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Speech by Permanent Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food


Following is the speech (English only) by the Permanent Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Mrs Carrie Yau, at the JAL Scholarship Programme Award Presentation Ceremony today (June 2):

Mr Aota, guests, ladies and gentlemen,

About a month later our young "scholars" Ka Yan and Claudia will be heading for a wonderful journey to be exposed to new cultures through interaction with other young people from different countries. I am sure you will have a fascinating experience in Japan. The great moments I enjoyed there many years ago seemed like yesterday's happenings, and I still miss the good old days! My congratulations again to your success!

With this scholarship and the recognition it represents, you are turning a new page of your life. An exciting adventure is out there waiting for you, and your talents will give you plenty of opportunities in the years to come. I have every confidence in your ability and your determination to becoming a global citizen in the 21st century.

Surely, it does take some more skills to develop a successful career or to lead a meaningful life in today's world than, say, 29 years ago, when I first became a "JAL scholar". You may not be able to get a good job if, for instance, you know nothing about IT, SMS, 3G ¡K nowadays. But as our young "scholars" you should not have too many difficulties in keeping yourself abreast of technology.

As a long serving civil servant, what I would like to share with you today is one core value that I have always treasured during my government years, and that I still remind myself of everyday. That is my belief in honesty.

Honesty, to me, is not just loyalty to the truth. The "truth" in today's world has to be based on evidence, data and people's sentiments. In fact, you simply cannot hide things from people in this Age of Information, when you can find virtually anything you want to know on the Internet by using those powerful "search engines"; when your stakeholders and constituents are much more knowledgeable than before; and with all types of information business mushrooming, selling data and intelligence in cyberspace. And you must have heard about how enterprises which were once great and gigantic collapsed just because they failed to be honest with their regulators and their shareholders; and how politicians lost people's favour overnight when they had not been able to keep their promises.

If there were a brand for every successful people and organisation, and for them to safeguard, I would say that, honesty is the very brand for modern management. Honesty requires courage and commitment so that we deliver not just always the 'good' news, but also the "bad" news to the people. It is better to explain where ahead lies potential pitfalls of policy directions than promising a 'rose garden' where you know the roses will never be able to grow. As an official responsible for health policy formulation, I must say that being frank with the public was probably the most important factor which had helped us enlist the support of the community during our fight against SARS last year.

Right from the very beginning of the epidemic, which was caused by a deadly virus unknown to everybody at that time, we made all attempt to arrange daily press conference to disseminate all information we had. We had to be honest in telling people "what we know as well as what we do not know" at the time. When the message expected by the public were made available to them in the same place, at the same time, and by the same person, we eliminated most uncertainty. People started to calm down, and the Government started to build up its credibility with the local and international community at the height of the crisis till the crisis finally subsided.

Honesty is not only important when you communicate externally, but also internally, if you were to win your colleagues' trust and build teamwork. Only by this can you establish your credibility and encourage your colleagues to speak up, advise you with the best solutions, and give their best. To have a first class civil service, we need to groom managers who always "speak truth into power".

During SARS time I coordinated interdepartmental actions to fight the disease. There is a roadshow at the MTR Olympic Station to showcase how civil servants from over 20 to 30 departments fought SARS. At the time requiring swift emergency response action, whenever I put forward an issue for colleagues' consideration, I made no simplification or exaggeration. I could only have their support by being honest and frank with them about prescribed targets and deadlines against practical constraints. This 'wartime' experience was most unforgettable. Thanks to the cooperation of the civil servants as well as the affected residents in the Amoy Garden, we had made the evacuation exercise at the peak of SARS possible just within hours after the decision was made from the top.

I was also most encouraged when a veteran police officer offered a suggestion to me to make use of their super-computer criminal investigation system to track the close-contacts of SARS patients, a task which gave us the biggest headache. This police officer took the risk of being 'reprimand' for over-stretching his imagination but he stood up to give his best advice at the time. I was receptive albeit not without concern. The marriage between the police contact tracing system and our clinical databases turned out to be so successful that it helped us track over 26,000 close-contacts of the SARS patients. The system has won this year's Stockholm Challenge Award in recognition of our innovative use of IT coupled with effective management in containing the spread of a new disease.

It may not be always easy to be honest, and there could be some episodes in your life when you may be very tempted to tell the unreal side or half-truth of the story. My best advice is don't give way to it. For intelligent young people like you who have excelled in your study, and who are so keen and ready for immersing yourself in different cultures, you have everything in hand to head for a bright future. And it could be this very virtue that blesses and supports you when you sail through life's rough high sea.

Thank you very much.

Ends/Wednesday, June 2, 2004


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