Q: What can be done when the needs of younger people are sometimes difficult to define, let alone address? A: If you don't 'unlock' what people want to do, I think it's difficult to really come up with a concrete solution People all around him may be talking about political deadlock and social strife, but for the man who runs the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the venerable betting institution is a relative sea of calm - a healer of wounds, if you will. Jockey Club chief executive officer Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges says Hongkongers need to keep their spirits up during these trying times, and the city's biggest community benefactor and taxpayer will do its part to help. "Hong Kong has a proven record of overcoming difficulties, challenges. And that's what has made Hong Kong different," says the German horse-racing veteran, who has lived in the city for 17 years, and witnessed first hand the devastation caused by the Sars epidemic of 2003. He recalls how the Jockey Club considered suspending races during the height of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome but decided against depriving Hongkongers of their favourite pastime when it was all doom and gloom. Similarly, after last year's Occupy protests and the acrimonious political fallout that has left deep divisions in society, he wants the club to play a healing role with its double mission to provide betting entertainment and plough the money earned back into the community. The Occupy movement did not influence the club's business, he says. "I think in a way if people go to the races, they see it probably as a relief from work or from other issues. And that's why we, in a way, try to enhance entertainment. "I think Hong Kong is a very tense city. And sometimes it needs [a moment] to live a different life." But he also points to some pressing local issues that need to be addressed, such as the ageing population and an increasing number of disconnected, disillusioned young people. In his view, many Hongkongers have an identity crisis and do not know what they really want. Engelbrecht-Bresges, who took up the reins of the club in 2007, stresses the organisation's lasting relationship with the local community. "When you listen to people saying 'Ma Wui' [the Jockey Club in Cantonese], it is really something which comes from the heart. And we are part of society, part of the culture," he says. With about 24,800 full-time and part-time employees, the club is one of Hong Kong's largest employers. It's also the city's single biggest taxpayer and contributor to charity. In the past financial year, its total tax payment amounted to HK$19.58 billion, a record high. Its charitable donations reached another record high of HK$3.6 billion during the same period. As the club's donations have continued to grow, Engelbrecht-Bresges says it is crucial that the money is well spent. "For me it is not figures, it is the projects we have done and how we have tried [to help]. And hopefully they have improved the quality of life of Hong Kong people," he says. The club has identified key areas to focus on: building Hong Kong into an ageing-friendly city, channelling youth energy into social innovation, and supporting sports projects that can create lifelong discipline, positive values and goals. Like many developed economies, Hong Kong has seen its population age because of low birth rates. The Jockey Club chief executive considers it a critical social problem that needs to be tackled now. "If you look at the demographic development, a lot of people don't really have a good understanding of what kind of massive demographic shift would influence the life of people," he says. As an example, he cites the lack of adequate healthcare coverage for many elderly residents, illustrated by the case of a 78-year-old man he met who had to wait up to six years for relatively simple cataract surgery. "The system is clogged … If you see the dimension of this now and you fast-forward 10 or 15 years, it will be even more [serious]." The club donated HK$1.3 billion to Chinese University last year to develop the city's first not-for-profit and self-financing teaching hospital to serve the public. Engelbrecht-Bresges hopes elderly people are able to benefit from this new facility and get access to timely, quality medical treatment. While services for the aged can be improved to a great extent simply by investing in certain targeted infrastructure projects, the actual needs of younger people are sometimes difficult to define, let alone address. "When I talk to young people, I find a lot of them are very smart young people, but when it comes to articulating what they want, I think they have difficulties," Engelbrecht-Bresges says. "If you don't 'unlock' what people want to do, I think it's difficult to really come up with a concrete solution." The club recently launched a programme to help guide the younger generation in their search for career pathways through partnerships with various sectors in the community. The project aims not only to benefit students, but also to reach out to non-engaged school graduates through district service teams operated by experienced non-governmental organisations. Engelbrecht-Bresges says he is worried that many youngsters who are no longer in school are completely "disconnected" from mainstream society. He wants to help them reconnect. "I hope the career life planning programme can give us a much better grasp of what these young people really would like to do, how they want to explore life. And then we hopefully can support them." As a soccer fan and a regular player himself, the jockey club CEO is a firm believer in the power of sport and its ability to transform young lives. "From my personal experience, sport has helped me," he says. "Academically I was always very good - but [sport] has helped me in my character building, in [keeping] my discipline … and it has helped me to connect to a wider group of people in a team." He feels that concept should be a perfect combination with Hong Kong's famous can-do spirit. "Most people still have that can-do spirit," he says. "It is very important not to lose the can-do spirit and pragmatism. Because you can be dogmatic, but dogmatic thinking doesn't solve problems. "In the end you have to go back to what is practical, and what is beneficial … Hong Kong has to keep [its can-do spirit]." In his view, Hong Kong also needs a strong middle class as a key driver of the economy, citing his home country Germany as an example that a place's success could be attributed to a significant middle class. He advises aspiring young career starters to have a wider view and grasp new opportunities to widen their horizons. Looking ahead, he sees the Jockey Club, founded in 1884, continuing to build on its strengths and its winning formula. "We are not bound by quarterly results, which I think sometimes leads to very short-term business decisions. We have always three, five, 10 years. And that's why we think that is one of our strengths. And that's why I think we are very important … "During a little bit of crisis, we keep a positive spirit and show that we believe in Hong Kong." On a final note, the man who oversees Hong Kong's only official lottery has a twinkle in his eye when asked for betting tips. "I don't encourage gambling," he says. But then he goes on to suggest that you should only pick numbers that you think no one else will - that means no birthdays, anniversaries or other common dates. "That way you don't have to share the prize with so many others," he explains. Obvious, perhaps, but still significant coming straight from the horse's mouth. POLICYMAKERS ‘NEED TO BE BRAVE’ IN TACKLING HOUSING CRISIS While he runs an organisation that donates billions of dollars to charity, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges does not see any scope for the Jockey Club to be involved in the actual building of flats in a city where most people can't afford to buy their own homes. "I think we should focus more on the software than on the hardware, because hardware, if you would go into this area, I think our resources would be very quickly exhausted," he says. By software, he means people, and the need to help them help themselves rather than give them ready-made gifts such as affordable homes. But Engelbrecht-Bresges has strong views about housing, and what is wrong with the whole scenario of putting a roof over people's heads. He warns that it's going to be a big problem for the middle class in particular. "The policy of building flats, about 300 sq ft, it will create an even bigger issue if you look at 30 years ahead," he explains. "You cannot live in there as a family … if you look 30 years ahead, how many government housing units are suitable flats for the elderly people to live there?" He singles out the land premium developers have to pay the government as the crux of the problem. "It costs you a HK$6,000 land premium for a square foot. If you look at HK$6,000, even if you don't make a profit, to build a flat, you are already at HK$12,000. You multiply it by 800 sq ft, it is unaffordable." And looking at the land premium, he suggests the solution is right there - get rid of it. But he admits it will require radical decision-making and political courage to adopt this approach. "You have to really think about it. You have to be brave," he says. "The scarcity of land is aggravated by a significant land premium. And you have to find different ways later to ask people to make certain contributions to compensate for their significant loss you have in the beginning." He feels Hong Kong's approach to solving the housing crisis is too short-sighted. "In policymaking, a lot of time you should think about 30 years [ahead], which is very, very difficult. As a politician, at a lot of times you only look at three or four years." He does see light at the end of the tunnel, though. "[There are] more and more think tanks who hopefully articulate more longer term sustainable strategies and economic policies which hopefully can help shape the political discussion, because at the moment the political discussion is very much short-term-based." Engelbrecht-Bresges, who joined the Jockey Club in 1998 as director of racing, extended his portfolio to manage the club's property department in 2000. He took over the CEO's post in February 2007. The club gives him credit for his "significant role in uplifting the quality and profile of Hong Kong horse racing to world-class standards".