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Cheung's choice

Stay in the US or fight for social welfare in HK? For Fernando Cheung, his decision meant sacrifices

Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung was shocked when doctors told him that his daughter, Vivian, was mentally challenged. “My wife was extra careful when she was pregnant – she wouldn’t even drink tea,” he says. “Vivian looked like a perfectly normal baby, but after six months of check-ups, doctors said her development was delayed,” he says. “Even now, there is no diagnosis for her condition.”

When Vivian, now 22, was born, Cheung and his wife were living in Oakland in the US. They had moved there after Cheung graduated with a degree in social work from the Hong Kong Baptist University so that he could study for his master’s and PhD qualifications. At the time of Vivian’s birth, Cheung was working as the executive director of the Oakland Chinese Community Council, which fought for the rights of Chinese and Asians living in the area.

Even though he considered the social support for his daughter to be much better in the US than it would be in Hong Kong, his belief in family support saw the Cheungs return to Hong Kong in 1996. (His Oakland neighbours still remember him though, as they mark September 13 – Cheung’s last day with the council – as “Dr Fernando Cheung Day” in recognition of his contributions.)

After finding a job as a lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong, Cheung soon discovered that life in the city with Vivian was going to be tough. Every day, he had to fight for a taxi during morning rush hour to get Vivian from their home in North Point to her special-needs school in Lei King Wan in Sai Wan Ho, as he was not yet able to apply for transportation for children with special needs.

“I would be carrying Vivian in one arm as I tried to flag and get into taxis with the other. It was tough. If someone gave me a bump, both of us got hurt. As a parent of a child with special needs, I felt despair that it was so difficult to gain access to services. I decided I had to do something.”

Cheung had never considered being in politics, but the sorry state of the social-welfare system impelled him. “I was angered by how local social-welfare organisations operated. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to become a lawmaker and try to raise the attention of both society and the government towards the poor service for people with disabilities and the elderly.”

In 2004, he was elected as a lawmaker for the social welfare functional constituency. He found, however, that he was still in no position to help improve service quality.

“The system is flawed. NGOs [non-governmental organisations] rely on government funding which is usually far from sufficient, but they don’t dare ask for more because there are other NGOs that will settle for less. This leads to cut-throat competition for funding and results in poor-quality services and the suffering of service users, while NGOs are losing talent because the pay for social workers is constantly being slashed,” he says.

“Many NGO leaders are also selfish and care more about their rice bowls than the quality of their services. They have no regard for quality of service and care only about staying within budget. They don’t serve with heart; all they care about are numbers.”

After four years in the Legislative Council (Legco), he realised he had to find another way to make a difference. He decided that for his second Legco tenure, he must aim for a seat for his geographical constituency, New Territories East. He won his seat in 2012 and will retain it until 2016.

He remains confident he will be able to bring real change to Hong Kong. “The minimum wage and the HK$2.00 travel scheme for the elderly and disabled are both the result of relentless lobbying.

“For my current tenure, I will be right on the case to urge the government to roll out universal retirement protection and to tackle problems related to the wealth gap,” he adds.

This economic divide has been a major topic of debate in Hong Kong recently and the government has been widely criticised for failing to provide adequate support for the needy. “We’ve had enough of slogans and empty promises,” Cheung says. “There is a lot that the government and society can do to help the needy. The government keeps saying that it needs to save for a rainy day and refuses to commit long-term to social welfare. I think they are being timid and are unwilling to help people in need. To have so much poverty in such a rich society is ridiculous.”

Cheung encourages young people who are thinking about joining the social-welfare sector to follow their dream. “They have to put the end users of their services first. I have to admit it is not easy because, from my observations, many NGOs are operating like commercial businesses. But if you uphold your values and have the heart to serve, you will excel,” he says.

He believes that people should pay more attention to the well-being of the disabled as this indicates whether a society is really civilised or not. “The civilisation level of a city is not judged by the amount of foreign reserves it has – it is judged by how it cares for the needy,” he says.

Cheung’s busy schedule requires him to work seven days a week, but this has never stopped him from being a caring father. “Every Sunday, I take the entire family to visit my mother-in-law,” he says. “It is the happiest time of the week for Vivian because she gets lots of attention from everyone.”