Beggars on Campus empty of real ideas

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 2008, 12:00am

'He said that although he was advocating collaboration with mainland hi-tech businesses, the tie-up would require a change in attitude from the obsession with a quick financial return.'

Education Post, May 24

He, in this case, is a Professor Wong Yuk-shan, who is vice-president for administration and business at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and also head of an academic lobby called the Society of Hong Kong Scholars.

Why I should bother to define this so precisely is another question as, in my opinion, his views are so representative of the presumptuous wheedling nature of the entire academic pack that I might just as well put it all under the heading of Beggars on Campus, except that I would be doing ordinary street beggars an injustice.

When you drop a coin in a street beggar's pot, he or she at least thanks you or gives you a nod of the head. Beggars on Campus, however, got HK$18 billion from Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah in his latest budget and all he got in return was whinge, moan and complaint, mostly along the lines of, 'It's not enough'.

Tell you what, Mr Tsang. Next time you're in a giving mood, make it just HK$18 rather than HK$18 billion, and give it to a street beggar instead.

He'll be more thankful than Beggars on Campus has been for a billion times as much and also have a better notion of what to do with the money.

I make this second point on the evidence of what Beggars on Campus has so far come up with in the way of ideas for its HK$18 billion. Aside from sticking its begging bowl right under Mr Tsang's nose again, its only thought was that a government advisory committee should identify key research areas. Here is Professor Wong on the subject:

'It has to be done as soon as possible because research development is long overdue. If we want to catch up, [the committee] has to be set up within a year. Currently there is no champion to take up this role.'

Take note first of all that in academia even the word 'later' is unlikely to have the same sense of urgency that the rest of us give it. The term 'as soon as possible' is defined here as 'within a year'.

And then notice the bit about there being no champion.

There are plenty of champions in academia for the cause of giving academia money, every single professor in the pack in fact, but they all vanish when asked to prove that they have worthwhile ways of spending it. Then it's government's job.

Let me tell you how it works in the real world, Professor Wong. First you identify a need, then you quantify it, then you write up a budget and then you present that budget to your moneybags. The real reason that you will need more than a year is that you went to Step 4 before you even tried Step 1.

But for real arrogance, Sir, I don't think you could have done better than your remark about 'a change in attitude from the obsession with a quick financial return'.

I spent a number of years in my previous career as an investment analyst trying to emphasise electronics stocks as the coming thing (let he who is innocent of doing fool things throw the first stone) and I got to know a fair number of techies who were fairly high up in their companies.

In and among them, I admit, there were some Science Park and Cyberport types who had their eyes primarily on the stock market but most were true enthusiasts.

I remember Patrick Wang at Johnson Electric once giving me a 30-minute physics lecture on conductivity in high temperature gas plasma because I had asked him whether he had ever looked at making brushless electric motors.

He wasn't a man with time hanging on his hands. He had a booming listed company to run and wouldn't be going home until late that night if he wasn't actually going to the airport then. But he was fascinated with what his company was doing and where it might go next and he had time for people who also showed an interest.

If there was one thing that didn't obsess him, however, it was a quick financial return. He wanted a return, of course, and a good one but if brushless motors could take Johnson Electric to the next level up then he would give it years and an open tap to the money it needed.

I assure you that the technology business has many people like him - dreamers who balance their dreams against the money they must make to realise those dreams, which is the proper way to run a business.

If they treat Professor Wong's blanket offhand slur about industrialists as a straight insult to them, well, it is and I think he owes them an apology.

And what an irony that this sort of remark should come from an academic, a class of people who are given security of their jobs at the public expense so that they may freely express their learned thoughts for the benefit of society.

Yet on every occasion that they take advantage of this privilege they have only one message for us - 'Gimme more money!'