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Hugh Evans

British Ambassador to Laos

Part of UK in Laos

31st July 2019 Vientiane, Laos

Ambassador Hugh Evans Receives Honorary Doctorate Degree from University of Nottingham

Hugh Evans receives honorary doctorate degree from the University of Nottingham

On 28 July 2019, UK Ambassador to Laos Hugh Evans received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from the University of Nottingham for his dedication to and successes in the education sector in Lao PDR. He accepted his degree at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, with the following speech.

‘Prof. Graham Kendall, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, Provost and CEO, The University of Nottingham Malaysia

Prof. Nick Miles, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, University of Nottingham

Prof. Fon Sim Ong, Vice-Provost for Teaching and Learning

Prof. Deborah Hall, Vice-Provost for Research and Knowledge Exchange

Distinguished guests

Graduates of the chemical and engineering faculty.

Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you all for your very warm welcome (and to Prof. Fon Sim for her generous Oration!) and congratulations to the graduates on your achievement. It has been almost 40 years since I earned my last degree but I remember very well how much hard work and dedication it required. And, to the authorities of Nottingham University, let me express my sincere and humble thanks for the award of this honorary degree, not something I ever expected.

I understand that speeches by recipients of honorary degrees should serve to inform and inspire. I am not sure my remarks today will achieve that, not least, because Prof. Fon Sim has given such a generous and comprehensive Oration that I am not sure I have been left with too much to say! And I apologise if what follows may sound a little repetitive! Even so, I hope at least some of what I say can offer you some food for thought.

Still, I am sorry have to start with a confession to the graduates. I know nothing about your field of study! However, as you have already gleaned from my family history, the fact that I am addressing you today seems richly ironic.

Before I get into that, though, let me make a plea to all of you. If, in the years to come, you do not recall anything else about my presentation today, please remember just two words. “Never Underestimate”. Never underestimate what you can do; never underestimate what others can do for you; and never let others underestimate what you can do. Above all, and as I am sure you are well aware, never underestimate the power of educational opportunity to change lives. It has mine.

I am sure many of you had heroes when you were growing up – people you admired, even idolised. As a child of the 1960s, my heroes were the Beatles, four working class boys from Liverpool in northern England who revolutionised pop music. So, it was a treat for me to take my family to see a new movie called Yesterday. In this fictional film, a young musician discovers the world has forgotten who the Beatles were but he himself becomes world famous when he reacquaints people with their music. Afterwards my daughter commented that she had really enjoyed hearing those incredible songs again. Me too! They reminded me why the Beatles will always be my heroes.

Many of us also have heroes closer to home. As an only child, my mum and dad were my heroes. I come from a Welsh family. For generations, my ancestors had been coal miners. It was a hard life with little money. While my father was proud of his working class roots, he wanted to do – and be – something different. His family could not pay for him to attend university, so he applied for an apprenticeship with an oil company and went to study… you have guessed already…. chemical engineering. The educational opportunity transformed his life.

My dad would have been happy if I had become an engineer like him. But he wanted me to make my own choices. Though I liked science, my heart was more towards the arts. And I was a very opinionated teenager. I thought scientists were too concerned about dry facts, not enough about creativity. They lacked a sense of culture. One evening, my long- suffering father asked if I knew who Alexander Borodin was. Of course, I retorted, he was a famous 19th C Russian composer. Ah, he added, so you’ll know he also had a successful career as a chemist? I didn’t believe him. In those days, there was no Google search function. Proving my father wrong involved a time consuming visit to my local library. But, of course, dad was right – Borodin was a distinguished chemist as well as a gifted musician. He also championed higher education for women. It was an early lesson never to underestimate others.

I was the first in my family to go to university where I chose to study history and politics. Coming from a small town to London University, everyone I met appeared so sophisticated. Though I was nervous, my parents never ceased to encourage me. I was genuinely surprised when I graduated top of my class. My academic success inspired me to want to do a Master’s Degree in Political Science in the US. But I needed a Fulbright Scholarship to get there. My first application failed. My parents consoled and supported me. Have another go, they exhorted. I did – successfully this time.

I was on a roll. Back in the UK, I registered for a PhD in Asian history and spent a year in India. It was a life changing experience. I befriended so many outstanding Indian students. A high proportion came from poor families determined to make the most of their educational opportunities to better their lives. Their drive and sense of purpose left a permanent impression on me.

After leaving India, I had intended to complete my PhD and maybe pursue an academic life. One day, however, I spotted a job advert for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They wanted an analyst on Asian politics. I had the relevant skills but knew competition would be fierce. Again, mum and dad emboldened me. I got the job – beginning a long association with the British Diplomatic Service that continues to this day.

I enjoyed being an analyst, preparing briefing papers for senior British policy makers. Those were exciting times internationally, with the end of the Cold War and the rise of China among other profound changes. As Professor Fon Sim noted in her remarks, I was also later sent on loan as an Asia analyst to the US Government.

It was while I was in Washington that I began to consider a different career. Though my specialist role was rewarding, I noticed diplomats could be deployed to different countries to do a variety of jobs. It all seemed so exciting. I was ready for a change and applied to transfer to what we call our generalist service. I was rejected. It was a huge blow. Though recognising I had many qualities to be a diplomat, the interview panel was not sure I could adapt to a lifestyle that could involve serving in tough places around the world. Sadly, my father had passed away by then but my mother urged me not to give up. Don’t let others underestimate you. Have another go, she urged. I did and have been a generalist diplomat for over 20 years.

I sometimes wonder what I would say if I met those sceptical panel members again. My heroes, the Beatles, may offer some inspiration. In their last film, called Let It Be, the group famously conduct an impromptu performance on the roof of their music studio. With adoring fans gathering to listen in the streets below, John Lennon – half jokingly but with some humility – asks, after they have stopped playing, whether the group “has passed the audition”. So, after completing six consecutive assignments at different British Embassies on four continents, maybe I would ask the panel if I too had now passed the audition. I hope so.

As a diplomat, I’ve certainly had an amazing life, with experiences that range from fascinating to terrifying and everything in between. In Kenya, as head of the political and public affairs team, I organised a tour by the Manchester United junior football team, which captured the imagination of that soccer mad nation. In Sudan, I was acting ambassador when a hostile crowd surrounded the Embassy building. I can tell you I breathed a sigh of relief when we managed to defuse the situation and persuade the protesters to disperse!

In Russia, where I was chief operating officer for the UK diplomatic network, I helped oversee the refurbishment of the impressive British Ambassador’s Residence, just across the river from the Kremlin, the seat of the Russian government. The story goes that the former Soviet ruler, Joseph Stalin, was irritated to look out of his office window and see the British flag flying nearby. He tried to get us out. Yet, more than 80 years later, the UK is still the proud owner of that magnificent building.

More recently, as head of the British consulate in northern Iraq, I witnessed the spread of the militant Islamic State group as it threatened to overrun the region. Fortunately, it never did. But it was also in Iraq that I was reminded never to underestimate the power of education to change lives. For decades, northern Iraq had been isolated from the world. However, with the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, in 2003, the regional government set up five universities where none existed before. It then sponsored hundreds of students to study abroad for advanced degrees so that they could staff the new institutions when they came back. I was thrilled that we persuaded 80% of those students to choose the UK for their studies. And I saw first-hand how education opened up huge opportunities for a new generation – just like all of you.

So, it was perhaps no surprise, when I became British Ambassador to Laos – a country also isolated for a long time – that education should again be a top priority. My efforts have focused on building a long-term collaboration with the Lao Education Ministry, strengthening English language training in the country, and seeking to make the UK a partner of choice in Laos’ emerging higher education sector.

During my time, we have also encouraged several leading UK educational brands to enter the Lao market. One is the Royal Academy of Dance, the world’s premier ballet teaching organisation. With an RAD programme in the Lao capital, Vientiane, talented young Lao dancers now have a pathway to a professional career.

I am especially proud, though, of my role in encouraging Nottingham – through this campus – to be the first Western university to set up any kind of presence in Laos. Now, as Ambassador, I’m always happy to claim personal credit for success. However, deep down, I know that setting up the Nottingham University facility in Laos would not have been possible without the commitment and perseverance of others. Among them are my extraordinary Embassy team; Panyathip School and its visionary founder Ms Bay as Nottingham’s local partner, and the Lao Education Minister, Madame Sengdeuane Lachantaboun and her colleagues. But, not least of course, has been the dedication of Nottingham staff, particularly Professor Graham and colleagues both here in Kuala Lumpur and in the UK. I can admit now that there were times when I feared the project would not succeed. Yet, once again, I have been reminded never to underestimate others. And listening to the Vice Chancellor describe the extraordinary growth in student numbers at Nottingham’s KL campus – from 80 students 20 years ago to 5000 today – I believe more strongly than ever that the Nottingham facility in Laos can emulate that pace of growth in the years ahead.

In a few days’ time, I will step down as British Ambassador after four wonderful years. My chief regret is that my mum and dad, my heroes, did not live to see me take up my prestigious role, nor indeed to see me receive this very prestigious award today. I can just imagine how excited they would have been to see me in this elegant outfit, and my dad would certainly have enjoyed the spectacle of me addressing chemical engineers! My greatest joy today, though, is having my wife Nirmala and daughters Emily and Sophie to support me.

As a relic from the class of 1980 addressing the class of 2019, please let me conclude by reiterating my humble advice that you should never underestimate yourself or others; that you should always follow your heart; and that you should grab with both hands whatever interesting opportunities present themselves. And they will. You will also inevitably encounter setbacks along the way. As Prof. Miles mentioned earlier, Winston Churchill experienced many failures in his career but ended up not doing too badly. So, don’t let reversals deter or discourage you. You’ll never know what more you can achieve until you try.

Let me wish you all the best for a happy and fulfilling future and thank you for giving me such a patient hearing this morning.’

After the ceremony Pro Vice Chancellor Professor Graham Kendall stated: ‘in my time as Provost/CEO and the University of Nottingham Malaysia, and as a Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, the Panyathip International School/Laos project has been one of (if not the) highlights. Without Ambassador Hugh Evans’ significant contribution, help and support we would not have got to where we are today.’

Hugh Evans leaves his four year post as UK Ambassador to Lao PDR today, 31st July 2019.

About Hugh Evans

Mr Hugh Evans was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 2015. Mr Evans joined the FCO in 1985 and has covered a wide range of…

Mr Hugh Evans was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 2015. Mr Evans joined the FCO in 1985 and has covered a wide range of policy and management roles.

He spent his early career as an FCO Research Analyst working on South and South East Asia and was seconded to the US State Department as a regional expert on Asian affairs. He has since served overseas in Nairobi, Khartoum, Moscow and, most recently, Erbil, in northern Iraq.

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