By: Verne Maree
In honour of HM the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year, we were invited into Eden Hall, the traditional residence of the British High Commissioner. Verne Maree chatted with His Excellency Antony Phillipson and his charming wife Julie.
Where are you from and what brought you here?
A: I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. My dad’s civil engineering career took us north to Botswana, then to Kenya, Abu Dhabi, then Greece before we returned to the UK.
After such a fantastic childhood, I wanted a career the Foreign Office. But competition was fierce, and when I applied in 1993 they turned me down. Instead, I joined the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) – at least it sounded international!
Following a stint as Principal Private Secretary to the Secretary of State, I was seconded for four years to the Embassy in Washington, working on trade policy. After two years, luckily for me, my boss left at short notice and I bid for and got his job. I ended up looking after trade and transport, energy, environment, science and technology issues.
When we returned to London, though, I didn’t go back to the DTI – instead I went to the Prime Minister’s office, as his Private Secretary for Foreign Affairs. From there I went to the Foreign Office as head of the Iran Department, during which time they let me join permanently.
J: I was born in Surrey, but grew up in Yarm on Tees in the northeast of England. Antony and I met at Oxford, but only got together later through mutual friends. He was reading history, and I was doing languages – French and German. I took a year out to live in Germany and also spent a few months backpacking around Australia and New Zealand.
So I hadn’t done much travel, and when Antony told me a job had come up in Washington DC I was very keen. We brought our wedding forward a bit and tied the knot before we left, because it’s a lot easier to take up a foreign posting as a married couple.
Once there, I found a job in marketing, which was what I’d been doing in the UK, and our first two children Nicky (now 10) and Ethan (8) were born during our Washington years; Hamish (5) was born after our return to London
What are your first impressions of Singapore?
J: Wrongly, people tend to see it as a rather sterile stopping-off point on the way to Australia or other parts of Asia. I myself didn’t foresee how vibrant Singapore’s social and cultural life would be. If you want to go out, there is so much to do! What’s more, it’s so easy to meet people here, especially in our situation, and both the expat community and the local community have been so friendly and welcoming. It’s been a real delight.
A: It’s such an interesting and cosmopolitan society, and of course so safe: a wonderful place to live and a wonderful place to bring up children. Having a five-minute commute to the office is a dream, especially after having to leave our Kent home in the dark in the morning before the boys woke up and generally coming home only after they’d gone to bed.
I have to admit that I’m a little bit obsessed with just being able to be outside! I hate being cold, and there’s plenty of sunshine here; even when it rains, at least it’s warm.
Luckily, my job keeps me mainly in Singapore; I’m almost the only person I know who doesn’t travel much. That said, the past few weeks have been quite hectic; we’ve had the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary here, and I’ve had to go to the UK twice. I’m looking forward to being at home for a while.
How have the children settled?
A: Though it’s been a huge jump for the two older boys from their local village school in Kent, all three boys are extremely happy at Tanglin Trust School. It’s such a challenging and stimulating environment, with fantastic facilities, and it’s great that they’re learning some Mandarin. The boys do soccer practice on Saturdays, plus tennis and swimming lessons. They had swimming lessons in Kent, too, but an outdoor pool is very different!
Is living in Eden Hall as wonderful as it looks?
J: I pinch myself every morning when I walk down this Scarlett O’Hara staircase. Having come from an ordinary English family home, it’s an absolute privilege to live in a place with such a sense of history. The boys love having all this space to run around in. Even if it’s pouring down outside, they can play hide-and-seek in here and never find each other.
The drawback, if any, of it being a “representative property” that is more than just our home, is that I have had to learn not to come downstairs in my dressing gown!
Unlike many other ambassador’s residences, the house is not divided into public space downstairs and private quarters upstairs. We do have a private family sitting room upstairs, but the ballroom – one of the main entertainment spaces – is up there, too. During the day, we mainly sit downstairs in the Garden Room, which is less formal than the drawing room.
A: Eden Hall is a unique asset in Singapore – other embassies have gorgeous houses, but they don’t represent them the way Eden Hall represents Britain in Singapore. It’s been in our possession since the 1950s, and since Independence in 1965 it’s been the residence of British High Commissioners to Singapore.
It’s only right that we should make the most of this grand asset by opening it up and sharing it with as many people as possible. That’s why we hold so many events here – we can do anything from a little lunch for two in the Garden Room to the Queen’s Birthday Party: this year we had about a thousand guests.
Everyone celebrates their national day, I know, but no one does it quite like we do. The Ghurkha Pipes and Drums play, and at the end our Royal Navy Party brings the flag down in a sunset ceremony – it’s wonderful to do all that at the home of the High Commissioner.
Have you made any changes to the house?
J: Coming to an ambassadorial posting, all you bring with you is a few odds and ends; everything else was here, of course. Some of the furnishings were looking a bit tired and uninspiring, though, so a few weeks ago I asked Nindy Patel at Design Intervention for some help. We needed some new patterns and textures in the drawing room, and had to re-cover some cushions in the Garden Room that were really worn and dirty. Nindy quickly grasped that we had to do things as economically as possible – although we were using funds generated by doing events at the house, it’s still public money.
Just by shifting things around, for example bringing in the more Chinese items such as these inlaid cabinets and this screen into the drawing room, we have pulled the look together without having to buy new furniture. Also, by rearranging the Garden Room we now have a nice big seating area in the middle, rather than a huge vacant space. We found room for a table, too, where we can sit with a coffee and read the paper, or the boys can do some drawing.
For the reception hall, we brought this imposing table downstairs from the ballroom to replace the flimsy little one that was there; the enormous space really needed something substantial. It’s just been French-polished, and I think it looks gorgeous.
A: I’m very keen on using the house to showcase all aspects of Britain, including British artists. On the upstairs landing, for example, we have two pieces of China-inspired art by Royal Academy artist Paul Huxley. We’ve unfortunately just had to say goodbye to two fantastic pieces by Bob Matthews who was here on an exchange programme run by the British Council and the Singapore International Foundation. Another artist, Jane Walker, who once lived in Singapore but is now living in Phuket, has done a series of paintings inspired by the Diamond Jubilee. We displayed them at the Queen’s Birthday Party; we’ll also have them for a British Association gala dinner that we’re hosting on 8 June.
What with the London Olympics and HM the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, 2012 is a big year for Brits. What are you looking forward to?
A: In tandem with events in London on the weekend 2 to 5 June to celebrate Her Majesty’s 60 years on the throne, we’ll be supporting various events arranged here by the British Chamber of Commerce, the British Association, the British Club and the British Council.
That’s all leading up to the event of the year, the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in the autumn. I think they’re probably the most famous couple in the world – even Posh and Becks must agree that they’ve been eclipsed!
The royal couple will probably spend only a couple of days in Singapore, as part of a two-week trip that also includes Malaysia, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. But we will absolutely make the most of the time we have with them, working very closely with the Singapore authorities who will be hosting the visit.
“My role as High Commissioner is to represent Britain in all its forms, including the approximately 32,000 British expats who live here. I’m under no illusion that they sit around every day thinking: ‘We really need the High Commission.’ Nevertheless, we aim to be open, available and inclusive, and I’d hate to think that anyone feels ignored, or feels that we could be doing something better and is not telling us so. Unfortunately, I can’t change the fact that we don’t issue passports or visas here anymore.
I really wanted to come to Singapore, because I believe this country is fantastically important to the UK, not only as a trade and investment hub but also politically, especially regarding our security relationship, and those between the UK and other countries in this region.
In my first job as a head of mission, I’m enjoying the challenge of leading a big team of talented people of different nationalities; 75 percent of whom are locally engaged, and many of whom cover not only Singapore but the rest of Southeast Asia in diverse areas such as the economy, consular services, climate change and more.
The compelling narrative of the Foreign Office at this moment is that we have to build the new alliances that we need for the world we live in now, and Singapore is fundamentally important to that. Our main focus, to be honest, is what we call the “prosperity agenda”. The British economy is very clearly in a difficult place, so fixing the economy and returning to prosperity is the national security challenge. Developing our export markets is part of that; so the ability to use an established platform like Singapore to build out to other parts of Southeast Asia, and to China and India, has never been more important.
Britain is part of the historical fabric of Singapore, and our shared history gives us a unique relationship. That doesn’t mean we should expect any favours, however; we need to keep building and enhancing the relationship in order to serve our common priorities.
I feel really privileged to have done the jobs I’ve done, especially as I’ve never really had a career plan – as I said, I’ve ended up in the department I wanted. One day, I’d love to work in South Africa, because of the personal connection. But I really have no predetermined ideas as to what I want to do next; I’ll do whatever works for the family, and whatever works for me professionally.
So far, I’ve luckily been able to make those two things work. My last two jobs in London, first at Number 10 and then as head of the Iran department, were fantastic for me professionally, but they weren’t particularly easy on my family; even on weekends I was constantly glued to a BlackBerry. A job like this, which is both rewarding professionally and good for the family, is a fantastic privilege.”
“Fortunately, the attitude of the Foreign Service has changed from what it was a generation ago, when you were almost posted as a couple and the spouse was expected to be with her husband all the time.
As the mother of three young boys, they will always be my priority. Those cocktail hour receptions – six to eight o’clock – are the worst time to be away from home.
For business events, there’s no real need for me to be at Antony’s side, but I do like to attend the more social ones, especially British Club or British Association get-togethers. If I didn’t, I’d miss out on a lot of interesting stuff! I’ve recently joined the committee of the British Association, doing their website for them. I’m a Cub Leader at the school, and I play a lot of tennis. This last season, I played in the WITS League, which was a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to the next season already.
In the end, it’s up to me how involved I want to be. The events we host at Eden Hall are all organised at this end by our incredibly capable staff of five, and it’s the residence manager who deals with the events organisers and makes the necessary arrangements.
|A History of Eden Hall|
Built in 1904 for Ezekiel Saleh Manasseh on a four-and-a-half-acre plot that was previously part of a nutmeg plantation, Eden Hall has been described as a “minor masterpiece” of Edwardian architecture. Ezekiel, who was Jewish and born in Calcutta, also owned Goodwood Hall, which is now the Goodwood Park Hotel.
On completion of Eden Hall, Ezekiel rented it to a Mrs Campbell, who ran it as a boarding house. In 1916, he moved into the house with his bride, an English widow named Elsie Trilby Bath whose husband had been a mining engineer in Pahang, Malaysia, and her children Molly and Vivian.
Vivian Bath attended school in Australia and England, after which he returned to Eden Hall and joined the Singapore rubber-broking firm Lewis and Peate. As a wealthy expatriate, his social life revolved around horses and house parties. When war broke out, he joined the Singapore Volunteer Forces, and after the Fall of Singapore was shipped to Hokkaido, Japan, where he was made to work in a coal mine for the remainder of the war. Ezekiel Manasseh is said to have died in Changi Hospital as a prisoner of the Japanese.
During the Japanese Occupation, Eden Hall was used by the Japanese as an officers’ mess; fortunately, they took good care of the house and furniture. When Vivian returned to Singapore after the war, he regained possession of it. And before he retired to Australia in 1957, he sold the house for a nominal sum to the British Government, with the stipulation that a plaque be installed at the bottom of the flagpole that reads: “May the Union Jack fly here forever”. Since then, Eden Hall has been the residence of successive UK representatives in Singapore and, since 1965, of the High Commissioner.
What happened to Molly, one may ask? She married the eminent Dr Arthur Dickson Wright, surgeon to the British royal household; their daughter Clarissa is one of the Two Fat Ladies of the famous BBC TV cookery programme.
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