Housing has always been one of the most challenging and controversial issues in Hong Kong, but a passion for finding a win-win solution for the millions of people in the city has kept Marco Wu, chairman of the Hong Kong Housing Society (HKHS), in the game for over 40 years.
“Throughout my years in the public sector, I have encountered many issues,” Wu says. “I always believe that whatever one does, one should put one’s heart in it and give it one’s all. And when you think about the fact that public and subsidised housing will affect almost half of the city’s population, it is natural to put all your heart and mind into what you do.”
Wu went into the public sector in 1967 upon finishing his training in surveying at Polytechnic University. He spent the first 10 years of his career in the rating and valuation department before moving to the housing department, where he would spend 26 years. He eventually became the department’s deputy director, spearheading important policies such as the Home Ownership Scheme.
Wu attributes his rise from a general practice surveyor to one of the city’s key housing policy formulators to a willingness to learn, and the ability to be a team player. The public sector taught him that work in his industry is not about a particular building, estate or district. It is about working with different stakeholders towards the common goal of meeting the public’s housing needs, against the backdrop of the city’s long-term development.
“It is more important to find out how you can work closely with other team players for a common purpose than to prove that you are above the others,” Wu says.
“If you always want to be the winner in the game, you will find that you have fewer and fewer people who would like to play the game with you,” he says. “But if you focus on what you have in common with the others and try to achieve a ‘win-win’ situation, you will find that more and more people would be willing to join your team to achieve a common goal.”
Wu says it is also important to understand and appreciate what your team members are aspiring to achieve, instead of just focusing on your own goal. This means communicating with other professionals such as architects, engineers, planners, housing managers and various other parties.
Such a mindset has helped Wu manage countless projects, formulate policies and make decisions, especially in times of crisis and controversy. One of the most memorable moments in his career was the implementation of the “85,000 housing units target” between 1997 and 2003.
In the 1997 Policy Address, right after the handover, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, announced the target of building 85,000 flats a year to address a housing shortage and skyrocketing property prices that far outpaced the growth of household income. However, subsequent macro-economic incidents, such as the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis, the IT bubble and eventually SARS, led to an abrupt end to the policy. Property prices slumped 65 per cent between 1997 and 2003, and the government had to suspend the 85,000 policy. Instead, it launched a housing stimulus package to revive the property market.
“It is the most memorable moment in my career life because the situation called for a complete policy U-turn,” Wu says.
“There [was] no time for detailed evaluations. It pushes one to honestly assess what kind of crisis is at hand, and how to minimise the damage. In some cases, sites had been allocated, building contracts had been signed, foundations had been laid or building works commenced. It would not have been possible to call a halt to all the projects overnight. We had to sit down with all the concerned parties and come up with solutions.”
The ability to listen was invaluable, Wu says. It enabled him to take time to consider the concerns of the multitude of professionals, team members and stakeholders he worked with.
Wu was elected chairman of the HKHS in 2012, where he had previously served as vice-chairman after leaving the government as its Buildings Department head. Looking ahead, he says the major housing challenge facing Hong Kong is its ageing population. Many of the existing residential buildings are not elderly-friendly, and unsuitable for those who live alone.
Important features not yet seen in the city’s private and public housing developments include safety designs such as hand-rails on walls to facilitate everyday activities at home for those who are less mobile, leisure facilities that cater to the elderly, and an integration of health and rehabilitation services.
This issue, combined with the trend towards smaller households and young people’s home ownership aspirations, points to the urgent need to increase land supply for housing and related facilities. There are also demands for better nature conservation and more sustainable development.
“The challenge is how we can strike a balance and reach consensus,” Wu says. “That is also why I am passionate about working in the public sector. It is not about achieving a business goal, or taking advantage of a market opportunity. It is about building a future with our community.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Surveyors Times, the members’ magazine of The Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Reaching common goals.