Hong Kong needs another Sir Murray Maclehose
‘His leadership achievements provide a role model for the four CE candidates for the upcoming election’
Many years ago, Hong Kong had a Chief Executive known as Sir David Trench. Even before Sir David, the Public Works Department had protected holes in the road with the sign, “Trench Works Ahead.”
One appeared outside Government House. Perfect for photographers. We laughed till we cried! “Does he, or doesn’t he?” The signs were replaced soon after.
Sir David himself was replaced in 1971 by a war hero, Sir Murray Maclehose, who trained Chinese guerrillas in the second world war to sabotage Japanese positions. Maclehose nearly didn’t make it. As a junior Foreign Office official, he committed a “grave security breach” by leaving a highly secret telegram in a bank. His boss, Foreign Secretary George Brown intervened saying that Maclehose was “a hell of a good fellow”. His reprieve, from becoming a bursar of a minor public school, was a blessing for Hong Kong. They called him a Governor – but he governed as a Chief Executive.
Maclehose was a big man, 6 foot 4 in his socks and exuded authority. Within the Civil Service he was irreverently known as “Big Mac” or “Jock the Sock” – but never to his face. (Jock being a name for a Scotsman and hose being an old name for sock). His leadership achievements provide a role model for the four CE candidates for the upcoming election.
To encourage business, he drove the development of the MTR, major New Territories highways, and flyovers and underpasses at choke points. He established the new towns of Sha Tin and Tuen Mun and created the ICAC, making Hong Kong the cleanest city in Asia for the last 40 years. Most importantly, Chinese was recognised as an official language.
He revolutionised social policies for the ordinary Hongkonger – battling the objections of the factory owners; the property developers of today. He set up a massive public housing programme, and the Home Ownership Scheme. He introduced the Labour Ordinance, with paid holidays, worker redundancy payments, Labour Tribunals, sickness allowances and weekly rest days; all to support the lowest paid.
He introduced nine years of compulsory education, and increased university finance and the number of schools and hospitals. He greatly expanded social service provision for the elderly and disabled, with infirmity and disability allowances. His watch saw the building of community, arts and sports facilities and the establishment of the Country Parks, which today’s government and the developers want to build on.
And who could forget the “Lap Sap Chung” litter campaign and the dark “Fight Crime” posters. He still had time to tackle unforeseen issues by establishing the Geotechnical Control Office after a disastrous series of landslides – which helped kickstart my career.
Big Mac had a touch of luck; he arrived as Hong Kong transitioned into a major global city. His Ministers thought of the people first, put through policies, and retired early - unlike the current crop of dead hand Ministers. Being a Chief Executive is more than appearing with a flower in your buttonhole at official events. Sir Murray made the calls.
Measure the four CE candidates on whether they can aspire to such achievements. Peter Mann in his memoirs “Sheriff of Wanchai” prioritises issues as education. In a world where technology deskills and eliminates jobs, we must teach our young people how to think. The next CE needs to reduce the extremes of inequality, curb the power of the cartels, property developers, supermarkets, taxis, drug companies utility and service providers, who overcharge Hong Kong people by multiples.
Sir Murray cut through vested interests. Keep developers’ grubby hands off our Country Parks. Rebuild city infrastructure, like escalators, flyovers and underpasses; not huge kowtow projects of little economic value. Clean our air! Sir Murray even hit home by establishing the District Boards to increase government accountability. The next CE should “early retire” a few Ministers to throw the pan-democrats a bone. There were no localist voices when Sir Murray was CE.
China wants a stable and prosperous Hong Kong, not a kowtow one. Beijing must be exasperated that four civil servants are the best that Hong Kong can put up. None have earned a living in the private sector – their iron rice bowl has always been there. None have shown risk-taking leadership. We won’t hold it against them that the British trained them all… but they were trained as managers not leaders. Either a leader makes the right calls – or they become a trench across the road, blocking progress.
Richard Harris is an investment manager; writer and broadcaster; and financial expert witness.