Hong Kong housing

Michael Choi, fighter for those prosperity passed by

Michael Choi used to think everybody should work hard like him, until he learnt the truth about low-income families and their needs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 4:52pm

From the time Michael Choi Ngai-min lent his support publicly to his former colleague of 30 years, Leung Chun-ying, 12 months ago, he was prepared to continue doing his bit to see the city's housing needs satisfied, despite the setbacks he had with the previous administration.

Choi, a long-time government adviser, did not give up even as the "passive" administration of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen brushed off his attempts to improve the lot of the working class.

When Leung, the surveyor-turned-politician, announced his bid for the top job on November 27 last year, Choi showed up, along with dozens of other prominent Leung supporters.

Choi, a successful property consultant, did not always have a passion to do good. He used to think everybody, including the downtrodden, should work hard and get ahead in life on their own merits. He changed his self-centred beliefs as he became exposed to the needs of society.

"While we are lucky to get the things we want, we should not assume others will [be as lucky as we are], but rather, as a society, a government should have the method and the policy to help different social classes improve their livelihoods," Choi says.

Choi and other Leung supporters, dubbed "Leung fans" in the media, are now serving on a variety of advisory bodies.

Choi, for example, joined the 19-member Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee. It is tasked with drawing up the city's first long-term housing strategy in more than a decade.

Before that appointment, he was a member of the Housing Authority for more than 10 years, using experience gathered from working in the property sector for more than three decades.

He joined Jones Lang Wootton (now Jones Lang LaSalle) in 1980 after graduating from Baptist College, today's Baptist University. It was at Jones Lang that Choi got to know Leung, who was a partner in the firm at the time.

From the start, Choi focused on commercial and large property projects. After six years, he set up his own company, Land Power International, one of the first property consultancies run by local Chinese in the 1980s. He now chairs the company.

Choi's rising career earned him his first house, a HK$500,000 flat in Chi Fu Fa Yuen, Pok Fu Lam, at the age of 25. It also shaped his initial impression about housing needs.

"I came from the business sector and had fought my way up, buying my own home and starting my company, so I thought everyone should work hard on his own and fight [like me]," he says. "I was a bit sympathetic towards [the poor] but I thought, 'You should work hard.'"

In 1992, he co-founded the Society of Hong Kong Real Estate Agents, to raise the standards of the industry. Seven years later, Choi was appointed to the Housing Authority, which helped low-income families get affordable housing. The move turned around his beliefs about the government's role in housing.

"I started to understand that [my previous belief] might be wrong: while society is so advanced, even as an international metropolis and financial centre, so many people are still living in misery behind all those scenes of prosperity," he says.

However, passion does not always pay off. Choi was disappointed by the government's lack of attention to the advice he and other housing advisers offered.

"The previous administration was more passive in housing policy, with little planning and long-term housing policy, so when you give advice, the government might not have the intention [to follow through with it]," he says. "For example, we suggested reviving the building of subsidised flats, but [Tsang] opposed it."

That frustration remained until 2009, when Choi ran into his old colleague Leung, who was Executive Council convenor.

"We met a lot, and he gave much advice about how we should look at the development of the industry. He also wrote many articles on housing and economic development, and that was how [we realised] we held similar views," Choi says.

Choi, together with other Leung aides including Marco Wu Moon-hoi and Kaizer Lau Ping-cheung, helped Leung draft his housing platform, part of a manifesto that helped him win the chief executive election.

Since then, Choi has continued to give advice to the Leung administration, though it has not come without controversy.

On October 21, he suggested doubling the number of flats planned for the former airport site to 70,000, a month after a government source said the Leung administration was considering moving a long-awaited sports hub out of Kai Tak to Lantau Island. Choi's proposal led top sports officials to warn that the sports community would take to the streets.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor stepped in, assuring the community that the sports complex would not be sacrificed for more homes.

This month, Choi found himself in the spotlight again, when he urged the administration to attract developers by putting out to tender sites that could not be auctioned off after two years.

He was responding to the Lands Department's revelation that almost a third of the sites the government offered to sell to developers had gone unsold for up to five years.

That advice was snubbed by the government, as was Choi's latest recommendation, to offer loans to first-time homebuyers in one to two years, when it was expected there would be enough flats to go round.

Choi says he will not hesitate from giving radical advice: "My principle is very simple: if it will do society and the people good, and solve housing difficulties, I will continue to speak up," he promises. But, he says, "I will also look at the big picture - [even if] something is good, I will not do it if it would only create more trouble and disharmony."


Michael Choi

Age: 55

Education: Graduated from the Business Management Department of Baptist College; obtained an MBA from the University of East Asia, Macau.

Family: Married with a son.

Current post: Member of the Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, the Housing Authority, and its Subsidised Housing Committee; chairman of Land Power International Holdings.