Alfred Mak

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am


HALCYON DAYS Hong Kong was not a wealthy city when I was born, in 1950. My family enjoyed a modest standard of living in Sai Ying Pun, and despite the relative poverty of the times, people seemed content. Expectations were low and family bonds were tight. I came from a working-class background- my father was a driver and my mother a housewife. I had four brothers and we all had one thing in common: a love of music. Later in life, I formed a rock band with one brother. My friends and I would play ball games in the street- there wasn't so much traffic in those days- and any other open spaces we could find. During the anti-colonial leftist riots of 1967 I had to cross police lines to attend high-school exams. It didn't affect my focus though- I still graduated.

SCHOOL TIES After qualifying as a teacher at the Grantham College of Education [absorbed into the Hong Kong Institute of Education in 1994], I started work in 1971 at St Peter's, a Catholic school in Shek Pai Wan Estate, Aberdeen. I taught regular subjects and was the sports master. This is also where I met my wife. Teachers were not paid well in those days, so we honeymooned in Taipei - but we were very happy. In the 1970s, there was a lot of pressure from unions and other bodies to raise the pay and status of teachers, and this gradually came about. My wife and I are proud parents of two now-adult children. At the time of our wedding, in 1975, the future looked bright- Hong Kong was experiencing good times, the optimism in the city was palpable and the-then governor, Murray MacLehose, was doing great things for ordinary people, such as tackling corruption and dealing with the housing issue.

NICKS OF TIME I was looking for a new challenge in 1975 and joined what was then the Prisons Department. My friends advised me not to, but I always felt sympathy for the disadvantaged and underprivileged. The Prisons Department became the Correctional Services Department [CSD] in 1982- an import- ant name change that reflected the broad range of rehabilitation services it provided both inside and outside its facilities. Many people knew little about what happened inside the 'four walls', and the prison environment was often misrepresented by the media, notably during the Hong Kong film boom of the 80s and 90s. Prison wardens were not ogres and organised crime was not as glamorous as it was portrayed, especially on the inside. The situation was distorted for the sake of entertainment. The picture has improved in recent years but there's still room for more change.

OPEN SESAME Soon after I joined the department, I noticed that many inmates had drug problems and learnt that prison is an inevitable part of an addict's life cycle. Addicts need to become dealers or smugglers to feed their habits, and sooner or later they get busted. I set myself the challenge of breaking this destructive cycle. In 1989, I was given responsibility for a correctional institution housing the most difficult young prisoners and I remember one of my charges in particular. Employing new strategies, I was able to bring this notorious and dangerous character- known by the nickname Sesame Cake- out of a life of crime and into a productive future. With the benefit of teamwork, I helped transform this young man into a new person- one who respected staff and became open to counselling. I'm proud to say he was one of many such successes. The most exciting thing I learnt at the CSD was that continuous care and concern could yield remarkable results.

TAKEN ON TRUST I rose through the ranks in the CSD quite rapidly, ending up as head of inspectorate and management services. My rise was largely due to my efforts to build trust between society and Hong Kong's prison system. My mindset, then as now, was that a leader needs to turn every institution into an 'institution of learning'. In 2000, as a result of my track record in the CSD, I was appointed superintendent of the Shek Kwu Chau Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre [for drug addicts], located on a small island off Lantau. I was part of a team that transformed many lives, until I left in 2008. During this time, I was named executive director of the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers. At the end of my tenure at Shek Kwu Chau, the government made me a member of its Treatment and Rehabilitation Committee and Action Committee Against Narcotics under the Narcotics Division. I became a founding member of the Alliance of Anti-Drug Abuse Professionals in 2009.

JUST SAY... IT'S COMPLICATED Drug addiction is, by definition, chronic relapse. Naturally, I advise people to not touch drugs, because once you do, you open gates that can never really be closed. That said, former United States first lady Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' campaign in the 80s failed. It was too simplistic. Policymakers must realise zero tolerance is not practical. Hong Kong society now takes a more realistic approach. Harm reduction has delivered sound, enduring results. Methadone treatment has been successful. Needle exchange programmes are good, too. One result of Hong Kong's harm-reduction strategy is that the city has almost the lowest HIV infection rate in the developed world. I've been explaining this in detail at the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education, where I have been teaching an anti-drug education programme for teachers since 2009. Globalisation has accelerated the spread of drugs around the world and also into Hong Kong. Our city's narcotics problem therefore has to be viewed from a global perspective. This is a fast-developing area of concern.

LIVING+ LEARNING I believe in lifelong learning. I gained my first degree at the age of 35 and now have five. I earned them from universities and institutes in Australia and the United Kingdom, as well as Hong Kong. I also studied to be a PE teacher in the northern English city of Leeds. And there - among other things - I trained to be a trampoline instructor. I also have a passion for swimming and am a qualified life-saver. There's a symbiosis between the body and mind, so I stay as healthy and fit as I can. I love and still play many sports, especially soccer. But I don't play rugby [too violent] or netball [for girls!]. I'm not a particularly religious person, but I do live by the credo: 'If I can live today, why not give some help to others.'