Proudly Canadian. Introducing Mark McDowell, Canadian Ambassador in Myanmar.

After three years, our Canadian Ambassador in Myanmar is wrapping up his time with the foreign service here. I remember meeting Mark at the Canada Day celebrations in 2013 within weeks of him landing in Yangon. Mark is warm, welcoming, quirky and fun-loving. Basically, the antithesis of all the diplomats I had met in Asia thus far. Over the years he has represented us well and I’m proud to call him a friend. Tomorrow is Mark’s last day as our Ambassador and to honour that, I am posting parts of an interview that he kindly agreed to do with me. We cover a wide range of topics but I was mostly interested in Mark as an individual and leader for this blog. Some of the more political stuff is covered in an article that will run in next week’s Frontier magazine, which I’ll post once it runs.

Canadians, generally speaking are just so different from Burmese in just about every measuring stick I could use.  How do you in your job or DOES your job need you to bridge that and how does that happen?

The job of the Ambassador is very often to identify the similarities between the countries. I can think of a couple of reasons why Myanmar and Canada are the same. Let me talk about the country first and then the people.

Canada and Myanmar are both countries that are multicultural and multiracial. They are very geographically spread out and very regionalized and that’s why the whole issue of federalism is such a big interest here and that’s one thing that Canada has to offer. Leaders in Myanmar like Daw Aung Sang Su Kyi has specifically said that she thinks that Canada has a better understanding of the challenge of pulling a country together of very disparate elements and dispersed geography. So that’s one element plus there’s the economic aspect being a country that has a lot of natural resources and agricultural potential.

I’ll tell you the one thing I find Burmese and Canadians very similar on. You know they’re both painfully polite. Burmese people are excruciatingly polite, to the point that it is sometimes counter–productive just like Canadians. And modest. Self-effacing.

That’s so true! So when you think of your time here…do you think that have you changed?

Wow, that’s a good question. I think so. I tend to be an impatient person and I have become very patient. Not in interpersonal relations but I’m impatient at work and trying to get things done. But in terms of work, I’ve become more calm about things and when things don’t work the way you want, be more relaxed. It’s not such a disaster.

So what’s next for you?

I’m taking a break from the foreign service.  I have done the most interesting job and it’s time to do something else that will be different or fun or frightening.

One of the things I often get asked about is getting started in entrepreneurship, like “when am I ready” or “what should I be doing”. I always tell them to do what you’re afraid to do.  The thing that scares you is probably the most interesting. If it doesn’t scare you a little bit then it’s probably not the right opportunity.

The other advice I always give people in Canada, don’t be afraid to screw up once or twice, especially if you are young and don’t have the responsibilities of a family yet.

Oh, good one. I find it such a failure-intolerant place. Not just in Myanmar but Asia in general.

If you’re interested in statistics, this will be familiar….I’m trying to think what sports analogy to use


Okay, here’s one…you shouldn’t wait for the perfect shot and having an open net or you might wait the whole game, it’s better to just throw some shots on net and eventually one of them will go in. Here’s another statistic. If you know American football, here’s another one I always use. If you never throw an interception, you are not playing optimally. If you don’t have a failure, it means you’re not optimizing your level of risk. If you make money on every stock market deal you ever make, you’re being too cautious.

The US is still more risk tolerant than Canada but that’s because you have places like the Silicon Valley which are very, very risk tolerant because you can’t innovate without trying and you can’t try without failing.  If you were to look back to when you were 30, what would you tell yourself to have prepared for this role you just completed. Put us into the context of where you were at 30 first.

When I was 30, I was doing a PhD and I was starting to realize that I didn’t have the drive to…writing a thesis is like you have to go work by yourself and you have to sit down and write every day for 10 hours all by yourself. And I was starting to realize that I didn’t have the burning desire to write about something that would get me through that 10 or 20 months. I guess I wish I had taken on a job a little earlier because it would have been fun to try it and drop out of it earlier. Whereas getting into it at 32, I was a little bit financially trapped.  So that’s my advice to my earlier self.

Start earlier?

Well, my advice to most people is to start later but I started really late.

Fair enough. Tell me what your mornings look like in terms of when you wake up and before you get to the office. What’s going on?

Wow. I’m a terrible example in this! I’m exactly like my teenage son. I set my alarm clock and I wake up and I turn it off. And it’s only when my wife is like, you have to leave in 5 minutes, I get up and I shower in one minute. The kids and I share a cab and I’m like ‘I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming” as I’m putting on my pants and grabbing my socks and tie. I’m a terrible person in the morning and getting to the office at 8:30 is just an incredible challenge for me. And I think I would be much more productive if I could work from noon to midnight. And I basically go to the office and the whole morning I’m just trying to survive and get enough coffee into me and then maybe after lunch I can do productive work. If I decide to stay late and everyone’s left, that’s when I can really think. Or after dinner once the kids are asleep.  I can only do anything intelligent at night or on a plane or a train. I made a list once ranking the most conducive places to working and number 1 is train and number 2 is plane then there was cafe and office was down there like number 7 or 8.  Office on the weekend. Swimming pool, beach then office.

What is the best or most impactful thing that you have bought under $100 and why?

It’s funny, the first thing that came to my mind is that I have a windbreaker that I bought in 1995 in NY that I bought at Old Navy. I take it on every trip I go. Every time I go camping or hiking or whatever. I still have it. I had it for 20 years. It can’t be destroyed and because I travel a lot in tropical places, you don’t want something too warm but you want something to keep the rain off so it’s my invincibility cloak.

So, in the event of a zombie apocalypse I suppose you would take your windbreaker with you but what else would you do?

I’m a fairly systematic person. Although my personal habits can be chaotic but once I settle down, I’m very systematic. I go through, where can I ensure my security and then after security you’ve got to start thinking about water and food and what’s your long term survival plan. So in a zombie apocalypse, I would want to get myself in a very comfortable but safe place and then get some food and weapons and just hunker down. Then you have to gather information.

I ran the embassy in Bangkok during the tsunami so let me just think, that’s the equivalent of a zombie apocalypse.  First thing you’ve got to do is have to account for the safety of your people. Then the second thing is you’ve got to start getting labour power. There’s an apparent problem, you have to start thinking where am I going to get the staff and resources to deal with it. And at the same time you have to start go gather information about the problem which is going to be very imperfect at first. And then very shortly after, those two things start moving in parallel, you have to start sharing information. Although, in a zombie apocalypse, I wouldn’t share information, I’d look out for myself.

Though, maybe in a situation like that, you might want to start to build some coalitions…

Any last thoughts on Myanmar?

The thing that’s interested about Myanmar is because it was disconnected from globalization for so long, it’s still got a very unique character. Whereas other places, thirty years ago when I met them had a very unique character but now they are very similar to everywhere else in the world. Places like China, Thailand. I like Thailand but Burma is more Burmese then Thailand is Thai.