Remembering the Sir of Sirs: former Hong Kong justice chief recalls late political veteran Chung Sze-yuen’s insight and integrity
- Former secretary for justice Wong Yan-lung says ‘godfather of Hong Kong politics’ still had city’s well-being at heart in his final years
The death of Chung Sze-yuen, the “godfather of Hong Kong politics”, on November 14 was mourned by figures across the political spectrum. Former secretary for justice Wong Yan-lung wrote to the Post to share his memories of Chung, a close friend of his father-in-law’s, recalling his first impressions of the veteran politician and how the heavyweight still had Hong Kong affairs in his heart during his final years.
In memory of Sir Chung Sze-yuen, GBM, CBE, JP
I had the honour of being the emcee of Sir SY’s birthday celebrations for about 10 years, including his last and 101st birthday party on November 3, 2018 hosted by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor at Government House at her personal expense.
This was my introduction:
“Someone has said, ‘It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.” But when you are already more than a centenarian, and in most of your 100 years of life you have been in the forefront of historic moments of Hong Kong, pioneering in different fields with outstanding achievements and contributions, your birthday will not be a private affair, but a cause for celebration for the entire community.”
Likewise, Sir SY’s passing is not a matter of private affair. It is an occasion of remembrance by the people of Hong Kong, especially those who have sailed through the 1997 transition with him.
Sir SY was a good friend of my late father-in-law. I remember once visiting him at his Clear Water Bay home over Lunar New Year. Upon learning I was a member of the Bar Council, Sir SY swiftly produced two pocket-sized copies of the Basic Law and challenged me to debate over a recent statement issued by the Bar. Not only was he on top of the nuances of the arguments, for and against, he was also very persistent.
Formidable as he was, Sir SY was a perfect gentleman. Gracious in all his demeanour and etiquette (including his flawlessly written letters of invitations and thanks), he was witty with a rather English sense of humour. He spoke and joked at my wedding banquet, and excelled in embarrassing me to the amusement of my lawyer friends.
Sir SY had an exceptional brain. He was disciplined, meticulous and exacting, with which I reckoned first-hand when I helped him go through his memoirs in 2001. He was uncompromising on the accuracy of the contents and extremely fair in presenting matters of controversy.
Former government colleagues recounted their meetings (including Executive Council meetings) with Sir SY with fear and trembling. He was always the one who had the details at his fingertips and who would unreservedly cross-examine the government officials on crucial matters left out, inadvertently or deliberately, from the written briefings.
Sir SY had a penetrating insight honed by his pursuit of perfection and years of unparalleled experience. He could see through the developing trends and correctly predict the endgame. Such exceptional wisdom and vision were fully borne out by his pioneering role in the establishment of three universities (the Hong Kong Polytechnic, the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) and the Hospital Authority.
However, what impresses me most is Sir SY’s honesty, a rare quality among politicians. It was against his fibre to depart from what he believed in. Although strong-willed, Sir SY was not intolerant or inconsiderate. He listened carefully to different views and always had regard for the broader picture and the wider public interest.
All who had worked with him can testify that Sir SY had the interest of Hong Kong and the interest of the Hong Kong people in the forefront of his consideration at all times. There is no better example than what he did for Hong Kong in the 1980s during the negotiations between China and Britain over Hong Kong’s future. In defiance of the immense political pressure mounting from different sides, he said no, so he could say yes to the right thing according to his heart.
“When you are in public service, do not ever think of yourself or what you might get out of it personally,” he would advise everyone stepping into the hot kitchen.
In recent years, Sir SY had the occasional and inevitable episode of ill health. Sometimes when his children were not in Hong Kong, my wife and I would help out in whatever small ways we could, including sweetening him with his favourite coconut tarts.
Even when the physical body was faltering, Sir SY was all there in the mind, with no trace of dementia, keeping abreast of the important events in Hong Kong and elsewhere. He was saddened and worried by certain developments in Hong Kong, such as the increasing polarisation of our society and the hostile political environment that deterred people from taking up public office. His heart was still with the well-being of Hong Kong.
It is that well-tested purity of heart that marked Sir SY out as our “Tai Sir” (“the Sir of all Sirs”, as he was affectionately called), that earned him well-deserved accolades from across the entire political spectrum. We should be thankful for all that Sir SY has done for us. He will be very greatly missed.