A man who sees it as his duty to serve

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am


Fresh from escaping his own political maelstrom, Bernard Chan spoke last week about the kind of governance he thinks Hong Kong needs. A handful of concepts kept popping up - most of them at odds with the confrontational atmosphere that has defined local politics in recent days.

According to the 47-year-old, who was chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board until last week, the way forward for Hong Kong lies in the building of trust between the ruling elite and their subjects, a consensus among different segments of society, and for whoever is in power to connect with their detractors.

'I'm quite confident the next administration will be quite a decisive government - but engagement is also very important,' says the former executive councillor and lawmaker, who has been dubbed the 'king of public duty' because of the numerous positions he has held on a wide range of statutory and other bodies over the past 10 years.

'Even if you're right, you have to convince people it's the case,' he says. 'You can't just say, 'I know better than you, I know this is good for you'. You can't do that in a place where a civil society is in place. Well, you can do that in Singapore, but in Hong Kong you can't.'

The self-proclaimed compromise-broker was speaking from experience, just after announcing his intention to step down as chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board - an endgame to the furore fuelled by Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's high-handed approach to securing approval for her proposal to redevelop the west wing of the former central government offices.

Chan says he resigned partly because of media insinuations about him being too chummy with Lam. 'But that's because of my personality. I'm not the kind of person who will come out and fire massive broadsides at the government,' he explains with a sigh. 'I won't do something like that.

'But will I argue with the government behind closed doors? Of course I will! For example, I've told Carrie she should never, ever consider selling [the west wing land]. But I did it away from the limelight, and not in public - that's not my style.'

Such deftness in diplomacy might come in useful for Leung Chun-ying. According to reports, Leung's Executive Council will include Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, Barry Cheung Chun-yuen and Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun - a list which, when one adds the names of Leung and likely chief secretary Lam, reads like a who's who of Hong Kong's most uncompromising political figures.

When we met last Monday, Chan said he hadn't received an invitation to join the Executive Council, a body he served in from 2004 to 2009 under Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. As if dropping a hint on the possibility of him joining Leung's cabinet, however, he recalled how Tung offered him a place in Exco in 2004 just a day before the announcement of his cabinet reshuffle.

And Chan is happy to talk about what the public expect of the Executive Council. 'Executive councillors should definitely share [with their colleagues in their meetings] what's happening in the world, exactly as things are,' he says.

Community visits are a no-brainer, he says. 'They are a must. And they're only talking about doing this now? I've been doing that for more than a decade already.'

His modus operandi has been winning him friends and admiration aplenty across the political spectrum ever since he burst onto the scene in 1998 - when he won the election for the new insurance functional constituency in the Legislative Council. It was a seat he was returned to, unopposed, for two more terms, in 2000 and 2004.

While a member of the pro-establishment camp - he was once part of The Alliance, the predecessor of conservative political collective the Professional Forum - Chan has always positioned himself as a down-to-earth, religious and easy-going liberal.

The media has tended to focus more attention on his work for social-welfare NGOs (he takes pride in having launched the Caring Company initiative to help the poor and elderly while president of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service) than his business background and his 'princeling' status.

Known to his relatives in Thailand as Charnwut Sophonpanich, the Hong Kong-born and US-educated Chan is the grandson of Chin Sophonpanich, the late founder of the Bangkok Bank. His uncle, Chatri, took over the bank and was once a senator, while his aunt, Kalaya, was science and technology minister in Abhisit Vejjajiva's cabinet.

Bernard's father, Robin Chan Yau-hing, moved to Hong Kong in 1955 and is chairman of the Asia Financial Group. He was a National People's Congress deputy from 1988 to 2008. (Bernard was appointed to the national legislative body in 2008.)

Chan's perceived neutrality was evident when he served as convenor of the chief executive election debate on March 19. One of the more memorable scenes was of Chan escorting Wong Yuk-man out of the venue after the radical lawmaker brought proceedings to a halt with his incessant heckling.

'Yuk-man and I are on speaking terms,' Chan says, laughing. 'It doesn't matter if we believe in different political ideologies - the most important thing is to get things done.'

Being a political leader, he says, is about 'rallying people from the upper and lower echelons of society to your side' - something he believes Leung is 'doing okay' on, even though he believes the chief executive-elect has still to bring the business sector into his fold.

So is Chan someone who could do that? 'Well ... I'm not sure,' he says. 'I've allowed such a [comparatively] small issue at the Antiquities Advisory Board to blow up to such an extent. If I were to handle something which will split opinions on a larger scale, I don't think I will be able to do it.'

But is he ready for the top job? 'I'm never ready,' he says with a shrug. 'There are people who say, 'You should be aiming for the CE job in five or 10 years' time'. I say, 'You've got to be kidding me, right?' I can't even handle what I have now! When you're the top man, everything's an issue - and I can't even deal with these individual, isolated ones.

'I may not agree with Donald Tsang, and I may not like the guy either - but I respect him in that job because, man, that's a tough job. You have to balance the interests of different factions, and you have to handle the relationship with the central authorities as well. That's torture ... that is far from what I want.'

His father has 'strongly opposed' him taking up full-time public office - partly because he doesn't want his son to leave the family business, and partly because of his worries about his son's health: Chan is afflicted with the incurable Takayasu's arteritis, a rare disorder that causes blood vessel inflammation.

Chan - a regular Trailwalker competitor whose fit physique belies his sickly childhood - remains on daily medication and has to go for regular check-ups.

'My parents are always saying, 'Why would you want to do this?'' Chan says. 'They come from a different age. They think it's worth it if you get recognition for what you do; today, you do things and get massacred afterwards. So for them, it's like, why would you want to toil and grind when you'll get bad-mouthed anyway?'

So why? 'It's my passion that something needs to be done,' he says.

'I could have taken the easy ride. If I hadn't taken the decision to run in the elections in 1998, I probably wouldn't have done all this. But now that I'm in, I can't not do it. If not, who else?'

Bernard chan

Age 47


Chairman of the Council for Sustainable Development, Advisory Committee on Revitalisation of Historic Buildings, Antiquities Advisory Board, Hong Kong-Thailand Business Council and Lingnan University; vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service and Oxfam Hong Kong; Hong Kong deputy of the National People's Congress; president of Asia Insurance and Asia Financial Holdings; founder of the private school Almitas Academy


Executive councillor, 2004-2009; three-term representative of the insurance functional constituency in the Legislative Council, 1998-2008; chairman of the Standing Committee on Disciplined Services Salaries and Conditions of Service, 2001-2006


Degree in art, Pomona College, California

Personal life

Married to the Singaporean-born Yeo Peck Leng, with two sons aged 12 and nine.