He is as British as they come _ tall and lanky, loose suit, conservative necktie and wry sense of humour.
During his many job postings around the world, Mark Kent has picked up seven languages. He even tweets in Thai.
Growing up in a small village in Lincolnshire, next to an airfield, the young Mark Kent dreamed of becoming a pilot. When tests revealed he was colour blind, he went for the next best thing according to his small middle school career library _ law. Not only was he the first person in his family to go to university, he also gained entrance to one of the most prestigious _ Oxford.
This was where he learned the basic life skills that serve him well today as British Ambassador to Thailand.
"You're taught to ask why, never to make pre-suppositions. To evaluate, to look for reasons why, to explain your reasons." His conversation and answers are well delineated and precise, often illustrated by numbered bullet points that reflect his logical train of thought from years of legal training.
He has spent 25 years in the diplomatic service, a career he entered as soon as he completed his post-graduate studies in European law on a scholarship at the University of Brussels. His career has taken him to many exotic countries, including Brazil where he worked on environmental issues in the Amazon, trade and investment in Mexico, and also Vietnam, to name a few.
One thing is for certain _ his type of career teaches people to adapt to new environments and immerse themselves in new cultures quickly, just as Mark had to shed his light tropical suit in Brazil for a heavy winter overcoat for his next posting in Brussels. Coming from the Amazon rainforest, he was then seated at negotiating tables for multilateral talks _ a whole different ball game.
"What you learn in negotiations is never to make pre-judgements, learn by experience," he explained, sharing his diplomatic skills.
"You have two ears and one mouth, so use them in that order. When you speak, ask a lot of questions. And try and get them to understand you _ communicate so that people understand you on your own, what's important to you. Look together to try to find a situation to make things better for you both. The only way you're going to have a successful negotiation is if you have something that satisfies you both.
"You have what is called your best alternative agreement, whether you're buying a piece of art or discussing a treaty for your country. There comes a point when you say, 'I'm better off not going with it'. Always explore new ways, keeping in mind people's basic interests, how to reconcile the interests at stake."
His responsibilities at each posting prepared him for his eventual role as ambassador. During his second stint in Belgium, he was attached to Nato in Mons where he was political advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander to Europe.
Back on home turf in London he was first a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry at time of the Kosovo conflict, possibly his toughest assignment to date, then subsequently, in 2007, he had to deal with immigration issues.
Not only has he picked up life skills from each posting, he has also picked up seven languages, though he hesitates to admit fluency in the more exotic of them. He knows O-Level German, French and Dutch from his time in Belgium, Spanish from his Mexico posting, Portuguese, Vietnamese (his first ambassador's post where he signed a strategic partnership of the highest level), and Thai.
And for the record, he also tweets in Thai from his Twitter profile @kentbkk, after studying the language for less than a year as part of his preparation for his current posting.
"If you talked to me about economics, I could say more than if you talked to me about flowers or cooking," he hastens to add about his Thai skills.
The upside of being a diplomat? The opportunity to visit interesting places and meet interesting people, "from royalty to business people and school children". The downside? "Cocktail parties," he is quick to answer. And spending time away from the family.
"My job is to make a difference, improve relations between Thailand and the UK," said the ambassador. "You only have seven days a week, you can't do everything."
He has already been spending an eventful month to punctuate his posting in Thailand, starting with the visit of British Foreign Secretary William Hague to Thailand, the followed by the visit of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to the United Kingdom.
This is on top of his usual embassy support for British tourists and residents in Thailand, and his responsibility to improve trade opportunities between the two countries. He gives great credit to the embassy's consular section which is perhaps one of the busiest in the world.
"They deal with some very sensitive personal issues like identifying bodies. You feel a great sense of sympathy and want to do your best to help. The issues you get really help people's lives _ they are immediate and emotional, not abstract like policy." He sees great potential for Thailand for the formation of the Asean Economic Community.
"Thailand has a very good basic infrastructure, you've got a skilled workforce, which is relevant for a number of industries. Thailand is part of the global supply chain. You saw that in the floods last year _ Thailand had to shut down and that affected the global supply chain, even the UK."
The UK is already talking with Thailand on how they can cooperate on improving English language skills to meet the challenges ahead.
"After all, we are the holder of the original trademark," he laughed. Through the British Council, language teachers will be brought over to Thailand. There is also talk of a tablet application for the British Council.
Strategic partnerships, improving the skilled workforce, enhancing technological know-how, expanding public-private partnerships, and financing large infrastructure projects _ these are just some of the possibilities for Thai-UK cooperation in the immediate future.
As ambassador, he still tries to keep his private life as normal as possible under the circumstances, though supermarket visits are no longer on the list. You might see him running in Lumpini Park, or visiting his Thai language school during weekends for his regular lessons.
If possible, he joins the school on their regular Thai-style day trips which usually include temples, markets and eating.
Favourite outings in Bangkok include trips on the river, and a visit to the tea room at Phaya Thai Palace.A recent family outing with his wife and daughter was to attend the premiere of Skyfall, the latest 007 film, which was for fun, but also tied in so well with the "Great" campaign to promote UK assets using the Olympics as a jumping-off point. Assets that include _ apart from James Bond _ education, the monarchy, museums, and world-famous landmarks.
"We also have secret weapons like the Premier League," he added, tongue in cheek _ Arsenal fans can discuss the future of Jack Wilshere with him on Twitter. You can even tweet in Thai.
About the author
- Writer: Usnisa Sukhsvasti
Position: Features Editor