Social worker-turned-politician Fred Li Wah-ming makes no apology for following his own instincts and beliefs - even if his actions are sometimes seen as impulsive, tactless and arrogant. ''I know I am no diplomat, I am blunt, and perhaps I react too quickly to ideas and issues,'' said the 38-year-old directly-elected Legislative Councillor this week, as the anger of residents in his Kowloon East constituency threatened to boil over and engulf him in a voter backlash. ''My family has criticised me for saying things which I should not. It is my personal style. It is my character. Perhaps some would call it arrogant.'' This week, friends and rivals agreed it was very much Mr Li's style to be up to his political eyeballs in a dispute that remains firmly on his doorstep - the plan to establish a day centre for the mentally handicapped in middle-class Laguna City, Kwun Tong. In the Legislative Council on Wednesday, in a motion debate on better community education about the handicapped, he put his position to Legco members: ''The Laguna City row has been politicised but I would like to call on all of you to focus on the facts,'' he said. ''Don't politicise the rehabilitation issue and turn it into something of a battle between political parties,'' he warned conservative legislator Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, after she said it was unfair for Laguna City residents to be forced to live in the same estate as mentally-handicapped people. Developers should be required, he said, to inform potential property buyers of plans to include facilities for the disabled in new developments. That was the theory. The facts, however, are a little less pleasant for Mr Li. Last Sunday, in an outburst of anger that reflects the charged atmosphere in Laguna City since they learnt two months ago of the Government's plans, someone splashed liberal quantities of paint on the legislator's front door. It was an unsettling incident for Mr Li but only in that it reminded him that the argument over the centre was becoming polarised rather than close to resolution. The protests, meetings and letters denouncing the centre's siting have increased, and have provided fertile ground for political exploitation in the run up to future elections. Earlier this month, the mainly middle-class members of the Laguna City Flat Owners' Association wrote a letter to Mr Li which said he had failed to represent their interests and that he was ''sitting on the fence'' choosing to lean which ever way seemed to suit him at the time. Keen to cash in on an issue that would concern their target constituents, members of the Preparatory Committee of the Liberal Party repeated the accusation in the wider forum of Legco. ''When I saw the letter, I was really shocked. I never wanted to engage in a confrontation with the [Flat Owners'] Association which all along knew my stand on the matter - that I don't support them in their protest against the building of the centre,'' said Mr Li. ''As early as January, I called a press conference in which I reflected the residents' worries and concerns on the matter. ''I also raised five questions for the Government to answer. And before I received any answers [from the Government], I suggested that the project should be 'temporarily frozen'. But I made it cleared that I have never supported the Association in its protest.'' Mr Li added that he did make the point that the Social Welfare Department might have made some mistakes over the handling of this matter in that the residents were not consulted over the project. The 50-place activity centre is scheduled to be opened next year and provide training in social and vocational skills, as well as counselling services for former mental patients. It is a government project which Mr Li has always supported. But Mr Li's problem is that he is also the elected representative of the Laguna City residents who helped put him into office and are capable of removing him from it. Residents claim that the area already has a psychiatric clinic and the construction of another centre would be too big a burden for the community. The Ombudsman, who rejected the residents' objections to the day centre this week, found that part of their bitterness lay ''in the hard fact that they bought the properties ignorant of the planned project. Consequently they could not have taken this factor into account when deciding to buy.'' Mr Li said: ''The Government failed to predict the strong reaction from the residents and there was an apparent lack of publicity. I hope the Government and the public have learnt a lesson from this dispute. ''Hongkong people find psychiatric patients and those recovering the hardest to accept, then it is the mentally impaired/disabled. ''But the mentally ill are the most helpless and vulnerable. Both patients and their families are afraid to speak out, unlike parents of the mentally impaired who are politically active.'' Mr Li said that psychiatric patients realise the social stigma attached to them, and their parents generally find it hard to vocalise their problems. ''So who can represent them and reflect their views and feelings? I feel that I cannot keep quiet. If the project is delayed, who are the ones that will suffer?'' he asked. But Mr Li said that the protesting Laguna City residents did not listen or try to understand the points he made. ''I told them, in any social action, such as demonstrations, you have to have several alternatives in your strategy. You have to leave room for compromise, you have to have concessions. ''I suggested alternatives such as consulting the groups concerned, how we could co-operate with them; and how residents could take part in monitoring the project in the future. ''But the residents insisted that it was all or nothing. I told them that they have put me in a very difficult position.'' Mr Li has now prepared a pamphlet and letter to the Association to clarify his position, stating that the information contained in its letter to all residents was incorrect. Despite the anger of the Laguna City residents over the day centre, the bespectacled Meeting Point legislator has always been popular with his constituents and an electoral champion. Mr Li's political career took off in 1985 when he was elected to the Kwun Tong District Board and it reached its apex in July 1991 when he won a seat in the Kowloon East constituency in the territory's first direct elections to the Legislative Council. He was elected to the Urban Council in the same year thus giving him a place in each branch of Hongkong's three-tier political system. Before turning to politics full-time in 1991, Mr Li had spent many years as a social worker. Having graduated and trained in Canada in social work, Mr Li returned to the territory in 1978 and began his crusade as a defender of the poor. In 1989, he took up a teaching post at the Baptist College. During his time as a social worker, he worked mainly with labour and youth groups and his work experience has brought him closer to the under-privileged. Once elected to Legco, Mr Li became deputy convenor of its Welfare Panel and his name is now synonymous with social welfare issues. He is also vocal on political issues including trade policy and Hongkong 1995 electoral arrangements. With his four-year-old daughter now studying at a kindergarten at Laguna City, Mr Li has little worry about the building of the day centre in his neighbourhood, but the recent act of vandalism did alarm the family. ''I hope the public will soon see the difficulties faced by the mentally ill,'' Mr Li said.