How ex-Observatory chief Lam Chiu-ying has become an unlikely scourge of the establishment
Ex-Observatory chief Lam Chiu-ying has emerged as an unlikely and candid thorn in the side of the city's establishment
Former Observatory director Lam Chiu-ying's opposition to the government's idea of turning space in country parks into land for housing has been seen by some as the latest sign of a rift among a group of high-profile figures who are considered supporters of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
But the 64-year-old retired civil servant says that while in general he backs the government, he is not a "Leung supporter". His comments on the housing issue merely reflected his love of nature and a desire to speak up for others who share that love.
Lam, who helped draft environmental policies for Leung's election manifesto, says he hopes the public will allow Leung's administration more time to overturn the "mistakes" of his predecessor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, especially those that he says have led to a land and housing shortage and soaring property prices.
The row over country parks was triggered by a blog post by Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po on September 8, which said society should discuss and explore the possibility of developing country parks - an idea Chan said had been raised at various seminars. More land would be needed to reach the housing target proposed by an advisory committee to build 470,000 flats in the next 10 years, Chan said.
The proposal was seen as a radical departure from Leung's election pledge that country parks "should be protected from development as far as possible".
Nevertheless, it was endorsed by pro-establishment figures such as Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat and former chief secretary David Akers-Jones.
Real Estate Developers Association vice-president Gordon Wu Ying-sheung also said that maintaining the current ratio of country park land was "impractical and stupid".
Lam says he does not consider himself an environmentalist, but was convinced he could not support the idea.
Besides airing his views to the press, Lam set up a Facebook group called "Hong Kong country parks are my breathing space" on September 20, which has attracted support from more than 17,100 people.
On September 29, Lam was also among some 1,000 people who took part in a protest hike in Tai Tam Country Park, organised by an alliance of 20 green groups.
In an article published in the South China Morning Post on September 25, Lam said he was not standing up in defence of country parks because of a "not-in-my-backyard" mentality, but rather because the city's green areas are Hong Kong people's common garden.
"To many people, especially low-wage earners, making a living in the city is suffocating, debilitating and hardly bearable. But our spacious country parks welcome all, irrespective of means. There, we can relax, breathe in nature's fragrances, [and] hike in the midst of beautiful landscapes," Lam wrote.
"Seen in this light, country parks serve us well as Hong Kong's eternal spring of energy and happiness."
In an interview with the Post, Lam added that instead of eyeing up country parks, the development minister should consider developing "brown-field" sites which are haphazardly occupied by warehouses, derelict factories or recycling workshops, as well as peripheral areas of new towns.
He also said the government should review the small-house policy, which allows male indigenous villagers in the New Territories to apply to build three-storey homes on ancestral land or on government land purchased for about two-thirds of the market value. The scheme was introduced as a temporary measure in 1972, but no end date was set, and it has been criticised as discriminatory and open to abuse for profit.
"I think we should only be thinking about [developing country parks] if Hong Kong's population expands to 10 or 20 million," Lam says.
Despite his reputation as a Leung supporter, the country parks issue was not the first time the former official had opened fire on the government since he retired four years ago.
Only a year into retirement, Lam tore into his former colleague and then secretary for education Michael Suen Ming-yeung when the minister announced a voluntary class-reduction scheme. Lam said the scheme would create "social injustice" and reduce the chances of students from low-income families entering good public schools.
Last year, Lam also questioned the need for a third runway at Chek Lap Kok airport, as well as the scope of an environmental impact study proposed for the HK$130 billion project. He cited fears that the city simply did not have the capacity to deal with more visitors.
Addressing his comments, Lam says his grass-roots background and 35 years of experience as a meteorologist have helped him develop an outspoken style and sensitivity to public opinion.
"The Observatory often launches new things, and the people there are self-motivated … It has a very different culture [from other departments], because we have to see the needs of the outside [world] and think of how to adopt new technologies, so we are aware of social and technological changes," Lam says. "This cannot be done by relying on guidelines, [because] guidelines and regulations cannot generate innovation."
He cited as evidence of the Observatory's adaptability, the decision in 2006 to replace a 30-year-old typhoon measurement system which relied solely on wind speeds recorded at Kai Tak, with an eight-station system to assess the strength of typhoons.
His department was criticised after Typhoon Prapiroon lashed parts of Hong Kong that year with gusts of up to 200km/h, stranding thousands of passengers at the airport, despite only being rated a No3 typhoon.
Lam graduated from King's College, the same secondary school as the chief executive. When he finished Form Seven in 1968, Leung was in Form Two. He says if other chief executive candidates had asked for help last year, he would have helped them with their campaigns as well.
The only political label Lam might be willing to accept was that of "government backer", he suggested.
"I am not a supporter of Leung, I am a supporter of the government, and I will do my utmost to keep the government functioning effectively and meeting the needs of Hong Kong people.
"I don't think [insisting] on criticising and attacking, and forcing ministers to [resign] one after another can [achieve such an aim]," he says.
And as for the country parks and other environmental issues, Lam says he will continue to live a green lifestyle.
He says he enjoys walking rather than taking public transport, and turning off lights and air conditioners unless they are absolutely necessary.
"I want Hongkongers to know how wasteful we are, how it damages the global environment," he says. "And how materialism is making us unhappy."
1961-1968 King's College
1968-1972 University of Hong Kong, degree in physics
1972-1973 Studied meteorology at Imperial College London
1973-1974 Teacher at Ming Kei College
1974 Joined Royal Observatory as a scientific officer
2003-2009 Director of the Observatory
Adjunct professor in the Geography and Resource Management Department at Chinese University
Chairman of the Environmental Campaign Committee
2009-2011 President of King's College Old Boys' Association
Married with two sons