Secretary for Education and Manpower Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung nearly resigned because of his wife's health problems, it was revealed this week. Professor Li discussed the possibility with Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa before accompanying his wife Diana to the United States after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Professor Li told reporters yesterday: 'Mr Tung said he did not see any problem with my work and hoped I would tackle the challenges ahead. I will listen to him. Everyone in Hong Kong is under a lot of pressure because of the economy. We all have to be brave and face the challenges that come our way.' Mr Li took two weeks' compassionate leave instead. Mrs Li is now being treated in Hong Kong. 'Professor Li was not sure whether his wife would stay in the US or return here for treatment,' his press secretary told the South China Morning Post. The news came after his leadership was called into question for the second time since he became minister in August. He was fiercely criticised earlier this week during his first appearance at the Legislative Council education panel. Legislators were upset that he had finalised plans for the new Education Commission before consulting them. Politicians and educators said after Monday's meeting that Professor Li's performance called into question his leadership style. But some also said the education chief, who looked strained, had not been in 'his best state' because of his wife's illness. At the Legco panel meeting, members were taken by surprise when he said the proposal on the merger of the Education Commission and the Board of Education - details of which were discussed for the first time during the session - had already been finalised by the Education and Manpower Bureau. Cheung Man-kwong, panel member and Professional Teachers' Union chairman, criticised him during the meeting. 'Never has there been an education chief who fixed a policy without consulting panel members first.' Panel chair and Democrat legislator Dr Yeung Sum, told Professor Li he was 'very disappointed'. 'I wonder how you could be the education chief if your policies are not supported by panel members,' he said. Last month, Professor Li sparked a row following his announcement that Chinese University of Hong Kong and University of Science and Technology should merge within five years, before staff, students and council members had been consulted. He was quoted saying he would be 'a gentleman first and a soldier later' over the merger. But Mr Cheung said the inappropriate words used on that occasion were less serious than his ignoring normal policy procedures this week. During the meeting, Mr Cheung asked why only two teacher representatives would sit on the 21-member Education Commission, while the rest were mostly principals, officials and academics. Professor Li responded that it did not matter whether members were principals or teachers, as long as they made significant contributions to the education field. 'If you argue about the proportion of teachers and principals, you could also criticise us for having an imbalanced sex proportion, or for not including disabled people in the commission,' he said. Mr Cheung said he was 'shocked' that Professor Li had made such a 'weak and unreasonable' argument. He said he had not yet understood the legislative culture in Hong Kong.