationship with my father, himself a retired diplomat, and why this relationship continues to have a profound influence on my professional choices; second, to make sense of my recent experience with the Foreign Service Officers Examination; and third, to assess the current recruitment policies of the Philippine Foreign Service. I believe that Professor Mill’s reflections on Philippine diplomacy, written during that crucial stage of its infancy, offer invaluable insight into a profession often muddled by bureaucratic procedures and politics.

My exposure to the world of diplomacy began with my father. Growing up, I never really thought much about what my father did, and even if I did, it wouldn’t make much sense. To the uninitiated, the diplomatic profession can be ambiguous, at best mysterious—what more to the mind of a child? But one thing clearly stood out in my young mind, and that was the dignified manner with which my father carried himself as he performed his official duties.

As I matured, so did my appreciation for my father and his profession. We weren’t rich, but we never lacked for anything either. The lifestyle my father provided for us was, for lack of a better term, different. Fortunately for my family, different for us was good. Exposure to different cultures, the thrill of newfound friends, travels to exotic locales—these were all part and parcel of the diplomatic lifestyle. Yet, as wonderful as all those experiences were, I realized that it was the gentle dignity I found in my father which became a source of overwhelming pride. It didn’t matter that other kids’ parents were richer or more influential. There was a certain prestige attached to the mysterious world of diplomacy, and my father was a part of that world. And so year after year, when it was time to get up in front of class to say my name and explain what my father does, I brimmed with pride at the knowledge that I was my father’s son.

Later on, as I became more familiar with my father’s story, I discovered that he had followed a rather unconventional path towards his eventual career. He passed the FSO Examinations in 1973, but because of his colorful activist record, he was deemed unfit by President Marcos’ martial law regime to become a Foreign Service Officer. Nevertheless, thirteen years and three kids later, after the fall of Marcos in 1986, my father was finally able to take his oath as an officer of the Philippine Foreign Service. This was a classic example of the saying “better late than never,” although in my father’s case, being “late” came with unfortunate consequences. He came into the service well into his forties, and alas, the mandatory retirement age of 65 caught up with him before he was able to reach the apex of any career diplomat’s professional journey: the appointment as Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary (although he had been eligible as he already attained the rank of Chief of Mission).

As disappointing as it was for my father, he retired from the Foreign Service with graceful ease. He never made a fanfare out of the thirteen years stolen from his career nor did he make a fuss when he played number two to blatantly unqualified political appointees. Unlike others who refuse to accept that their time has come, he walked away comfortable with the knowledge that he had done his part. He may not have been the most brilliant, and he certainly was not the most flamboyant, but those who knew him knew that he left behind a legacy of integrity. And for a man devoted to the concept of public service, that is more than anyone could ask for. He had his flaws—believe me, nothing is more disconcerting than for a son to realize his father’s professional shortcomings—but his integrity was unquestionable. In the end, and I think Professor Mill would agree, it was his character that made my father a true diplomat.

I guess it was no surprise then that as I entered adulthood, diplomacy remained at the back of my mind as a viable and respectable career option. But, I was not ready to be respectable, and I stayed away from diplomacy as far as possible. Besides, the concept of following in someone’s footsteps did not sit well with me, and so I found myself trying my luck in a number of odd jobs. On a whim, partly fueled by a testosterone-filled existentialist dilemma, I did eventually try my hand at the FSO Examinations. Unfortunately, filled with disdain for the virtues of preparation, I came out of that episode reeling from a rude awakening as the Pre-Qualifying Examinations reminded me that I am not a genius. A few years later, after marriage and fatherhood decided for me that I am, after all, ready to be respectable, I hurdled indecision and a general lack of commitment to finally take the FSO examinations seriously. I went back to school to take up graduate studies in history, and I began to enjoy reading and writing again. In 2011, I took the FSO Examinations and thus began my strange odyssey into the realm of the psychologically unfit.

My experience with the Examinations started off well enough. Having discovered the virtues of preparation, I was finally able to pass the Pre-Qualifying Examinations, and subsequently, the Preliminary Interview as well. The first signs of trouble came when word got around that only 9 people scored the requisite 75% and higher mark on the Written Examinations. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when it was announced that 26 examinees were cleared to go to the next stage, which was the Psychological Examinations. This was a departure from previous procedures because the Oral Examinations normally followed the Written, but due to past complications with the results of the Psychological Examinations (a topic for another article), the Board of Foreign Service Examinations (BFSE) decided to try something new. As for the reason why the number of examinees jumped from 9 to 26, it was because the BFSE decided that those who fell in between the 70-74.9% mark could still proceed with the Examinations provided that the composite grade of the Written and Oral Examinations is above 80% (there had been precedents for this scenario). I found out later on that I was among the 70-74.9% crowd, but I was not fazed since I have always felt that I would have been most comfortable during the Oral Examinations portion of the process.

So I started shifting my focus on the Orals, totally oblivious to what’s in store for me at the Philippine Mental Health Association. I guess there is a bit of poetic justice involved since my colleagues and I used to joke that normal people like us have no place in the DFA due to its prevalent culture of craziness. Well, the joke turned on us. Sometime in December 2011, I got a call from one of my colleagues saying that she got an email from the BFSE stating that she failed the Psychological Examinations and that because of this, future applications would no longer be accepted. Alarm bells rang in my head since I’ve worked with this colleague of mine for close to four years now, and I’ve always found her to be one of the most competent, reliable and—most important of all—sane person I’ve ever met. If she didn’t make the cut, then anyone and everyone is fair game. After our conversation, I promptly checked my email, and lo and behold, a letter from the BFSE was waiting for me. Dated 21 December 2011 and signed by Rafael E. Seguis, the letter unceremoniously stated that “based on the assessment of the Philippine Mental Health Association, [I did] not qualify to assume the duties and responsibilities of a Foreign Service Officer” and that “hence, the Board has decided not to allow [me] to proceed to the Oral Examinations and not to accept [my] application in the future (emphasis mine).”

As one could imagine, the contents of the letter did little to douse the flames of an enflamed imagination. What were the findings of the PMHA? Was I crazy? Should my wife know I’m crazy? Fortunately, I was working at the Foreign Service Institute, an attached agency of the DFA, and the head of the Institute also concurrently hold the position of Board Secretary of the BFSE. When the holidays passed and worked resumed, my colleagues and I (there were three FSI employees, out of four, who were deemed psychologically unfit for the 2011 examinations) decided to approach the Board Secretary for a clarification—not a petition—of the results of our Psychological Examinations. After much head scratching and laughter (it was so ridiculous, it was funny), it was explained to us that the BSFE had decided that certain personality traits were unacceptable to the Service. This decision was borne mainly as a reaction to a host of personnel and administrative problems the DFA was facing. Insubordination, embezzlement, sexual harassment—you name it, the Department’s got it. So the brilliant idea was to nip the problem in the bud, and those with undesirable personality traits were perpetually disqualified from the Service before they even had a chance to commit any disservice.

Now, such logic seems to fall short on so many levels. In the first place, why punish the many for the sins of the few? Or in our case, why perpetual disqualification for something a one day examination has determined we have a tendency to do? But be that as it may, my colleagues and I felt that we were not in the position to question the wisdom of the Board. If these seasoned veterans of diplomacy say that certain traits would be detrimental to the conduct of Philippine diplomacy, then so be it. So our attention shifted towards the contents of the findings of the PMHA, since our future careers could seriously suffer if word ever got around that we were deemed unfit by the PMHA.

After a couple of days, we were able to get an audience with the officer tasked with the unenviable job of entertaining the queries of the psychologically unfit. I had asked to see the findings of my examinations, but according to the officer, I was not allowed to see it, but he could instead verbally communicate the findings to me. Amused by the absurdity of it all, I readied my pen and paper and took down notes. My “strengths” involved superior cognitive potential and above average planning and ingenuity. My “weaknesses” were (1) noted tendencies to be ambivalent and indecisive, (2) preference to do things my own way, (3) impulsivity and (4) lack of interest in assuming leadership roles. The findings were, disappointingly, anticlimactic. I had expected fireworks. I was bracing to be told that I had homicidal tendencies or that I was a closet sexual predator. Those were the kind of personality traits that I was expecting the Board would deem unfit for the Foreign Service. And if those were the traits they found in me, then I could have had the option of contesting the findings or seeking treatment from a psychiatrist. But a preference to do things my own way? It just didn’t make much sense.

I failed to see the logic or reason behind the BFSE’s decision to slap a lifetime ban on someone with the same personality quirks as mine. As far as I know, the Foreign Service is not the military where every order must be followed to a T. I have always had the (apparently wrong) impression that diplomacy allowed for greater flexibility, that creativity and imagination could provide for greater solutions to diplomatic problems. Undoubtedly, I do prefer to do things my own way, but could this be because—as the results of my psychological examinations show—I have above average planning and ingenuity? Moreover, just because I tend to do things my own way does not mean I will break the rules just to do so. Maybe, what it just means is that I will find a better and simpler way of doing things. But at the end of the day, these are all just maybes and what ifs, because after all, that is what tendencies are.

Which brings me to another point, and that is to point out that these are all merely tendencies. Yes, my personality plays a big part in how I live my life, but I am not hostage to it. Time Magazine’s Bryan Walsh, in his article The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated), could well have been speaking for all of us psychologically unfit examinees when he explained that “while our temperaments may define us, that doesn't mean we're controlled by them—if we can find something or someone that motivates us to push beyond the boundaries of our nerves.”

Yes, I do show a lack of interest in taking up leadership roles, but only because as a person who prefers to do things my own way, I hesitate to tell others what to do. It does not necessarily mean that I have no leadership qualities or that I would run away from my professional responsibilities. Yes, I may be impulsive, and yes, I may be ambiguous and indecisive at times. But I have constantly pushed through the restrictions imposed by my personality because I know the personal and social values of doing so. This is why my whole experience with the FSO Examinations has left me frustrated and offended. Personalities and temperaments are not colored black or white. I refuse to be boxed into categories; more importantly, I refuse to believe that my professional path has been predetermined by my personality. But this, sadly, is exactly what the BFSE has done for me.

Yet, past all the personal frustrations and the spectacle of unsophisticated policies, the lingering question remains: what exactly is the Foreign Service looking for? Recent developments in our country’s foreign relations have put the spotlight on the quality of the men and women chosen to represent and protect our interests abroad. At present, our diplomats are expected to be negotiators, social workers, managers, economists, cultural representatives, and even as tour guides for visiting politicians, all rolled into one. Indeed, it is a dizzying array of responsibilities, and finding the right fit is not easy. Moreover, as foreign policy considerations vary, so too will the roles we expect our diplomats to play. Of course, it is easy enough to have a reactionary recruitment program. If the priority lies in economic diplomacy, then by all means step up efforts to recruit economists and trade experts.

Ultimately, however, we can never truly account for all the possible directions our foreign relations may take, and that is why the recruitment process must instead always take into account those timeless qualities desirable in all Filipino diplomats. For Professor Mill, five qualities clearly stood out. One can only hope that the FSO Examinations are designed in such a way that these five qualities—strength of character (integrity), intelligence, readiness to serve (adaptability), effective and friendly personality, and patriotism—are found in all Foreign Service Officers.

Intelligence is easy enough to detect, and the Prequalifying and Written Examinations do exactly just that. Personality, and to some extent also adaptability, can be ascertained by the Psychological Examination. Devotion to country is harder to test for, but the interview process and the Oral Examinations, while imperfect, can detect patriotism. But how does one measure integrity? How do you test for this most crucial component of diplomacy—the one Professor Mill referred to as its bedrock quality? Of course, there are ways, but I doubt a five-step examination process, while arduous and extensive, can truly reveal the strength of a man’s character, or the depth of his integrity. And therein lies the problem. The most shameful episodes associated with the Foreign Service—the high profile sexual harassment allegations, the embezzlement cases—would never have been committed by men and women of integrity.

It is therefore hard to comprehend the current policies of the BFSE. By having set a lifetime ban on those examinees whose personality traits have been deemed unfit for diplomatic service, the BFSE has essentially decided that personality ranks above all else. Never mind if an examinee lacks the proper intellectual training and excellence; he will have three tries to improve on his competencies anyway. Never mind that an examinee lacks composure or if his answers betray insufficient love for country; that may all change when he’s invited to take the Oral Examinations again the following year. Never mind that a person has no integrity, that he does not value his own personal honor, much less his country’s; the Examinations is not to equipped to find out anyway. But those who have a tendency to be ambiguous and impulsive, those who hesitate to take up a leadership role, those who prefer to do things their own way—aha! They can never ever hold the honor of being a member of the Philippine Foreign Service. Go figure.

My whole experience with the Examinations has led me to consider the following points. First, a little consistency won’t hurt. Arbitrary policies, regardless of its good intentions, will always do more harm than good. 2011 may at first seem to have been a year of innovations for the FSO Examinations, with all the changes that transpired, but in the end, it seemed to morph more into a year of confusion. Policies were reversed (the Orals precede the Psychological Examinations once again), and some of those unfortunate psychological misfits weren’t so unfortunate after all, as the BFSE have reconsidered the results of their psychological examinations and decided that they can reapply to be Foreign Service Officers. Such flip-flopping lowers the credibility of the BFSE and gives the impression that examinees are being turned into guinea pigs.

Second, transparency should be the hallmark of the examination process. The current administration prides itself in its zeal for transparency, and the BFSE should take heed. If the selection process for one of the highest positions of the land—the Chief Justice of the Philippines—was conducted in a very public and transparent manner, then certainly, the same could be done for the FSO Examinations. One of my colleagues had gone to the PMHA to clarify why exactly she was assessed unfit to be a Foreign Service Officer, as her letter had stated, but the PMHA made it clear to her that the assessment did not come from their end. All they did was forward the findings of her psychological examinations; according to the PMHA, it was the BFSE who made the assessment. Either way, my colleagues and I were fortunate since we had access to all the latest rumors and news about the Examinations. Others, however, were not so lucky. One examinee was a nineteen-year old fresh graduate whose tears flowed freely upon realizing that her lifelong dream of becoming a diplomat was to remain a dream. I only wish that you could read this, or at least be informed of the mindset that prevails within the BFSE, so that you will know, contrary to the letter you had received, that there is nothing wrong with you. Your personality quirks are just that, and no amount of psychiatric jargon can mask the undeniable fact that you were just a victim of unsophisticated thinking.

Which brings me to my last point, which is a plea for a little sophistication. The recruitment process is undoubtedly complicated, but I had expected more from my father’s colleagues. In their attempts to streamline the process, to safeguard their profession from unwanted interlopers, they have allowed their own biases to cloud their decisions. The reasons used to perpetually disqualify certain people with undesirable personality traits may seem logical when viewed with their own personal notions of diplomacy, but seen from afar, guided by the philosophical underpinnings of the diplomatic profession itself, their decisions just seem, well, a tad unsophisticated.

In the end, however, these are all just musings of the psychologically unfit. The search for qualified men and women who would continue to uphold the dignity and traditions of the Philippine Foreign Service must continue. As Professor Mill poignantly pointed out, “men (and women) of such rigid standards are not easy to find. Yet the sights must be set, and the search must go on, unending, if the national interest is to be served.” As for me, my strange odyssey into the fantastic world of diplomacy has come to an end. And while it may have not turned out the way I had expected it to, I have learned invaluable lessons along the way.

Looking back, it now seems clear why I was so drawn towards the world of diplomacy. I had wanted to become a diplomat because I had wanted to become the father to my sons the way my father was to me. But it wasn’t so much for the financial benefits, the adventures in faraway places (although it is definitely a plus), or even the prestige of representing one’s country and people. I had seen Philippine diplomacy up close, and I know it for what it is. It is hours of long hard work, often not of the glamorous kind. Rather, I remember the awe I felt as a child seeing my father play the role, and I desperately wanted the same for my children. I wanted them to be proud of their father, to hold their heads up high knowing they are their father’s sons. Now, I realize that my father’s profession was but a small part of my reverence for him; it was more of his character, his integrity as a person and as a father that made me feel an overwhelming sense of pride in being my father’s son. So now, as I turn my gaze to other fields, to other professions, I can’t help but wish the Examinations had been different, had offered more. Because more than anything else, I wanted the Examinations to test the strength of my character—I wanted to know if I was a man of integrity. Because in the end, whether as a diplomat or as a father, that is really what counts.

Carlo L. Santiago is a government researcher, specializing on Philippine diplomatic history. For more of his unofficial musings, see his personal blog at findingfelipe.wordpress.com.