Sir David Akers-Jones
Former Chief Secretary and Acting Governor
Incredibly, Sir David Akers-Jones has been living in Hong Kong for 67 years. During his 30-year tenure in the colonial government as a civil servant, the 85-year-old former Chief Secretary witnessed the sudden death of former Governor Edward Youde, the coming into being of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and, of course, the 1997 Handover.
After retiring from the government, he became an advisor on Hong Kong Issues to the central government from 1993 to 1997, and was appointed a member of the Selection Committee for the first SAR government in 1996. “I’m very concerned about the problems of housing, welfare, hospitals and education in Hong Kong,” Akers-Jones tells Time Out. “The shortage of housing supply has always been the only major reason of Hong Kong people’s unhappiness.”
That is why he considers the 10-year programme of public housing construction, implemented in 1973 for some 1.8 million residents, as one of his ‘best achievements’ as a civil servant with the then governor Murray MacLehose.
“MacLehose was so mad when he was in Hong Kong,” he recalls. “He asked us how many people without [bathrooms] or sharing bathrooms and lavatories there were. We told him there were 1.3 million.” Because of this shortage, the colonial government decided to kick-start the programme. But the SAR government halted the construction of affordable housing in 2002, which deeply disappointed Akers-Jones. “The problem facing Hong Kong is really one of time. Even if we restarted building affordable housing right now, there is still 10 years’ gap to fill. To identify, reclaim, buy and convert land for development all takes time. We can’t produce housing like magic. That’s a sad thing.”
He doesn’t believe there is a shortage of land in Hong Kong. “For example, between Tuen Mun and Yuen Long there are enormous quantities of land lying idle, waiting for a development plan.” But he also admits that re-zoning and planning of land for development is one of the difficulties for the government.
Interestingly, Akers-Jones had problems with his own housing. He bought a house in Sham Tseng for HK$1.5 million after he retired in 1987. But in 2001, the government re-took the house and tore it down in order to widen Castle Peak Road. “The government paid me for the land, and then it knocked my house down,” he says. “I spent all my years in the government knocking other people’s houses down, and yet now my own house is being knocked down.”
The compensation paid by the government, according to Akers-Jones, was not enough to buy a new house, so he has been renting a flat in Wan Chai ever since.
As president of the Business and Professionals Federation of Hong Kong (BPF), one of the first think tanks in the city, he feels Hong Kong’s research organisations have had little influence on the government. “The government listens to these voices, but doesn’t actually respond and get the ideas into public debate.” He shows Time Out a collection of papers on various social issues which the BPF has published and sent to the government, adding that they received no reply. “I’m disappointed that we’ve never managed to have a dialogue with the government on the work we’ve done.” He stresses that this is only his personal feeling, and he also thinks such a practice is ‘not uncommon’ in other countries.
Earlier this year, a commentary on Wall Street Journal argued that Hong Kong was better under the British. “I think comparisons like that are not helpful at all,” says Akers-Jones. “We should concentrate on now. What’s wrong now? Let’s put it right. That’s much more important than thinking about the past.”
As for Hong Kong’s need for transparent democratic elections, Akers-Jones responds by quoting President Hu Jintao in that democracy should be advanced ‘in a gradual and orderly manner’. “For better, or for worse, Hong Kong’s future is tied to China’s,” he adds. On this matter, Akers-Jones walks the walk. He is the honorary chairman of the Wu Zhi Qiao Charitable Foundation, which builds bridges in poor and remote areas of the Mainland. Despite a niggling knee problem, he still manages to visit these remote areas from time to time. “Maybe this year I’ll have an operation on my knee,” he laughs. “It’s done good service for 85 years. Now it’s beginning to wear out!” Interview: Shirley Zhao