Rafik Mansour, US Chargé d'Affaires, Singapore
By Glenn van Zutphen
Since arriving in Singapore in July of last year, life for the new US Chargé d’Affaires, Rafik Mansour, has been anything but uneventful. Overseeing 23 agencies at the Embassy may seem enough to keep even the most dedicated of diplomats occupied, but the Mansour family have thrown themselves into their new life in Singapore with just as much fervor and enthusiasm.
I caught up with both Rafik and his wife, Nermine, who took time out of their busy schedules to join me on my Weekend Mornings show at Money FM, where they spoke of family life and adapting to their new adopted home.
So, new to Singapore, new to this posting here. How’s it all going?
RM: It’s going very well – you’re absolutely right, it’s always busy here. I’m glad to say that it’s good busy, but in Singapore, you don’t even have time to think about jet lag because there is always something going on. We are busy at the Embassy, we are busy as a family and we are incredibly fortunate. We are so thankful for being posted here; it’s a great place to live and work.
Nermine, you have a long and illustrious career yourself, but more recently you have been making sure the transition for your two lovely girls goes smoothly. How are they settling in after moving here from Armenia?
NM: We feel so blessed and I think it’s fair to say that ‘warmth of character’ and ‘efficiency’ exist together in one spot here. This is something that both I and the kids appreciate very much. So, I think we have had a smooth transition and we are very grateful for that.
There’s no language barrier, there’s an excellent public transportation system, so there are many advantages.
One simple thing we have noticed is that we are allowing the girls to eat street food here! We stop anywhere and grab a new and interesting dish to try all the time, and we never say ‘no’.
Rafik, you’ve been a diplomat for decades now and you’ve done this in other countries, are the challenges any different here in juggling your work with family life?
RM: Believe it or not, we have 23 government agencies at the Embassy. Naturally you have to trust and empower your people, and we are blessed to have a very strong team among those 23 agencies.
We cannot speak with the government of Singapore in 23 different languages, of course, and so we have a well-coordinated single US government position. So, we do focus on interagency collaboration, whether that is here at the US Embassy in Singapore, or in dealing with Washington with all the agencies that have an interest in the bilateral relationship.
This relationship is major league; we have 4,500 US companies who employ 200,000 people here in Singapore and the US is the largest foreign direct investor here at about a quarter trillion US dollars. The robust trade relationship we have, since the US is Singapore’s largest trading partner in services, also helps create over 200,000 jobs in the US.
This is on top of the very close bilateral security and military ties, and law enforcement cooperation. So, we have a very rich relationship, and yes, it keeps us very busy, but I am blessed to lead a fantastic team at the US Embassy in Singapore and at home I am blessed with a fantastic spouse and two lovely children. It’s wonderful to see the world through their eyes and through their first experience in Asia.
Nermine, when you were in Armenia and you first found out you were coming to Singapore, what was your first reaction?
NM: I was thrilled, honestly! Being a food and travel writer, Singapore is a dream destination; it’s a foodie paradise. We also read a lot about education standards here and I was so optimistic for the time the kids were going to be spending here.
I read, Nermine, that you have a lot to do with food diplomacy. Tell us a little about that.
NM: Food is the most evocative form of art. On the other hand, diplomacy is the art of forging bonds and building ties. So, in combining the two together, you get a very influential tool to advocate your interests, promote your culture and challenge stereotypes. So, in Armenia I had a very interesting experience – I volunteered with Syrian refugee women. A group of expats got together and we initiated a women empowerment program for refugee women. We figured that food was part of healing, integration and a way to make money, and I started to document immigrants’ and refugees’ food stories on my blog, Chez Nermine. I try to promote certain values through my stories; women empowerment, human empowerment and harmony.
And what have you seen so far with the Singapore food that you or the kids have liked?
NM: There are so many! Laksa, of course, all types of noodles. It’s difficult to say, because all of them have such remarkable flavors and very exciting combinations of flavor notes. I can’t even mention one dish I dislike! Singapore has an incredible vibrant and harmonious food scene that mirrors its unique existence.
Let’s back up a little… Tell us about how you guys met.
RM: We met at a Fulbright conference. I was serving as the Public Affairs Officer in Algiers and that year the Near Eastern Affairs Fulbright Conference was held in Cairo. Nermine was an Egyptian diplomat at the time, serving at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we met at this reception. So, conferences are occasionally useful for something!
What were your thoughts when you first started talking to Rafik, Nermine?
NM: He has a very interesting education and ethnic background, and I think I was attracted to that. He has a wonderful combination of values; he’s very passionate about what he’s doing, he believes in the power of diplomacy (I do too), and this was something very fundamental that brought us together.
Rafik, you went to the University of California, Irvine, and your folks are still there. How was it for you growing up in that environment and coming from a multi-ethnic background?
RM: For me, my upbringing reflected the American Dream. The American Dream is not about making as much money as you can; America is, simply put, the country that gives opportunity to all. So, if you work hard and you’re honest, the sky is the limit, regardless of your background and this is something I’ve lived myself in the US. Having moved there at the age of 15 from Egypt, I became a US citizen at the age of 21, and I became an American diplomat a couple of years later.
I would argue that the US is exceptional and among the many reasons for that is immigrants are welcome to live and prosper. So, I’m very proud of that, and this is why I left medical school to join the Foreign Service; there is no greater honor for an immigrant than to represent the country that he deems to be the greatest country on Earth in the international arena.
I’ve been doing this for a little over 20 years and for us, one great thing about being in Singapore and the girls going to the school they attend is that it’s incredibly international. I believe these girls will grow up truly colorblind and find human values and human qualities in everybody around them, and that’s very important for us.
Nermine, you also grew up in Egypt, you had your own life and career, then you both met and had two beautiful kids. How was your growing up experience?
NM: I grew up in Alexandria, which is very cosmopolitan, and this really prepared me to take advantage of the multiculturalism of the United States as I didn’t have any issue mingling and integrating. It really is a place where everyone has an opportunity to be a big success story, or even to be self-fulfilled, and this is something I always appreciated. We don’t take for granted that we are representing the United States, it’s a great honor for the entire family.
How about the girls? How do you carve out that family time?
RM: The morning is ruled by the school bus and a 6:40am pick-up dictates how your morning is going to be. Nermine spends time with the kids when they come back from school, maybe they’ll get an early dinner or spend some time on homework. Over the weekend, I try to spend some quality time with them and that could be some one on one time with each of the girls or we would go out as a family to the zoo. We are fortunate that Singapore caters to children so well, and there are so many educational and meaningful activities. It never feels like mindless entertainment!
NM: Quality time as a family when Rafik is home is important. We have a homemade breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, we take the girls sightseeing, or even mingle with people as this has a lot of value. You can tell that respect is a remarkable value, particularly towards senior citizens, which is something that we appreciate, so we want to immerse them as much as possible in the local culture because there is a lot to learn and grasp.
What are your goals and what do you hope to learn as a family during your time in Singapore?
NM: I would love that the girls embrace the values of ‘perseverance’ and ‘hard work’, especially as they are growing up to be young women. ‘Resilience’, too, and ‘respect to others’ regardless of their ethnic or religious background. These are wonderful values that are celebrated here.
RM: I think I would just add, ‘inclusion and diversity’, the ‘value of education’ and being an ‘open-minded and independent thinker’. I think absorbing these is excellent preparation for future young women as they one day embark on their professional journey, and you can never start young enough.
How about travel? Are you hoping to do some regional travel while you are here?
RM: I think our initial plan is to take full advantage of Singapore because, frankly, while it may only be the size of Manhattan, it has so much to offer. As a Chargé d’Affaires, I am a little limited in being able to leave Singapore, but our eventual goal is to take advantage of the island being an amazing hub for regional travel and discover Southeast Asia. There is so much to see in this region.
Rafik Mansour arrived in Singapore to begin his assignment as Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. of the Embassy of the United States of America on July 30, 2019. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, Mr. Mansour obtained a BS in Biology and a BA in French Literature from the University of California, Irvine. He received a Master’s degree in National Security Strategy from the National War College. He speaks Arabic, Russian, French, Italian and Creole.