A COMMUNITY can use many methods to pay tribute to the great and the good who have contributed to the public benefit. Under our present system, the most obvious of these avenues is the twice-yearly honours system. Inevitably, the last of the royal honours will be the Queen's birthday list in 1997; what we will have after that, if anything, to recognise outstanding efforts and dedication, nobody seems to know. There are other channels by which the wealthy can be rewarded. Throughout Hong Kong there are clinics, hospitals, libraries, schools, homes for the elderly and centres for youth, among many other tributes in bricks and mortar which stand as monuments to generosity. And why not? If a billionaire is approached by a cash-strapped hospital administration and asked for several tens of millions to erect a building in which doctors will try to find a cure for cancer, I find nothing wrong in naming the building after him. Another avenue through which public service in the wider sense can be recognised is through the bestowal of honorary doctorates by our universities. It was here that a recent award gained my attention. A few weeks ago, Baptist University conferred on tough-guy actor Jackie Chan Kong-sang MBE, a doctorate of social sciences. This departed widely from the gown-clad worthies who normally consists of professionals and tycoons donning the impressive robes of an honorary academic. Yet I can think of no person more deserving of such an honour; Chan is a fine man who has brought honour not only to the film industry but to Hong Kong as a whole. He is a credit to our community. For many years, Chan was a minor stuntman on the fringe of fame. It has only been in the past decade or so that he leapt and sparred his way to super-star status. He has retained his roots with the men and women in the streets of Kowloon who, quite rightly, adore him. As he gained fame, a phenomenon developed. Fans started sending in money to buy his photographs and other memorabilia. So what did he do? Chan funnelled this unexpected cash into a special fund, along with other donations from his own pocket, to pay for education for the young and medical care for the elderly. He works tirelessly to persuade young people to stay away from drugs and crime. Chan may never have sat in a university lecture room (he went to a kung fu school in a Mongkok back street) but he has learned a lot about humanity. Baptist College is to be commended for granting him an honorary doctorate. So, how are such decisions made? In the case of Baptist University, which has conferred 22 degrees since reaching confirmed tertiary status in 1990, an honorary degrees committee makes recommendations to its chancellor (who happens to be the Governor), which - if approved - then go on to the University Council. The first two such Baptist degrees five years ago went to tycoon Sir Run Run Shaw, whose generosity to good causes is legendary, and to American evangelist Billy Graham (well, it's not called Baptist University for nothing). All our tertiary institutes basically follow similar guidelines. Those considered are people who have made outstanding contributions to the university granting the degree, to Hong Kong, its citizens and their welfare, to commerce, to culture, industry or professional life, or to learning in general. Degrees conferred over recent years include some interesting awards. In 1993, Professor Wu Ta-you received a doctorate of science from the Polytechnic University for aiding scientific education, research and development of physics in Taiwan. The same year, Professor Yan Dongsheng got the same honour from the polytechnic for research on inorganic materials and the modernisation of China. The venerable veteran warrior of local politics, Elsie Tu, received her doctorate of laws in 1994 for her contributions to society and public service, while Liberal Party chief Allen Lee Peng-fei was made a doctor of engineering in 1990 not only for public service but also for his significant contributions to technological development (he owns an electronics business) and for boosting education and industrial training. Sharing honours this year with academics on the stage at the University of Science and Technology, mega-tycoon Li Ka-shing became a doctor of social sciences while former Jockey Club chairman Sir Gordon Macwhinnie was made a doctor of business administration. Sir Gordon, a veteran member of the University Council, founded the Society of Accountants. He's been retired officially for 17 years but remains active in university affairs. Checking on lists of honorary doctorates in recent years, several names crop up. Those honoured by a number of institutions include Sir Run Run Shaw, financier Sir Quo-wei Lee, industrialist-politician Sir Sze-yuen Chung and former Legco president, Sir John Swaine. It's inevitable that the rich and famous, along with academics and scientists, dominate the list of recipients. They are the people who bestow laboratories and campuses, who finance new academic disciplines and pay for teaching hospitals. They deserve recognition. Others give of time and experience, as well as vast amounts of money. These men and women are experienced business leaders, financiers or administrators (former chief secretaries stud the lists of honorary doctorates) who sit on the councils and committees that steer our top academic institutions. It is right that they be recognised. Such degrees also confer honour on the universities that grant them. As our oldest tertiary fixture and traditional totem to fine academic achievement, the University of Hong Kong has over many years awarded doctorates to figures who have no immediate identification with our community. Yet nobody would argue about the humble Mother Teresa getting her doctorate in social science from HKU, nor the outstanding classical translator Yang Xianyi (held in solitary confinement in Nanjing for a decade in the Cultural Revolution) being honoured for his vast literary achievements. From blind social workers such as Lucy Ching (social sciences) to former Philippines president Corazon Aquino (laws) to the renowned American-based architect I M Pei (letters) the embrace of the University of Hong Kong doctorate awards has been wide. Hopefully, academics and the leading community members who advise them will continue trends in recent years to broaden yet further the sorts of people recognised by university councils.