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LI Choh Ming

Doctor of Laws
honoris causa

On behalf of Professor Cowen and myself I wish to express to all of you the pleasure we both feel at the honour conferred on us today. I am further honoured to have the opportunity to say a few words for both of us.

As the Vice-Chancellor of your young sister university I must first pay respects to our older sister. This is only proper courtesy and propriety for a Chinese speaking on behalf of a Chinese University. But I do so with sincere gratitude and humility and not as a matter of mere formal courtesy, for no older sister could have been more friendly or more helpful during these early years than your university has been to mine. If the spirit of Chinese sages were looking down on us today, surely they must be pleased at the felicitous relationship that has existed and continues to exist between our two universities, an example of which is the honour you have conferred on me today.

It seems to me that in considering the achievements you have made to date and our own development it is possible to say that intellectually speaking Hong Kong has come of age. The community and the Government are of course involved as well, but intellectuality rests primarily in and is symbolized by our two universities. Individually and in combination, we speak for the culture of the West and that of China. Your university has long had international recognition in many fields, and we are beginning to establish links that spread to Europe, the U.K., the U.S.A., and to many universities of distinction in Asia.

The old label of Hong Kong as a cultural desert is now meaningless, whether one's roots are in the West or in the East. All this is very much to the good, and when I say good I don't mean art for art's sake, culture for culture's sake. I mean it is good for the community, good for Hong Kong. For a dynamic community like Hong Kong with its essentially international outlook it is a necessity to keep step with the rest of the world if we are to survive economically; it is also essential that in intellectual ferment, intellectual inquiry, and consequent achievement we keep pace with the modern world.

But at this point I sense, indeed almost hear, some people, perhaps some in this distinguished assemblage, raising a caveat. What about the expenses they are asking, what about the young people we educate who then slip off to England, America or Australia, giving other countries the benefit of their education paid for by the Hong Kong taxpayer? What about the brain drain from Hong Kong?

I will admit that this leakage of our talent to countries overseas is a problem, but I don't think it is a serious problem unless one looks at it negatively. By negatively I mean if in answer to the problem we should propose a slower pace or even a reduction in our educational efforts. Obviously, if we provide less for the community in higher education, we stand to lose less in terms of our youth going overseas. But to me this is like turning off the water because there is a leak in the pipe. No country can progress and compete in this present world of ours without encouraging to the fullest extent possible its intellectual life. It may survive for a time but then will inevitably fall back in the pursuit of prosperity and the good things of life. This is all the more true of our remarkable community, which is not blessed by natural resources and must depend on its human energy and ingenuity to survive. If we go slow or back-track on education, we will invite the return of the cultural desert and with it in due course a decline in ability to cope with problems and a consequent decline in all our community-wide endeavours.

In my view the only way to look at the brain drain is positively. Indeed, if it will not shock some of my friends who remain unconvinced, I may say that this drain, particularly of our graduates into post-graduate studies overseas, is a good thing, or evidence of a good thing. It is evidence that our universities are academically accepted by their sister universities abroad, and they are accepted not just by any university but by the very best. Think of the alternative situation in which none of our graduates were accepted or welcome abroad. There would, indeed, be no brain drain, but the result would be disastrous for Hong Kong.

The only way to correct the so-called leakage is to improve the quality and facilities of our institutions. It will not be a brain drain if Western scholars are willing to come for reasonable periods of time and the Hong Kong and Chinese scholars now working abroad can be attracted to come and pursue their careers here.

Already there is evidence that more of our students who have gone abroad are returning to Hong Kong and the more scholars from abroad are coming here both to learn and to contribute. Professor Cowen who spent some time with you recently in the development of your new law school is an example of a man who, while educated at Oxford, returned to contribute his talents and energy to his native Australia. He points up the way which we should follow in dealing with the problem of 'leakage'.

It is imperative for Hong Kong to look at the problem in this perspective, for we must be prepared to see that the so-called 'drain' will be growing in dimensions in the future. This is because Hong Kong no longer suffers from the isolation of twenty years ago when it took a month to get here from Europe or North America. Today we can reach London or New York in less than twenty-four hours. Tomorrow when the supersonic jet age is upon is, we will be only eight hours away. We will be on the world's doorstep, and the world will be on ours, if this is not already true today.

As a result, an intellectual community really exists internationally and we should be proud of having been accepted by it and to be a member of it. And this is altogether fitting, not just for universities, but for Hong Kong. It is desirable for the good of the universities and the community that we contribute able people to other lands and that they contribute able people to us.

As a member of the world intellectual and economic community, it is essential that we maintain a position of equality and respect and engage in fruitful exchange. If we did not have this enriching interflow it would be difficult to maintain the quality of education and economic performance which we now have and which we must continually improve. At the same time, we must not worry about the present brain drain, such as it is. It will become meaningless if we continue to improve our intellectual resources and facilities. We have the will and the ability. It remains only to get on with the job.

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