Farewell to doctor with a mission and a view on everything

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 5:52pm

A glance at newspaper headlines from the 1970s and 80s about physician Ding Lik-kiu attests to his ubiquity. The prominent physician campaigned against corruption, drug addiction and price rises by public utilities, and advocated women's right to abortion, workers' rights, democratic reform, environmental protection, population growth and human rights protection.

Ding was known among journalists in the 1970s as 'Dial-a-quote Ding', a man always ready to speak his mind on a wide range of social issues. Ding's high media profile was all the more remarkable in the social and political culture of the time. In an era when only the great and the good aired their views on social issues, Ding grabbed newspaper headlines by attacking social ills and injustices.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, an executive councillor and former vice-chairman of the Democratic Party, said Ding was a prominent social reformer. 'There were not many professionals and educated people in those days who bothered to speak out on social issues.'

Ding, who died in San Francisco on Tuesday last week, was born in Sarawak, in what is now Malaysia, in 1921. As an infant, he was due to be sold by his impoverished parents to a rich merchant, but his mother reneged on the deal at the last minute. He studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University in the American city of Baltimore and served as a medical missionary in Borneo, where he helped set up Christ Hospital, for five years before coming to Hong Kong in 1962.

After migrating to Hong Kong, he became a social activist, championing the rights of workers and the underprivileged. His focus on social ills started with drug addiction, one of the city's gravest social problems at the time. He was an experienced narcotics researcher and called for better rehabilitation of addicts. A methadone outpatient scheme, which Ding had advocated since the late 1960s, was set up in 1972 by the Medical Health Department.

His opposition to drugs drove him to campaign the same year to stop the Rolling Stones from performing in Hong Kong because of their past association with drugs.

Ding practised for only three hours a day. The rest of his time was devoted to community affairs. He was praised as a 'doctor with a mission' by the media. 'To cure the person, the doctor must treat society first,' he said in an interview in 1985.

In 1972, Ding called for the scrapping of legal restrictions on abortion. 'It is an issue of individual rights and liberty, and there should be no one to interfere with a woman's decision if she wants to abort the child she is carrying,' he said.

Ding, whose funeral was held in San Francisco on Monday, served as chairman of the Christian Industrial Committee for more than 20 years and used his social standing to boost the fight for workers' rights.

Unionist lawmaker Lau Chin-shek, who joined the Christian Industrial Committee in 1971 and became its director in 1980, said Ding gave it plenty of leeway in its fight for workers' rights.

'There were different views within the church at that time on whether it should stand with workers in their struggle against management. But Dr Ding told us to concentrate on our work. I am sure he faced tremendous pressure from the church and the government.'

The committee was one of the groups placed under close watch by the colonial government.

Ding was also an advocate of democratic reform and called for a bigger say for the public on how they were governed. In a speech in 1972, Ding said government officials should be told they were public servants and that they must drop their 'boss-like' attitude.

'Officials should be given a specific period in which to process any application for government services filed by the public. This would cut out the possibility of members of the public having to pay graft in order to speed up their applications,' Ding said.

He led a seven-member delegation to London in May 1984 to lobby for democratic reform in Hong Kong before the colony's handover to China. The delegation met former British prime minister Edward Heath and MPs. Fung Ho-lup, chairman of the Society for Community Organisation, described Ding as a professional with a strong democratic mentality.

'His social standing helped enhance the moral image of the democratic movement,' Professor Fung said.

Ding was founding chairman of the Association of Democracy and Public Justice in 1985, one of the first groups calling for democratic reform in the city, and became founding chairman of the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, which was founded in 1986.

Former urban councillor Elsie Tu, one of Ding's contemporaries, praised him as a person who had 'a heart for the people' and who spoke for the underdog.

'He was quite strongly against corruption and we worked together on anti-corruption [measures],' Ms Tu said. 'It was very difficult for people in those days to raise these issues because the government didn't want to hear about them.'

Ding's activism also covered environmental protection and music.

He was the founder of Conservancy Association, the first green group in Hong Kong.

Gordon Siu Kwing-chue, a founding member of the Hong Kong Youth Music Society and a former secretary for planning and lands, said he was saddened by the passing of Ding, who was the society's founding chairman.

The Hong Kong Youth Music Society has provided free training for young local musicians since 1973.

'The work he did in the many leadership roles he played in Hong Kong bears full testament to the man he was - upright, principled and Christian to the core,' Mr Siu said.

He said society would remember the role Ding played in setting it up in 1973 at a concert on December 20 to celebrate its 35th anniversary.

Ding, who died of pneumonia, emigrated to San Francisco in 1990. His friends in Hong Kong will hold a memorial service for him on July 19 at Ward Memorial Methodist Church in Yau Ma Tei.