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Carrie Lam

Carrie Lam is the first woman to lead Hong Kong – now that’s worth celebrating

Alice Wu salutes the achievements of two of the city’s women pioneers – Margaret Chan, the recently retired WHO chief, and new chief executive Carrie Lam, who she believes will prove a more effective leader than her predecessor, the combative Leung Chun-ying

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 July, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 July, 2017, 6:06pm

Of all the things being celebrated as Hong Kong marks the 20th year of its return to Chinese rule, perhaps the feat most overlooked is the city getting its first female chief executive.

That may be because meritocracy is such an established feature of Hong Kong’s civil service, where Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor began her career, that we are used to seeing women hold important positions.

The day before Lam officially took the helm as Hong Kong’s chief executive, the city’s very first female director of health (way back in 1994), Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, marked a milestone of her own. Last Friday, Dr Chan stepped down as director general of the World Health Organisation, ending a tenure of nearly 11 years.

World Health Organisation chief Margaret Chan leaves big shoes to fill

Her track record as WHO chief was not flawless; after all, setbacks and challenges are bound to be plentiful when dealing with global health threats. Yet, despite some blemishes, many would agree she has done a good job, and will leave her successor big shoes to fill.

In her parting report, which “chronicles the evolution of global public health” during her tenure, Dr Chan did not just list her achievements. She gave credit to her collaborators, and spoke about the increasingly challenging work for the WHO. She recognised that her response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak could have been more effective. And she made a case for the causes she has long supported: curbing chronic non-communicable diseases and strengthening health care for women and children. She also did not shy away from vexing problems like access to medicine.

Five years of hits and misses – Leung Chun-ying steps down as leader of a bitterly divided Hong Kong

Dr Chan’s report stood in stark contrast to the one put out by Lam’s predecessor. Leung Chun-ying’s farewell report was a 90-plus-page list of things that he claimed credit for. Its aim “to summarise the progress and achievements” of the government’s work in the past five years did not include setbacks and challenges. The exercise in extreme self-aggrandisement is hard to accept after five tumultuous years marked by deeper and more damaging social and political divisions, and an extremely confrontational style of leadership.

This is the legacy Lam has inherited.

Perhaps the difference in the two reports points to one’s confidence in her work and the other’s fear of becoming a political pariah.

I wish our first woman chief executive all the best – she will need both brains and guts to get Hong Kong unstuck

We should be cautiously optimistic about the way forward, since Lam has made it a point, on several occasions, to set herself apart from her predecessor. She has admitted to some shortcomings. As the chief secretary, she was nicknamed “the nanny” because she often had to step in to help officials who made a mess of things. Now she needs to be good at more than cleaning up after others – she knows she needs to learn to deal with issues before they become major problems.

Not that there isn’t already a list of major problems awaiting solutions – thanks to her predecessor’s legacy.

I wish our first woman chief executive all the best – she will need both brains and guts to get Hong Kong unstuck. And I pray that her softer side will help to heal the deeply divided community in Hong Kong, and bridge the rifts that have dominated our politics for far too long.

I hope Lam will inspire others to be good leaders, by her achievements and by the way she conducts herself when things aren’t all smooth sailing.

Dr Chan once said that “investment in women and girls has a ripple effect. All of society wins in the end”. I agree. We do need more women in leadership positions – and I hope more will emerge to join Carrie Lam.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA