Faculties should be 'diplomatic', says HKU's new law dean Michael Hor Yew Meng
Blunt academics have their place, says the new dean of HKU's law faculty, Michael Hor - but the faculties should be more tactful
Michael Hor Yew Meng could not have taken up his post as one of Hong Kong's most high-profile legal intellectuals at a more chaotic time for the city.
Hor became dean of the University of Hong Kong's faculty of law a day after hundreds of thousands of democracy supporters attended the July 1 march - and just hours after more than 500 protesters were arrested for holding a sit-in at Chater Road in a rehearsal for Occupy Central.
If such large-scale action wasn't eye-opening enough for Hor - who cited a recent 20,000-strong gay rights protest as a "huge event" in his home city of Singapore - he can be assured that far more is likely to happen in the five years he has committed to the city's oldest law school.
Hor, formerly a professor at the National University of Singapore, admits it is "difficult" for him to answer the question of how tolerant society should be towards protesters pursuing what they see as the social good.
"On the one hand, it's what the demonstrators feel to be the long-term benefit or the very identity of Hong Kong that is at stake. So I think they would reasonably feel this should take priority over almost everything else.
"On the other hand, demonstrators have to be concerned about keeping public order, keeping the businesses running, keeping the taxis running, the buses running, people getting to work, keeping the wheels of finance turning."
Hor's appointment - succeeding the well-respected Johannes Chan Man-mun, who has been in the job since 2002 - raised some eyebrows. The Civic Party chairwoman and former Bar Association chairwoman Audrey Eu Yuet-mee was among those expressing reservations about Hor's lack of familiarity with Hong Kong.
Hor acknowledges he has work ahead of him: "I have decided actually to stand back for the moment to learn more what's going on here. Of course I do roughly know the positions - I think I need more time to get a sense of the emotions. That's more difficult."
To be as politically outspoken as his predecessor Chan - who co-founded Hong Kong 2020 with former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang to collect views about constitutional reform - would be an impossible task for Hor, at least for now.
"We are different people. I think almost definitely I'll be a different dean because I certainly do not have Johannes' capabilities. I admire Johannes tremendously. In fact, I have for many years been inspired by what he is doing - the sort of moral positions he is brave enough to express. He is what an academic should be - an academic should not be a colourless person.
"I'm of course a little different, in the sense I come from outside. I think eventually, given enough time, I will become more like an insider - but not yet."
Hor pledges to "preserve the fundamental atmosphere of the freedom of expression" and "the freedom of faculty and students to adopt and express views in accordance with what they think is right".
He believes his law school, with "some of the brightest minds in Hong Kong", can provide solutions on tricky issues, such as universal suffrage.
He has regional ambitions, too. "I want HKU to be the place that any country in Asia thinks of immediately when they're thinking of legal excellence - just as when anybody thinks of the best law schools in the world they think of Harvard and Yale."
He cites human rights and financial law as particularly big issues for emerging Asian markets such as Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.
Hor likes to talk about "synergy", as both an academic and political force. He sees a synergy emerging with his home country - as Singapore focuses on laws in Southeast Asian countries, he says Hong Kong can focus on East Asian laws, particularly laws on the mainland.
"I see so much potential for Hong Kong and [mainland] China to cooperate - in all respects, because nothing remains the same in Hong Kong and nothing remains the same in China."
He has noticed much change in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover.
"It's this political awakening that's ... the most strikingly different," says Hor. "Before the handover there was hardly any activity of this kind, any consciousness of this kind. After the handover, people do care. In the past, the thinking was, you know, 'I can make money, I don't care what else happens here'."
While he has travelled to Hong Kong "many times", he has only made two visits to the mainland - once in 1992 and once last year. "There was a world of difference. It's clearly a world power now," he says.
Hor prefers "diplomacy" in discussing human rights on the mainland.
"I think this has to be done very delicately because just as Hong Kong does not like China telling it what to do, China certainly would not like Hong Kong telling it what to do. So I think talks have to be on a very respectful basis.
"We have all kinds of academics here - diplomatic academics, blunt academics. Academically, each academic has to establish his own style. I think there's a place for bluntness, there's a place for diplomacy. But as a faculty, I think you have to play more diplomatically. We have to step carefully because we don't want people to shut us up."
Hor is an avid traveller, and says the mainland also appeals to him in this respect. Scuba-diving destinations such as Okinawa and Palau are also high on his list.
"My policy is: anywhere is worth going to at least once."
And perhaps his hidden tip for interesting travel: go at the most chaotic time, when uncertainty is the only thing certain.
- Bachelor of Laws, National University of Singapore, 1984
- Bachelor of Civil Law, University of Oxford, 1990
- Master of Laws, University of Chicago, 1998
1984-88: Government legal officer in Singapore
1988-2014: Professor, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore
Present: Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong