Looking out for all our futures: Nelson Chow

Nelson Chow rose from poverty to become one of the city's most respected social work experts. Will a universal pension be his legacy?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 September, 2014, 5:55am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 September, 2014, 5:55am

Professor Nelson Chow Wing-sun does not know whether the government will introduce the universal pension system his team designed. He admits it is out of his hands as he turns his attention to another retirement matter: his own.

Chow has devoted a lifetime to studying public policy and carrying out frontline social work, becoming one of the city's most respected welfare and social policy academics. Most recently, he spent a year in the public spotlight, under immense pressure, producing a report that could shape the financial future for millions of Hongkongers.

"I've done all I can. This is it," he said in an interview with the South China Morning Post. "I have put my heart and mind into writing this report. Of course I hope the government will take the suggestions made within, but I have no control over whether they will or not."

Chow and his team released the report on August 20, comparing various models for retirement protection and proposing a system under which employers and employees would pay higher payroll taxes in return for a HK$3,000 per month pension for everyone over the age of 65.

"Sure there will be resistance to any change, but doing nothing will not solve the old-age poverty problem," Chow said of criticism of his proposal. Either way, its fate is out of his hands, and he insists the report will be his last contribution to the debate about retirement protection.

Chow believes everyone should be allowed a basic standard of living and given a platform on which to flourish.

The 67-year-old has been learning about and practicing social work, then researching, teaching and advising on social policy since he entered the University of Hong Kong in 1966, studying politics and sociology even before it had a social sciences faculty.

After retiring from his full-time role as a professor last year, Chow said his interest in people and society - which blossomed into compassion for the poor and passion for justice - had kept him in the field of social policy. The youngest of six children, Chow's family arrived in Hong Kong from Guangzhou in 1948, when he was one. They settled in a 1,000 sq ft tenement flat in Wan Chai that housed more than 20 people. Chow said there was no toilet; a makeshift one was built under the stairs. The shower was in the kitchen. Here, the family spent more than a decade.

The family stayed poor until Chow's father was hired as an editor for the horse racing pages of the Hong Kong Daily News.

Chow's childhood exposed him to the best and worst of society: the pair of impoverished brothers clothed in old, thin shirts even in winter; neighbours who shunned a woman and her daughter after the father and sole breadwinner died, calling them "leeches on society"; the girl kept from going to school to look after younger siblings.

Chow's family was more fortunate; all six siblings went to school and some did post-secondary education, which was rare at the time.

"You know the Hong Kong fighting spirit people talk about? Well it was forged out of hardship," said Chow. "It's not always that rosy picture painted in movies about the 1960s - of neighbours helping each other and such. Poverty makes people desperate; and desperate people can do very desperate things."

Chow got a place at the elite St Paul's Co-educational College, where he achieved the grades that got him into HKU.

But his earlier experiences grew into interest in social issues and the human condition, which led Chow to study social work.

It also helped build his work methodology of "always going in there to see what it's like".

Whether it was taking students into Kowloon Walled City in 1976 or investigating a murder-suicide tragedy in Tin Shui Wai which claimed the lives of a family of four in 2004, one of a string of similar incidents in the "city of sadness", Chow always visited the people at the sharp end.

After graduation, he was a probation officer and a family services worker before resuming his studies. He later served as an immigration tribunal adjudicator, dealing with refugees and illegal immigrants.

Studying for his master's in Manchester during the 1970s heyday of British socialism, Chow was most influenced by Richard Titmuss, a professor of social administration at the London School of Economics.

These experiences confirmed his belief that underprivileged families need basic support - even if there is no perfect system for doing so.

"I've maintained the philosophy that everyone has the right to meet the basic living standards and the possibility and platform for development. I realised that we cannot leave people without the basic minimum," he said.

After earning a doctorate in the late 1970s, Chow settled into teaching and research while also being called on as a consultant and adviser to the government.

Decades of advising the government and sitting on committees taught him to try his best while accepting the limits of policy and governance. Chow recently published a book recording his experiences of poverty - personally and through his years of research - saying it was the right time to pen it.

Despite having the poor in his heart, Chow says he maintains a distance from the policies he proposes and remains objective - especially on issues the government may choose to avoid.

"If you take it too personally, you'll just really struggle" should you have no impact, he said. "So as a researcher, you have to rely on the data and the calculations and make the best recommendations possible while still pointing out the shortfalls of your own recommendation. I say what I think is right regardless of the politics, and then let them decide."


Nelson Chow

Born: 1947

Education: St Paul's Co-educational College; University of Hong Kong (undergraduate, PhD); Manchester University (master's)

Career: Chinese University, lecturer and senior lecturer, 1977-83; HKU, senior lecturer, professor, head of department and associate dean of social sciences, 1983-2013

Public service: Numerous NGOs and government bodies; member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, 1998-2003