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How ex-Observatory chief Lam Chiu-ying has become an unlikely scourge of the establishment

Ex-Observatory chief Lam Chiu-ying has emerged as an unlikely and candid thorn in the side of the city's establishment

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 4:53am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 9:03am

Former Observatory director Lam Chiu-ying's opposition to the government's idea of turning space in country parks into land for housing has been seen by some as the latest sign of a rift among a group of high-profile figures who are considered supporters of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

But the 64-year-old retired civil servant says that while in general he backs the government, he is not a "Leung supporter". His comments on the housing issue merely reflected his love of nature and a desire to speak up for others who share that love.

Lam, who helped draft environmental policies for Leung's election manifesto, says he hopes the public will allow Leung's administration more time to overturn the "mistakes" of his predecessor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, especially those that he says have led to a land and housing shortage and soaring property prices.

The row over country parks was triggered by a blog post by Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po on September 8, which said society should discuss and explore the possibility of developing country parks - an idea Chan said had been raised at various seminars. More land would be needed to reach the housing target proposed by an advisory committee to build 470,000 flats in the next 10 years, Chan said.

The proposal was seen as a radical departure from Leung's election pledge that country parks "should be protected from development as far as possible".

Nevertheless, it was endorsed by pro-establishment figures such as Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat and former chief secretary David Akers-Jones.

Real Estate Developers Association vice-president Gordon Wu Ying-sheung also said that maintaining the current ratio of country park land was "impractical and stupid".

Lam says he does not consider himself an environmentalist, but was convinced he could not support the idea.

Besides airing his views to the press, Lam set up a Facebook group called "Hong Kong country parks are my breathing space" on September 20, which has attracted support from more than 17,100 people.

On September 29, Lam was also among some 1,000 people who took part in a protest hike in Tai Tam Country Park, organised by an alliance of 20 green groups.

In an article published in the South China Morning Post on September 25, Lam said he was not standing up in defence of country parks because of a "not-in-my-backyard" mentality, but rather because the city's green areas are Hong Kong people's common garden.

"To many people, especially low-wage earners, making a living in the city is suffocating, debilitating and hardly bearable. But our spacious country parks welcome all, irrespective of means. There, we can relax, breathe in nature's fragrances, [and] hike in the midst of beautiful landscapes," Lam wrote.

"Seen in this light, country parks serve us well as Hong Kong's eternal spring of energy and happiness."

In an interview with the Post, Lam added that instead of eyeing up country parks, the development minister should consider developing "brown-field" sites which are haphazardly occupied by warehouses, derelict factories or recycling workshops, as well as peripheral areas of new towns.

He also said the government should review the small-house policy, which allows male indigenous villagers in the New Territories to apply to build three-storey homes on ancestral land or on government land purchased for about two-thirds of the market value. The scheme was introduced as a temporary measure in 1972, but no end date was set, and it has been criticised as discriminatory and open to abuse for profit.

"I think we should only be thinking about [developing country parks] if Hong Kong's population expands to 10 or 20 million," Lam says.

Despite his reputation as a Leung supporter, the country parks issue was not the first time the former official had opened fire on the government since he retired four years ago.

Only a year into retirement, Lam tore into his former colleague and then secretary for education Michael Suen Ming-yeung when the minister announced a voluntary class-reduction scheme. Lam said the scheme would create "social injustice" and reduce the chances of students from low-income families entering good public schools.

Last year, Lam also questioned the need for a third runway at Chek Lap Kok airport, as well as the scope of an environmental impact study proposed for the HK$130 billion project. He cited fears that the city simply did not have the capacity to deal with more visitors.

Addressing his comments, Lam says his grass-roots background and 35 years of experience as a meteorologist have helped him develop an outspoken style and sensitivity to public opinion.

"The Observatory often launches new things, and the people there are self-motivated … It has a very different culture [from other departments], because we have to see the needs of the outside [world] and think of how to adopt new technologies, so we are aware of social and technological changes," Lam says. "This cannot be done by relying on guidelines, [because] guidelines and regulations cannot generate innovation."

He cited as evidence of the Observatory's adaptability, the decision in 2006 to replace a 30-year-old typhoon measurement system which relied solely on wind speeds recorded at Kai Tak, with an eight-station system to assess the strength of typhoons.

His department was criticised after Typhoon Prapiroon lashed parts of Hong Kong that year with gusts of up to 200km/h, stranding thousands of passengers at the airport, despite only being rated a No3 typhoon.

Lam graduated from King's College, the same secondary school as the chief executive. When he finished Form Seven in 1968, Leung was in Form Two. He says if other chief executive candidates had asked for help last year, he would have helped them with their campaigns as well.

The only political label Lam might be willing to accept was that of "government backer", he suggested.

"I am not a supporter of Leung, I am a supporter of the government, and I will do my utmost to keep the government functioning effectively and meeting the needs of Hong Kong people.

"I don't think [insisting] on criticising and attacking, and forcing ministers to [resign] one after another can [achieve such an aim]," he says.

And as for the country parks and other environmental issues, Lam says he will continue to live a green lifestyle.

He says he enjoys walking rather than taking public transport, and turning off lights and air conditioners unless they are absolutely necessary.

"I want Hongkongers to know how wasteful we are, how it damages the global environment," he says. "And how materialism is making us unhappy."

 


Lam Chiu-ying

Age 64

Education
1961-1968 King's College
1968-1972 University of Hong Kong, degree in physics
1972-1973 Studied meteorology at Imperial College London

Career
1973-1974 Teacher at Ming Kei College
1974 Joined Royal Observatory as a scientific officer
2003-2009 Director of the Observatory

Currently
Adjunct professor in the Geography and Resource Management Department at Chinese University
Chairman of the Environmental Campaign Committee

Formerly
2009-2011 President of King's College Old Boys' Association

Family
Married with two sons

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This article is now closed to comments

caractacus
Mr. Lam is just being honest. Would that all the Ministers under the political appointment system were the same.
Giwaffe
It seems to me that the major difference between Hong Kong and Singapore is that there is no HYK in Singapore. There is no allotment of land for the Small House policy. The New Territories has a lot of undeveloped land outside of the land banks. There really is little reason why this land cannot be developed.

To motivate developers to develop their large landbanks, taxes can be levied on vacant land, with particularly higher rates for ommercial or corporate owners. Only after having exhausted these options should rezoning the Country Parks be considered.

Finally, we must not forget the larger, underlying issue at hand--long term population levels. In light of the finite amount of land in Hong Kong, population levels must be encouraged/targeted to plateau.
honkiepanky
Generally agree that we should prefer other options to expand land supply over developing country parks. But still, if there is no other politically feasible option, I would prefer development a small portion of the country parks over doing nothing at all.

Regarding long-term population growth -- this is basically a red herring. With proper land use policies, HK could easily support twice its current population and still provide everyone with much more living space. Land use is the real issue.
Giwaffe
@honkiepanky: It is not red herring if other, as yet unmentioned factors, are considered.

For instance, even with proper land use policies, it would be difficult to house twice the current population unless there is no plan to increase the living space allotment per person. I envision a scenario where average living space per person would increase to 30 to 50 square meters from the present 12 square meters. Hong Kong would be a most horrifying place if there were 14 million people packed into an average of 12 square meters per person!

As well, population levels are not only dependent on the amount of land available. There is the matter of resource availability, marginal economic output, etc. More population is not necessarily a good thing. Can the Hong Kong economic pie match the population growth? If not, the overall standard of living will decrease. An extreme case in point is Africa.

From where I stand, the argument for population plateau is not only a matter of land, but land is one of the first constraints. There are a host of other factors, such as availability of natural resources, factors limiting economic growth, wealth gap, etc.
caractacus
The truth: Extract from C. Y. Leung's manifesto for the Chief Executive election 2012:-
"We will protect our country parks and bodies of land and water with ecological value, and
formulate long-term plans for other areas of land available for development."
Fiction and breach of election promise:- "The proposal was seen as a radical departure from Leung's election pledge that country parks "should be protected from development as far as possible".
caractacus
Let's not pretend or fool ourselves that concreting over the country parks will benefit the people. It will benefit the property developers and the Heung Yee ****. Once the developers are allowed in it will never stop.
honkiepanky
Hong Kong has about 1/2 the housing space per person as Singapore has. This is not a result of speculation or manipulation -- it is a hard fact. On the other hand, no one denies there is plenty of undeveloped land. So why exactly can't we be like Singapore?

Of course building more housing will benefit the people. More supply = lower prices = bigger homes = better off society. I don't like the developer cartel or the HYK either but I can't imagine a scenario where we build a lot of new housing and they are the ONLY beneficiaries. Even if the government gave all the new land to the HYK for FREE, this would result in a big expansion of the housing stock (many more village homes) which would bring prices down across the entire market. Of course I am not suggesting we should do that -- just pointing out that the important policy goal is raising supply.

As for "once the developers are allowed in it will never stop", this argument makes little sense in the context of developers that sit on massive undeveloped land banks. It is clear that what developers want is not more land, but high prices.
honkiepanky
Completely agree with SpeakFreely. The government should set a goal to match Singaporean (at least) levels of housing space per capita, and make clear it will do whatever it takes to reach that goal.

This can be done without touching the country parks. What's really irking about guys like Lam, though, is their absurdly misplaced sense of priorities. With much of HK's population living in such sh*tty conditions, his first priority is to ensure HK allocates a full 40% of its land mass to country parks rather than (say) 33%.
SpeakFreely
How big is his flat? How big is your flat? How big is a cage home? As long as we can live as spacious as singapore and as cleaner air as singapore, he can suggest whatever to keep the park but I am asking him not being selfish as many in hk are living in shoes box vs he is probably living on 2000+ sq ft of space. But if he and his supporters are asking the avg hk people to scarify for them I think they are just selfish or being ignorant of how others are suffering. Those poors have no space to live and no time to goto park as them. Hk used to have less than 2m population and we had adequate space but now with 7m we need more space.
caractacus
Feeding envy is not going to solve the problem. The housing shortage and price explosion were deliberately engineered by Donald Tsang's property cartel dominated administration. It has nothing to do with shortage of land, but was caused by poor land management.
Hong Kong is a high rise city and cannot become like Singapore. The country parks are under threat right now from the small house policy which is being massively abused.
Lots of people from the public housing estates walk in the country parks and long may they continue to be free to do so. If the parks continue to be developed as they are already being developed by the fiddling of the small house policy, the access points to the trails and villages will be cut off by private housing estates.

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