Academic Nicholas Yang waits for his appointment as Hong Kong's new technology minister

Yang quit his university job to take up a government advisory role; he is tipped to head new bureau once funding is approved

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 March, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 March, 2015, 5:52pm

He had been waiting three years to become the city's first innovation and technology minister. But all that Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung got last week was the job of pro bono adviser to Leung Chun-ying after the chief executive failed yet again to sell his bureau plan to lawmakers.

All eyes are now on how Yang - a former Cyberport CEO and holder of two master's degrees from Stanford University - will portray himself as the man destined to run a bureau that remains just a proposal, even though Leung first floated the idea during his election campaign in 2012.

Back then, Yang was already tipped to become the minister. He refused to say whether his visit to the US consulate at the time was to revoke his US nationality. Principal officials are not allowed to hold a foreign passport.

While Leung failed yet again last month to secure funding for the new bureau from the Finance Committee because of a filibuster by pan-democrats, Yang nonetheless quit as Polytechnic University's vice-president to join Leung's team as his innovation and technology adviser and an Executive Council member.

He will also lead a new advisory body that will replace the current steering committee on innovation and technology.

The 59-year-old Taiwan-born Yang - whom Leung said had "extensive experience, personal networks and an international perspective" - refused to be interviewed for this profile.

He said in emails to the South China Morning Post that he needed "some time to learn and listen" - but former government minister Joseph Wong Wing-ping, who was commerce secretary when Yang was in charge of Cyberport, said he shouldn't get much time. The retired official said Yang should produce a concrete report within six months.

Wong said the adviser should explain why a bureau was necessary while other technologically advanced places, such as Singapore, South Korea and the US, do not have similar bodies.

Introducing his new adviser to the media a week ago, Leung did not say what exactly Yang would do or specify how long his term would be - "till the bureau is established", was how the chief executive put it.

"The government is very ambiguous. It is unclear what his role actually is. And there has been no mention of what the scope of his work is. That's strange for a government adviser," said Wong, also a former secretary for the civil service.

But Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, an Exco member and lawmaker, said Yang was certainly "a talent", citing his academic and work background.

Yang was a consultant to the New People's Party, of which Ip is founding chairwoman.

A connoisseur of wines and a farming enthusiast, Yang was Cyberport CEO for seven years, turning the government-led hub for technology businesses in Pok Fu Lam into a profitable concern.

He went on to spend five years at the Polytechnic University. During that time, he was involved in the institution's hotel development, which academics considered a success.

However, Yang was involved in controversy four years ago when Jeremy Godfrey, the government's former information technology chief, complained of political pressure to award a lucrative contract to a company called iProA. Yang was audit chief at the eInclusion Foundation, the body set up to implement the contract to help needy families get online.

The authorities later terminated the contract with the foundation as it had mishandled government funds. The Independent Commission Against Corruption investigated, but took no further action. Yang remained largely unscathed.

Yang's transition to technology minister remains uncertain. It remains to be seen whether the Legislative Council will give the nod later this month to Leung's renewed bid to set up the bureau. But even if it is approved, Yang's task will not be easy.

"The hardware - like the Science Park and Cyberport - is important, but what matters more is the software like talent and training," said Aldar Chan Chun-fai, principal engineer with the exploratory research laboratory at the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute.

Some issues, Chan noted, were especially difficult to tackle. Education is one of them. While Singapore's five universities have clear distinctions in their focus on technology, Hong Kong's eight universities offer mostly the same technological education.

Whether Yang will be able to change this and boost Hong Kong's ability to innovate is - like his undefined tenure or future job - far from clear.


Nicholas Yang

Born in Taiwan, 1955


BSc in electrical engineering and applied mathematics, California Institute of Technology, 1977
MSc in electrical engineering, Stanford University, 1978
MBA, Stanford University, 1982

Senior design engineer, Intel Corporation, and strategic management consultant, Bain & Company, 1978-83
Executive director and deputy group managing director, Shell Electric Manufacturing (Holdings), 1983-99
Vice-president, JDS Uniphase Corporation, 1999-2002
Chief executive, Hong Kong Cyberport, 2003-10
Executive vice-president, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 2010-15