From bottom to top

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2007, 12:00am

Psychiatrist Wong Chung-kwong can point without hesitation to the pivotal moment in his life. He was 12 years old and going nowhere fast. Having barely scraped into a poorly-rated secondary school, he struggled to read Chinese - a problem later attributed to dyslexia - had failed his Form One exams, and was steeling himself to face the music at home.

'When I received the report saying I had to repeat I was pretty scared,' he said. 'My father was loving, but very tough on me when I failed to achieve academically. He used a lot of physical punishment - that was his style - and, at the time, I also had very mixed emotions about life and myself.'

What happened, though, was a complete surprise. Instead of exploding, his father simply asked him to spend the rest of the evening thinking about the kind of person he wanted to be and the kind of life he hoped to live.

'I stayed awake all night and, by dawn, had come to the conclusion that I had to work harder and get on with life seriously. It was nothing dramatic, but I realised it couldn't go on like this.'

Within a year, he was top of the class, which led to a place at a more prestigious school and, in due course, the chance to study medicine at the University of Hong Kong.

'Even at that early stage, I had a strong interest in understanding people and why they acted the way they did,' said Professor Wong.

After graduating in 1977, he became a psychiatrist and developed his professional skills treating patients suffering from a wide range of chronic, psychotic and acute symptoms, some of which he recalled as 'very therapeutically challenging'.

This experience, though, equipped him to take on a dual role in 1982 as a lecturer at the Chinese University and as a doctor at the Prince of Wales Hospital, where he began to specialise in child and adolescent psychiatry. 'Before that, there was no differentiation, so I was given the task of establishing the first specialist unit in Hong Kong,' Professor Wong said.

This provided help for youngsters in three broad groups: those with psychological disturbances caused by abnormal family situations; those with developmental problems such as autism or attention deficit disorder; and those who were dysfunctional, perhaps suffering from depression or schizophrenia related to a biological disturbance in the brain.

'As the first really trained child psychiatrist in Hong Kong, I was a rarity,' he said. 'Therefore, in the mid 1980s, I asked myself what I should do to make a real contribution to society.' His initial strategy involved three elements. One was to develop a good clinical service, which accepted referrals from schools, social workers and even the police, so that juvenile offenders had an opportunity to avoid a court appearance. The next was to provide more training by opening up seminars, workshops and ward rounds to people from the social welfare and education departments and special schools. The third was to ensure through lectures and broadcasts that the broader community became better informed about mental health and how to help children.

Professor Wong's most lasting contribution may well be what came later - the ICAN model he devised to teach people of all ages about self-empowerment and how to live a happier life.

ICAN explains the importance of insights, confirmation, abilities and nurture - hence the acronym - and then outlines what each person should know about their individual values, perceptions, emotions and behaviour.

'This is a user-friendly and practical model based on the principles of motivational and developmental psychology. It helps people to be happy and successful by living a life of continuous advancement and betterment.'

This article is adapted from a speech delivered by Wong Chung-kwong at a recent CUHK EMBA Forum. The EMBA Forum is conducted regularly to provide an opportunity for EMBA participants and alumni to interact with key leaders

Personal file

I have come to treasure the most important things in my life - family and friends - and since my three children are grown up and doing well, I feel I have discharged my duties as a father

One of my favourite movies is Chariots of Fire, which is about people living their lives with different attitudes

I recommend reading Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, which shows how to live a good life to the last day