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Return to academia a break from politics for HKU's Gabriel Leung

Gabriel Leung won't discuss his stormy years as undersecretary for health, but say he's glad to be back at the University of Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 4:59am

Leaping from academia to the government four years ago, Professor Gabriel Leung quickly found himself learning political survival skills as he faced tough job assignments and a series of scandals.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that when Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration ended in June, Leung decided to leave the government and resume his teaching duties at the University of Hong Kong.

Now, at the relatively young age of 39, he has taken the helm of the university's department of community medicine, to head a staff of more than 200 academic and administrative employees.

In an interview at his office at Cyberport, Leung refused to comment on his four years in the government. Rather, he kept emphasising how much he enjoyed being back in the academic world, and how excited he was about the university's medical-research projects.

"Besides a major study to measure the mental and physical health - as well as the social well-being - of Hong Kong families, we are also undertaking many medical research projects on different public-health issues, such as hand, foot and mouth disease, influenza and other infectious illnesses.

"Our anti-smoking campaign, which has been run by the school of public health for many years, must continue. All these projects will last for years, and we will keep the momentum going," Leung said.

"I have been busy flying here and there these days, to attend academic conferences and meet other medical experts. We need to build a close network with our overseas counterparts in order to improve our exchange of information, for better disease control and medical advancement."

Throughout his career, Leung has been a high-flier with an enviable career path. After graduating in 1997, he joined the University of Hong Kong in 1999. Seven years later, he became one of the youngest people to obtain a tenured professorship in the history of the university.

His expertise in public-health science made him a natural pick for the government, to help the city prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases and cope with the health burdens of an ageing population. He was invited to become undersecretary for food and health in May 2008.

During his time as the right-hand man to then secretary for food and health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, Leung faced some thorny political tasks, from lobbying for long-awaited health-care-financing reforms, to handling the widespread problem of illegal columbariums.

Leung played a key role in handling the aftermath of the Manila hostage killings in August 2010, in which seven Hong Kong holidaymakers and their guide were killed in the Philippine capital and others injured. With his boss on holiday, Leung represented the department and visited the survivors in hospital.

Leung attended Legislative Council meetings, where he sometimes came under fierce attack from lawmakers over government policies.

His roughest patch in government may have come after he became director of the Chief Executive's Office last year. Leung reportedly came under enormous pressure and faced scathing attacks from the central government's liaison office for failing to manage the conflict-of-interest saga over Leung Chun-ying's involvement a decade earlier in a design competition for the West Kowloon arts hub.

At the time, Leung Chun-ying was running neck-and-neck with Henry Tang Ying-yen in the race to be chief executive.

In the last few months of Donald Tsang's administration, the medical professor also had to handle a string of serious allegations of misconduct against Tsang. He was accused of accepting gifts from tycoons, including rides on private yachts and jets, and a bargain deal to rent a luxury penthouse in Shenzhen.

At least one observer thinks Leung should have remained in the government. Andy Ho On-tat, a former information co-ordinator with the Chief Executive's Office, strongly believes Leung would have made a good health minister, given his strong leadership and competence.

"Personally, I believe Gabriel is a suitable candidate to be secretary for health and welfare," Ho said. "He has a high EQ [emotional quotient], a strong network and competence. He is very effective as well, and goes about his duties very efficiently.

"Gabriel is also very knowledgable in areas outside the medical field, and is able to blend into new environments easily. Despite the weak government in the final few months [of Tsang's term], Gabriel was able to handle his work very competently.

"As friends, we always laughed with him about his becoming the vice chancellor, or at least dean of the medical school, after his return to the university."

 


Gabriel Matthew Leung

Age 39

Education Received a medical degree from the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Took a master's degree at Harvard University. Won the Sir Patrick Manson Gold Medal for his MD thesis at HKU.

Then and now First joined HKU in 1999. Appointed undersecretary for food and health in 2008. Became director of Chief Executive's Office in 2011. Currently head of the department of community medicine at HKU's school of public health.

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