Carrie Lam: A clear head and a warm heart
By Judith Mackay
Judith Mackay writes that Carrie Lam has the personal and professional qualities needed to lead HK and is well known for her compassion, kindness and sense of fun.
To the public, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is better known for her efficiency than for her warmth. Her personal and private life has generally remained quietly off-limits to public scrutiny. Without trespassing on her privacy, I think it is important for Hong Kong to understand that Lam has an inner core, much appreciated by all her close friends, that lives and breathes dignity, empathy, kindness, compassion, and fun. Yes, fun.
Carrie Lam: A clear head and a warm heartCarrie Lam was born in the Year of the Rooster, and this mystical creature is noted for the traditional Five Constant Virtues (wu chang): benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and integrity. Crucial to exemplary leadership as well as to personal relationships, the former chief secretary has all these virtues. All her close friends with whom I have spoken say exactly the same thing — that Carrie Lam has both head and heart.
This is exemplified by a little-known project of hers. During the 2002-03 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic she set up the We Care Education Fund to take care of children who had lost one or both parents to the disease. Her original target was HK$10 million, but with tremendous response from colleagues in the civil service and from the community some HK$83 million was raised within three months!
Since 2003, over 40 of the 75 children affected by SARS have graduated from university, and the advisory committee set up to oversee the usage of the We Care Education Fund still meets regularly, not just to approve funds for the children’s schooling but also to receive and discuss updates on the families involved. In the past 13 years, no matter where she was posted, Lam hardly missed a meeting. Her devotion to the welfare of the children, or young people, is amazing. This caring initiative, and her little-known perseverance in following through a 20-year commitment, above and beyond the call of duty, is an example to all public servants.
In 2013, 10 years after SARS, she invited a number of the affected families to Victoria House. It was not publicized out of concern for the families, which is typical of Carrie Lam — always doing her good works quietly, with no fuss, and always mindful of the feelings of those affected.
Shelley Lee Lai-kuen, then director of home affairs, writes: “It is relatively easy in public service to gain kudos by eking out temporary relief in case of major disasters, but I know how much it takes to maintain a caring spirit for the victims in the long run. The SARS experience shows that Carrie has both the head and heart, and above all, the leadership and compassion to meet the major challenges that Hong Kong people face, now and in future.”
Lam was known for seldom stopping to waste time to chat, so that she might have been perceived by some as “cold”. Another former colleague, however, writes: “In fact, from the ideas emanating from her it is evident she has a clear head and a warm heart, particularly for the weak and the vulnerable. She will go out of her way to help in cases brought to her, no matter how humble the people involved.”
She has had many tough career assignments: In the Social Welfare Department she had to introduce the block grant (an unpopular move to some); in the Development Bureau she met with demonstrations and abusive curses when she initiated action against unauthorized building works in the New Territories; as chief secretary for administration, she had to front up and take the rap for the policy blunders of others. I was distressed to see her take the brunt of hurtful comments from the “umbrella movement” students in the TV debate they held, telling her to her face she had no relevance to Hong Kong any more.
In spite of her cool exterior and image of always being in work mode, Lam has a soft side to her. She always makes time for her close circle of friends, to whom she is caring, generous and kind. One colleague reminisced: “The Carrie we know is just a normal, relaxed, joking friend.”
Though not publicly known, Lam has also been quietly supportive of gender equality, and improving the situation for Hong Kong women — a subject very close to my own heart.
Her human side is exemplified by her fondness for one of our Hong Kong legends — the late Elsie Tu. In 2013, at Tu’s 100th birthday at my home, Lam gave a wonderful speech in support of Tu’s lifetime efforts on behalf of Hong Kong. The late Elsie Tu was immensely touched by this, and often subsequently referred to it. And Tu did not like all civil servants, by any means! Lam was very special to her.
Lam is generous to others. She remembers and cares about friends and colleagues who have become ill, or who have lost a family member. She herself is very close to her husband and two sons. I know that if I ever had a personal problem, Lam would be there.
The author is senior adviser to the Vital Strategies/Bloomberg Initiative, senior policy adviser to the World Health Organization, and director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control.
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