York Chow confident of success in his Equal Opportunities Commission role
York Chow may not be everyone's choice as the new EOC head, but the former health chief is confident he can tackle discrimination
It took the whole city by surprise when the government announced on Tuesday that former Secretary for Health and Welfare Dr York Chow Yat-ngok would head the Equal Opportunities Commission from April.
It had been only nine months since Chow retired, and former Oxfam Hong Kong executive director Chong Chan-yau was tipped to succeed Lam Woon-kwong as commission chief.
Chow's appointment also raised eyebrows among some who question whether his Christian beliefs will affect the commission's defence of gay rights.
Others are not sure if Chow, who has been in government for eight years, is willing to speak out against the government like Lam.
One of his critics is Law Yuk-kai, the director of Human Rights Monitor, who said he was not impressed with the way the then health minister had treated pregnant mainland mothers.
Law said the women were deprived of maternity beds in public hospitals despite calls from the human rights watchdog for Chow to give them equal treatment.
"To me, Dr Chow was putting public interest and public policies ahead of the rights of the mainland mothers and their newborns. This gives rise to my concern about how far this new EOC chairman is willing to advance the overall rights of all sectors of the community," Law said.
"We are equally worried that Chow's decision-making will be based on the views of the majority. When it comes to equal opportunities, it is always about the rights of the minorities.
"If Dr Chow continues to put the rights of minorities in the hands of the majority to decide, the EOC is doomed to fail in its duty, which is to advance equality and fairness," Law said.
Chow sees things differently.
In a written reply to the South China Morning Post, Chow described himself as a "liberal-minded" Christian who holds a belief that "no one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation".
He said his experience in the government had allowed him to observe how policies were developed and how resources were allocated.
"It also allowed me to realise the limitations, and more importantly, the potential for future development," he said.
Despite the uncertainties surrounding his leadership of the commission, one thing is sure. The 66-year-old orthopaedic surgeon is not ready to retire.
There is no doubt about his passion for community work.
"I have been actively participating in some voluntary work for non-governmental organisations and universities (which I need to give up before April 1) after my retirement last summer, and handled some minor health problems which I have neglected for months … I am always grateful that I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and am able to take up various challenges and roles," he wrote.
He has been an outspoken campaigner for disabled people and was the first Hong Kong official to openly question the death of disabled mainland dissident Li Wangyang in June last year. The doctor said Li's death "did not look like suicide".
Chow even called on people close to the central government to express Hongkongers' concerns over the incident in which Li was found hanged in hospital in Shaoyang .
Chow has also served as president of the Hong Kong Paralympic Committee and Sports Association for the Physically Disabled, and is former adviser to the New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association.
"As a doctor and an orthopaedic surgeon, I was associated with disability and people with disabilities throughout my professional life. I consider rehabilitation an integral part of treatment, as we like to see patients … able to return to society with independence and full community participation," he said.
"As a sports enthusiast, I also initiated the Sports Science and Sports Medicine organisations in Hong Kong. I always view sports and arts as an integral component of a quality life, and an effective vehicle to facilitate people with disabilities to overcome their physical and mental challenges," he said.
Chow also strongly defended his ability and determination to eliminate discrimination.
"I value Hong Kong as a special speck of land in the world that can maintain freedom, civil rights, diversity and inclusion, discipline and human decency. To safeguard these values should be our mission in Hong Kong.
"Furthermore, with my international participation and experience of negotiating with various governments and non-government organisations, it is widely accepted that the standard of a civic society is measured by how the disadvantaged are being provided with equal opportunity in all aspects of their life, and free from discrimination.
"Although I shall carry these experiences to the EOC, I need to learn, and perhaps re-learn many aspects, as the society is ever evolving, and new priorities will emerge. The concept of equality and discrimination today is quite different compared with 1996, the time when most of the Discrimination Ordinances were enacted.
"I need to learn from all my commission members, staff, and our stakeholders and NGOs. I am looking forward to engaging them in formulating our work in the next three years," he said.
Despite all the scepticism surrounding his suitability for the post, the former health minister has been described as a "good boss" by one of his former colleagues. His political assistant Paul Chan Chi-yuen said while Chow was a demanding boss, he was willing to let his juniors attempt new tasks.
"Dr Chow will state his principles to us very clearly while allowing us the flexibility to carry out the duties. At the same time, he is prepared to rescue or remedy the situation if things go wrong. I have learned a lot from him," said Chan, who worked with Chow for four years.
Dr York Chow Yat-ngok
Age: 66 (born 1947)
1992: Made chief executive of Queen Elizabeth Hospital
2001: Became chief executive of Queen Mary Hospital
2002: Appointed Hong Kong West hospitals' chief executive
2004-07: Served as Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food
2007-12: Made Secretary for Food and Health