Opinion

Former government adviser and writer Leo Goodstadt was a true friend of Hong Kong

Henry Lui
  • The former head of the Central Policy Unit cared deeply about the city and helped even those he criticised.
  • He was admired by people on all sides of the political spectrum.
Henry Lui |

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Leo Goodstadt, former head of the Central Policy Unit from 1989-97, speaking at the seminar "Is Hong Kong still Governable?", held at The University of Hong Kong (HKU), Pok Fu Lam. 14APR11

Hong Kong lost a part of itself when Leo Goodstadt died last month at age 81. A mentor and adviser to many of the city’s elite, the former head of the government’s Central Policy Unit was respected and admired by people on both sides of the political spectrum. The man who I knew as “Uncle Leo” will be dearly missed.

I first got to know Uncle Leo, a close family friend, during my formative years. Despite my young age, he never spoke down to me or patronised me in any way. Our conversations were never about him or his ideas, but about me and what I brought to the table. He saw everyone as equal, even though he had every right not to.

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His humility was something you would notice right away. Having arrived in Hong Kong in 1962, he picked up Cantonese quickly and was always keen to use it. This was so even at the Hong Kong Club, which was very much a colonial institution, but where he insisted on speaking to the staff in Cantonese (there was an unspoken rule at the time that only English should be used). Every interaction he had with others left them with a smile.

Although Uncle Leo moved to Ireland after retiring from his government post in 1997, his heart never left Hong Kong. He continued his research on the city and read local papers religiously. He could tell you about the daily happenings here from 10,000 kilometres away.

When I asked him about politics in Britain, the country which once employed him as a colonial official, he told me he simply wasn’t interested. He cared only about the city, and his five books on Hong Kong are essential reading for anyone who wants to make an earnest attempt at understanding its politics.

Perhaps the most important thing about Uncle Leo was his impartiality. Professionally, he produced his work from a journalistic perspective and let the reader come to their own conclusions. As he was not – and never intended to be – a politician, he eschewed all the polemics, and resolved to assess people by the standards they set for themselves. The suggestions he put forward were never meant to provoke or antagonise anyone, but to solve real-life problems.

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He replicated this quality on a personal level – he was always willing to offer a helping hand even to those who he criticised extensively in his books. He might have disagreed with people, but he never made any enemies.

His death has come at an especially difficult time for Hong Kong. In one of the most recent conversations I had with him, he expressed hope that someone, some day, would be able to get both sides to the table and come up with a solution which would be acceptable to everyone.

Until the very end, he focused his mind on solving problems for everyone else rather than for himself. Let’s hope that more people like Uncle Leo will have the chance to serve Hong Kong in future.