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Catherine Joyce SYMONS

Doctor of Laws
honoris causa

Mr Chancellor, I present to you the Hon Catherine Joyce Symons OBE for the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

Joyce Anderson was born at Shanghai and came to Hong Kong at the age of three. Her early education was spent in part at the Diocesan Girls’ School, where she was Head Girl, and no doubt little thought that one day she would return as Headmistress – a long way from the cold winter morning in January 1926 when she first entered the school.

She was of course one of our own graduates, studying for the degree of Bachelor of Arts in English and Geography, and, subsequently she graduated in 1939 at the end of the course which we then offered to undergraduates. One of her more vivid memories is of the intellectual challenges presented by the Jesuits who then lectured on the elements of geography.

When the war came, of course, Joyce Symons had her share of tragedy, losing a brother, Donald Anderson, at the fighting at Wong Nai Chong Gap. During the Japanese occupation, the school itself was a Japanese army base and was in danger of dismemberment until, at the end of the war, Miss Gibbins hastened back to DGS to ensure its immediate continuance.

The Diocesan Girls’ School was of course half a century old when the University of Hong Kong was founded, and it was an institution which was attached to a religious education in the broadest sense.

Joyce Symons had, in the meantime, proceeded to London to qualify as a trained teacher at London University’s Institute of Education – in the year 1947. She has been with the school ever since – and that, Mr Chancellor, is a remarkable story.

Her career at DGS was a story of a meteoric rise to success. Shortly after the resumption of a normal Hong Kong life she took up teaching and indeed was soon to be Acting Headmistress. In 1953 she became Headmistress and we have in 1978 at last succeeded in bringing her here today for our own special honour.

We are not today commending Joyce Symons to you solely as a woman, a teacher, a citizen and as a student of public affairs. We are not merely honouring an observer but an active participant in Hong Kong’s public life. Mrs Symons is not a mere Miss Brodie brooding over her prime, but she is an esteemed public figure with a vast experience in Hong Kong’s public life.

In 1955 she came into touch with educational bureaucracy through a continuing association with the Grant Schools Council and no doubt this experience gave her and insight into the workings of the machinery of the government in Hong Kong.

In 1965 she moved one step closer to this machinery and to serve on another body, the Transport Advisory Committee and hence to apply her talents to a critical area of our crowded city-transport.

The call then came in 1969 to serve on the Urban Council. For the next three challenging years she was to sharpen her steel in the Council’s debates.

From 1972, she undertook her four-year tenure on the Legislative Council. While on the Legislative Council, Mrs Symons asked questions on an impressive range of subjects all the way from air traffic control at Kai Tak to leaky examination papers (or, if you like, from happy landings to unhappy meanderings). Mrs Symons now enjoyed a grandstand view as your Excellency presided over the making of legislation which generated so many of our recent changes. Many of these closely concerned Mrs Symons – education, social welfare, and the battle against corruption.

Mr Chancellor, on this subject, Bertolt Brecht once said: “God is merciful and men are bribable, and that’s how his will is done on earth as it is in Heaven”. But it has become Hong Kong’s duty to ponder such sentiments.

As regards to the latter, of course, Joyce Symons sat on the target committee of the ICAC and also on the Advisory Committee on Corruption of the ICAC. More recently she has of course been appointed to serve on the committee to monitor complaints involving the Commission. From the breadth of her experience she has lent her sober powers of analysis and a sense of realism into one of Hong Kong’s most delicate and difficult problems – that of corruption.

Your Excellency has sought the sage council of Mrs Symons at the apex of our formal system of government, in your Executive Council on which she has sat, since 1976. We have perhaps witnessed the “institutionalisation” of Joyce Symons, in that happy marriage of society, government and service.

She had of course in the meantime been honoured by Government (JP 1965) and Queen (OBE 1971) – but only today can the University on whose court she has served over the years, pay her the compliment in the name of Education.

It is of course to Education that her life has been given, no doubt recalling HG Well’s famous words that the progression of man (and woman) is more and more a race between education and catastrophe. At one time education in Hong Kong resembled bread in a besieged town; where every man gets a little, but no man gets a full meal. At the same time of course the Diocesan School is deeply committed to the Anglican Communion and the importance of spiritual and moral education. The Duke of Wellington said of men: “if you educate men without religion you make them but clever devils”. It is not recorded what the Iron Duke said about girls in this respect, but no doubt the sentiments would have been the same.

Mr Chancellor, Joyce Symons once in Legislative Council used a phrase to describe herself which fits her exactly, she said: “I am a concerned citizen whose home is here”. For a quarter of a century, she has led her young ladies towards Education’s Green Pastures. Asked what would be the thing that Hong Kong (in the long eye of history) would be remembered for – she said: “It is in an approach to life and the exercise of freedom”.

For her contribution to the call of Education in Hong Kong, and to her public service in a wide range of areas, issues and institutions, I call on you Mr Chancellor, to award Catherine Joyce Symons, the degree of 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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