The Honorary Graduates

136th Congregation (1989)

John Anthony SWIRE
Doctor of Laws honoris causa


Citation

Soon after I set about the task of preparing my citation concerning Mr. Swire, it became apparent to me that it was not going to be without its difficulties. How does one identify particular achievements in one who has achieved much; how does one select the most significant of many contributions? More specifically how does one properly address the task when the honorary graduand himself speaks only of his 'alleged' qualities and skills?

Armed with a modicum of personal and historical data, I was fortunate in being able to start my preparation with the man himself, when I first met him at the headquarters of John Swire & Sons in London earlier this year. Perhaps sensing my feeling at the end of my interview that my task of learning more about the man was far from complete, Mr. Swire, graciously suggested a number of people in Hong Kong who might be prepared to give me further and better particulars. One of those, to whom I am most indebted, himself an honorary graduate of this University, Sir Jack Cater, was most obliging in his help and advice, although by this time I was growing increasingly sceptical of Mr. Swire's use of the word 'alleged' in relation to his attributes.

Be that as it may, Sir Jack, in turn, recommended that I should contact one of your predecessors, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, who would have special knowledge of Mr. Swire's links with the University, Dr. Kenneth Robinson. Again, I received a great deal of help; but Dr. Robinson, in seeking confirmation of certain points he had raised, turned to another Honorary Fellow of his College at Oxford, Nuffield College, at the Founders Dinner earlier this month. That man was Sir Adrian Swire, who in his turn, endeavoured to help Dr. Robinson by making discrete enquiries of none other than his brother John Anthony Swire. Thus my efforts at completing my investigations into the character of John Swire had turned full circle. However acutely this experience had made me aware of the true meaning of modesty, it also brought to mind the words of Nietzsche:

'One's own self is well hidden from one's own self: of all mines of treasure, one's own is the last to be dug up, ...'

John Swire bears an illustrious name in the annals of Hong Kong. It is also a name which recurs time and again in the annals of this University - from the John Swire who sailed from Liverpool in 1854 to expand the family business into another hemisphere of the world, to the John Swire, our honorary graduand's father, who did so much to consolidate and enhance the reputation of one of this Territory's major hongs, so fittingly termed in the 'Great Ancient' Hong.

The Swire family's involvement in the institution and development of this University dates from its earliest days. In the early part of this century a munificent gift by the firm of Butterfield and Swire to the newly emerging University of Hong Kong of over forty thousand pounds enabled the University to establish itself. When the University faced troubled times at the end of the first World War, a period when its administration had been less than satisfactory, it was the Great Ancient Hong that came to the rescue with another very substantial donation. This donation was in relation to the endowment of the Taikoo Chair in Engineering, a chair which had been first established upon the institution of this university. When that donation was made, Butterfield and Swire issued firm words of advice to the University's officers which I dare to repeat even today:

'Let the Chancellor be the ambassador of theUniversity among Chinese officials, merchants and scholars... For your Vice-Chancellor get a sound organiser and disciplinarian, who will give the attention to the internal life of the University which appears to have been lacking up to date, and to hold the balance between the conflicting claims of the rival faculties'.

The very generous support of Swires has continued over the years, in people as well as resources. The building adjacent to this Loke Yew Hall is the Knowle's building, which commerates William Knowles, one time Taipan of John Swire, Hong Kong, who in, 1964 became Vice-Chancellor of this University. A little to the East of that building is Swire Hall - an undergraduate residence serving 302 students. On the postgraduate side, it was the support of Swires that was of key importance in the, successful development of the Robert black College. One of the newest departments in the Faculty of Arts is headed by the Swire Chair in Japanese. The University of Hong Kong has 'much to be grateful for in such consistent support of its developments.

John Anthony Swire became Chairman of the Swire Group's company in Hong Kong in 1966 following in the footsteps of his father, a much revered figure in this territory. His education had been at Eton and at University College in the University of Oxford, where he read history. Between 1944 and 1948 he served with the Irish Guards in the United Kingdom, Egypt and Palestine. Following this he 'earned his spurs' so to speak with the company, working with Butterfield and Swire and associated companies in Hong Kong, Japan and Australia. Perhaps Mr. Swire's father remembered the words of a previous taipan of Swires, J.H. Scott, who addressed the mother of a possible employee of the company in 1908 in these terms:

'I told (her) that, if her son went to Oxford instead of qualifying for the business by spending in a good office the 4 years that he would be at the University, she must understand that he would not be taken into the firm... For by his going to Oxford, he has made it impossible to attain in time the business education that alone would entitle him to be rated eligible'.

John Anthony Swire however had the best of both worlds and with Oxford and extensive business experience behind him, he was to assume the Chairmanship of the Swire Group of Companies for twenty-one years from 1966 to 1987 whereupon he became Honorary President of the Group. Through his business acumen, his entrepreneurial skills, and his great knowledge of the business scene here and internationally, the Swire Group went from strength to strength during Mr. Swire's chairmanship.

There is one area of the company's activities in Mr. Swire takes very special interest. It is an area which has indeed made a notable contribution to the growth the company. What greater mark could a chairman make, in terms of influencing a company for decades, than through attracting the right people to maintain the ethos of that company? For this very reason John Anthony Swire has concerned himself personally in the recruitment and selection of senior staff. This has brought him into contact with universities in many different parts of the world, and he is a strong supporter of the need for proper links between academia and the business world. His personal role in fostering such links has resulted in John Swire becoming a member of the University of Oxford Appointments Board; he holds Membership of the Advisory Council of the School of Business at Standford University; and he has been appointed to the Advisory Board of the Euro-Asia Centre at INSEAD - the Institute European d'Administration des Affaires in Fontainebleau in France. Amidst this plentitude of business commitments, John Anthony Swire found the time to render quiet but enormously effective support for Hong Kong through his Chairmanship of the Hong Kong Association in London from 1975 to 1987. This period was concurrent with rapid growth in Hong Kong and with the viccissitudes surrounding the decision-making process about the Territory's future. It was a time when Hong Kong's position needed to explained effectively to those who could influence opinion in the United Kingdom. The explanatory yet steadying role of the Association throughout that period owed very much to the character of the Chairman himself, and to the respect which his evident sense of propriety and honesty inevitably engenders in those who come to know him.

One further aspect of Mr. Swire's personal interests does deserve special mention for, once again this has led to support of this University's activities. Mr. Swire is extremely knowledgeable about the countryside and wildlife; he has had a lifelong interest in gardening, he is an avid birdwatcher and, moving from fowl to fish, he is a keen fisherman, currently holding the Presidency of the Flyfishers Club. Small wonder, then, that he has been a strong supporter of the bird sanctuary at the Mai Po Marshes here in Hong Kong. Two scholarships tenable at this University have already been set-up in the field of Wetland Ecology, and Swire's has supported the founding of one of the University's newest developments - the Marine Research Laboratories at Cape D'Aguilar.

I mentioned at the outset, Mr. Pro-Chancellor that I expected some problems in the preparation of this citation, and I remain concerned that it may be difficult to discern the individual from the corporate, in presenting the numerous different contributions that he has made to Hong Kong and to this University. However, despite his modesty, our Honorary Graduand must accept our acclaim for being the man he is, as well as for his achievments. As I ago said to Othello:

'Good name in man and woman, dear my lord; Is the immediate jewel of their souls'.

John Swire may be possessor of an uncommonly 'good name' in this region of the world. At the same time just to speak of him with those who have had dealings with the man is quickly to appreciate that it is not the name they respect. It is the 'jewel of the soul' in John Swire's humanity.

His concern for others, and for the environment in which we live, as well as his honour and his unerring sense of what is right; this is what elicits such deep respect and loyalty.

St. Anthony's College Oxford awarded John Swire an honorary fellowship in 1987; Her Majesty created him a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1977. For his support of so many aspects of tertiary education both here and in other countries, for his support of the Community in Hong Kong and for his international stature in business, I respectfully present John Anthony Swire, on behalf of the University for the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

Citation written and delivered by Professor William Ian Rees Davies, the Public Orator.


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