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City Weekend

Hero Hong Kong police officer who made headlines worldwide: ‘I was just doing my duty’

Constable Ifzal Zaffar persuaded a suicidal man to come down from a crane on a construction site in West Kowloon by speaking to him in his native Urdu

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 9:43am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 2:25pm

A heroic police officer who attracted worldwide praise for successfully talking down a suicidal man from a crane in West Kowloon has told of his shock at becoming an international sensation, insisting he was “just doing his duty”.

Police Constable Ifzal Zaffar made headlines around the world after he climbed up the crane on a construction site near the Western Harbour Tunnel and persuaded the distressed man to come down by reassuring him in Urdu.

Watch: Hong Kong's 'hero' policeman encourages ethnic minorities to join civil service

The 20-year-old Hongkonger, whose family hails from Pakistan, was asked to use his native tongue by his commanding officer in a desperate bid to ensure a smooth rescue last Sunday morning .

After speaking to the suicidal man for just 10 minutes, he successfully convinced him to climb down so he could be taken to hospital.

Speaking to the Post at the Police College in Wong Chuk Hang on Thursday after a week of frenzied media attention, he said he was amazed by the public’s reaction to his action .

“I feel really happy for this because I would never expect that,” he said. “I was just doing my duty. I did not expect too much. My family are really happy; they feel proud.

“Sometimes Chinese police officers, when they are faced with an ethnic minority, they cannot speak to them and fix the problem. That’s why the police need more ethnic minorities to serve the community.”

Zaffar, a member of the Yau Tsim district patrol unit who speaks Putonghua and Punjabi as well as Urdu, English and Cantonese, has won praise from thousands of internet users, who complimented his quick thinking, empathy and even his good looks.

He said he hoped his story could inspire ethnic minority children in Hong Kong, a city which is 95 per cent ethnically Chinese, to pursue their dreams and not be blocked by social barriers.

“It shows them nothing is impossible,” he said. “You can try and improve your Chinese and join the police force or other government jobs in Hong Kong, so you can be successful.

“I have never really faced prejudice myself. Hong Kong people are so friendly. I don’t think they would think like that.”

Zaffar, a former pupil at the Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial College in Chai Wan, is one of 11 graduates of the force’s Project Gemstone.

The mentoring programme for ethnic minority officers was launched in 2013 in Yuen Long and Yau Tsim as part of a recruitment drive to employ more non-Chinese.

It offers recruits extra Chinese language classes, team building exercises and mentoring from other ethnic minority officers.

Nine graduates have gone on to work in the police force, in Yau Tsim, Tsuen Wan, Yuen Long, Tuen Mun and Kwai Chung, while one graduate joined the Correctional Services Department and another was recruited by the Fire Services Department.

The project’s chief convenor, Superintendent Mohammad Khan of Yau Tsim district, said he also hoped Zaffar’s achievement would serve as a good example to aspiring young police officers from ethnic minorities.

He emphasised it was crucial that Zaffar had been able to speak the suicidal man’s language when joining the rescue mission.

“Someone from the same community, they can say what they want [to the victim] in their language, and it goes direct to the heart,” he said.

Khan, a second-generation police officer of Pakistani descent, admitted it had initially been “difficult” to encourage more ethnic minorities to join the force, but he was confident that the younger generations would find it easier after attending local schools and learning Cantonese. “We are opening a door for them,” he said.

Describing the rescue mission itself, Zaffar said he was purely focused on saving the man’s life.

“At that time I just thought about how I could save him and how I could tell him to come down and make him safe,” he said. “I said to him ‘everything can be resolved, there is nothing to worry about’.”

Zaffar said his family was initially unsure when he expressed his desire to become a police officer, as they were not convinced his Chinese would be good enough for the job.

But he said he was now most proud of surprising people on the street with his fluent Cantonese when they approached him.

“[At school] my Chinese was not improving at that time, so [my family] were not sure about me joining [the police force],” he said. “But it was my childhood dream to be a police officer. I thought the police were really cool, and if you become a police officer you can serve the community and help people.

“In [Project] Gemstone, they will help you to improve Chinese writing and reading, so you can join the police force. It was really useful and really helpful.

“All the ethnic minorities who joined the police force, they are all our friends and we are really close.

“We mostly speak Cantonese because I feel more comfortable in that than English or Urdu.

“[On the street], first of all [people] will talk to me in English and after I reply in Chinese and they say ‘wow, he can speak Chinese’.”