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Guy Mowbray SAYER

Doctor of Laws
honoris causa

Mr Chancellor, I present to you Guy Mowbray Sayer, CBE for the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

Guy Sayer comes from a "Hong Kong family" as it were, the Sayers had a connection with Hong Kong going back to the time of the foundation of HKU. His father Geoffrey Robley Sayer, an historian of Hong Kong, arrived in Hong Kong in 1910 and in 1925, as a very small child, Guy Sayer himself came – so the affairs of Hong Kong right back to the creation of the colony in the 1840s must have been the daily diet in the Sayer household.

Mr Sayer was born in London and went to school in Shrewsbury School, but his tertiary education was interrupted by World War II. When the war came he joined the Royal Navy as a volunteer and served on all ships, from destroyers to aircraft carriers. He saw service in the North Atlantic, on the Russian convoy route and in the liberation of Europe.

The year 1946 saw his demobilization but also presented him with a dilemma. Naturally, Mr Sayer Senior suggested the East and so in August 1946, Guy Sayer was taken on by the Bank at the remarkable weekly salary of 2.8 shillings per week.

In May 1947 Hong Kong itself was a gamble. The recovery of the colony was problematical. However, the Bank took a deep breath and began to finance businesses, not without some risk and even honoured some duress bank-notes.

From November 1942 to May 1951, Guy Sayer worked both at Tientsin and Peking. He enjoyed a ring-side seat at the dramatic events as a new China emerged.

Guy Sayers career in the service of the Bank took him next to Malaysia, Burma and Japan. He then returned to Hong Kong in 1965 as manager of the Mongkok branch. In 1967, Mongkok was by no means the most salubrious or placid place from which to view the "disturbances" (to use the euphemism). His career through the hierarchy was now carried on at a breakneck pace – 1969, Staff Controller (a taxing position indeed): 1970, General Manager: 1970, Director; 1971 Deputy Chairman; 1972, Chairman. On his retirement in 1977, he was awarded the CBE (in this year’s New Year Honours List).

Mr Chancellor, most of us only dimly perceive the upper levels of the world of high finance, we are more concerned with wresting with the teller, looking upon the profession perhaps some degree of prejudice, believing in the wicked words of Mark Twain: “a banker is a fellow who lends his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain”. The higher reaches of the world of banking suggest cloud covered mountains enveloped in mystery.

During his time as Chairman of the Bank, Guy Sayer saw its operations expand, proliferate and flourish. Hong Kong was no longer merely a regional entrepot oriental outpost – it became – in its own right – a competitor with London, Zurich and New York.

The Bank itself is totally immersed in Hong Kong’s business life: it has been since its inception, our equivalent to the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. One story, Mr Chancellor, is that the origins of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation were to be seen over a game of poker. The truth alas, is more prosaic.

Guy Sayer himself has related the story. In 1864, a Scotsman called Thomas Sutherland, a superintendent of the P & O Shipping Company, heard of a plan to set up the Royal Bank of China, originating if you please, from Bombay. Sutherland scotched, as it were, the plan. On the very night of hearing of the project, he set down in his own hand the prospectus of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and, in one week, raised five million dollars. (One week before the Bombay Group.)

Sutherland (who incidentally had never owned a bank account in his life) became the first Deputy Chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. Moreover, because the government could not obtain cash from its own bankers before the end of 1866, the Bank obliged. Not perhaps, Mr Chancellor, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street; but perhaps the Damsel of Des Voeux Road.

In a speech delivered to the officers of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation he said, albeit in another context: “A banker spends most of his time trying to reduce exposure…” Tonight, Mr Chancellor, we wish to give him maximum exposure.

His succinct and quietly penetrating comments on Hong Kong are known to many but may I perhaps repeat a selection tonight. On the question of the Stockmarket, which showed more than a suggestion of over-excitement in the early 1970s, he said: “Free enterprise should not only be seen to work, but also be seen to be accompanied by self-discipline”.

…On Hong Kong itself he said: “What astounds outsiders and sometimes ourselves is this ability to withstand and adapt to practically any adversity”.

…The ideal manager, he thought, should understand the art of taking the "plus" factors and make them triumph over the "minus" factors.

…As far as money is concerned, he argued that – “those who don’t study the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them”.

…Hong Kong’s growth he thought, must rank as “surely one of the great success stories of all time”.

He noted, with the banker’s relish for figures, that a toy factory in Tuen Mun had developed a capacity which enabled it to produce 290 million dolls in a ten year period. I cannot resist the comment : Guy on Dolls.

Of his own banking group he is immensely proud: he spoke of its “pure professionalism, adaptability and enterprise”. But he was also involved as a director of a number of subsidiary and associated companies with a very varied range of enterprises. For the Bank obviously took Bacon to heart. “Money is like muck – not good lest it be spread.”

Guy Sayer’s financial acumen “spread” into our own University portals – as we have reason to be grateful. He became Treasurer of the University in 1972 and of a number of various committees concerned with finance, including the finance committee (as Chairman), the Universities Joint Salaries Committee, and Chairman of the Investments Sub-Committee. Hong Kong University’s income was $52 million per annum in 1972, in 1977, it was $95 million.

Mr Chancellor, had his advice from investment policy to endowment funds, from stocks to fire insurance been any less prudent than it was during these years, we might not be sitting here today so pleasurably to honour him.

Your Excellency too, knows that Guy Sayer lent his knowledge and experience to both the Legislative and Executive Councils and led to the happy combination of financial skill and decision-making.

We at Hong Kong University are in debt, currently and latterly, to the capital efforts of Guy Sayer. He has invested us with a large fund of much appreciated goodwill; the interest which he has shown can never be depreciated.

For his manifold talents as an economist and financier carrying Hong Kong’s commercial flag and in tribute to his endeavours to the cause of supporting education in the most practical and possible way, I call upon you, Mr Chancellor, to confer on Guy Mowbray Sayer, the degree of LLD Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

Citation written and delivered by Professor Peter Bernard Harris, BA, BSC (Econ), PhD., DLitt (PCE), the Public Orator of the University.

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