Even before corporate social responsibility became a buzzword, the Hong Kong Council of Social Service worked to expose business professionals to societal issues they can help solve. Chairperson Bernard Charnwut Chan talks to Jemelyn Yadao about the power of collaboration, and how his role has helped him see the truth about his home city
Photography by Calvin Sit
Bernard Charnwut Chan is Convenor of the Non-Official Members of Hong Kong’s Executive Council. He was a non- official member of ExCo from October 2004 to January 2009, and was reappointed in July 2012.
News of Bernard Charnwut Chan’s appointment as the Chairperson of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) in 2000 didn’t exactly receive the warmest response. “‘Why do we need a big business guy to run an umbrella group of non-govern- mental organizations (NGOs)? Will he corrupt our values?’” Chan says, recalling the words of his then critics. “When I first joined, nobody expected me to contribute anything. I’m not expected to be an expert in childcare issues or domestic violence. I’m just someone neutral to chair the meeting.”
Chan admits with disappointment that these reactions were justified. He had known much less about welfare than business back then. After graduating from university, Chan worked in New York for an investment bank before returning to Hong Kong and working for his family’s privately held investment company. He then moved to Asia Financial Holdings where today he is President.
“Today, I can tell you the different social issues we are facing in Hong Kong. But 17 years ago, I had no clue,” he says. “I had no idea of the new immigrants issue or the single-parent issue because those in business are not exposed to it, and worse – I didn’t realize that a number of these social issues are a result of businesses.”
Established in 1947, the HKCSS is a federation of non-governmental social service agencies in Hong Kong launched to coordinate large-scale relief works and social welfare after the Second World War. It has since become a key partner of the Hong Kong government in social welfare and development, identifying important social issues and recommending appropriate policies.
“The whole world is talking about sustainable development. About a seventh of our population live in poverty, and our Gini coefficient [measuring income inequality] is among the highest in the world and that implies that there are many latent, unstable factors that may jeopardize sustainable development in Hong Kong. For example, there is now a general phenomenon that Hong Kong people tend to have a certain sentiment against the rich,” says Chan. “Social exclusion also creates mistrust which is the most important factor for why people tend to be cynical and suspicious against any government policy and measure.”
After being exposed to Hong Kong’s serious social issues, such as poverty, a rapidly aging population and social exclusion, Chan’s first goal as Chairperson was to change NGOs’ negative perception of the corporate world by turning the HKCSS into a shared platform for cross-sector partnership.
He brought in an outside perspective. “I said to colleagues in the council: ‘We must get business on side. I know many people criticize businesses for creating some social issues like long working hours but it’s important to bring them into the picture. This was all before the corporate social responsibility movement.
“The problem is, businesses and NGOs didn’t talk to each other. Neither side realized why they did what they did. NGOs were used to talking to government, businesses were used to talking to government, but they should both do without government and work together directly. That would help to defuse the tension.”
“NGOs were used to talking to government, businesses were used to talking to government, but they should both do without government and work together directly. That would help to defuse the tension.”
Chan was pleased to see meaningful results this year from this collabora- tion. In October, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced in her first policy address a community initiative of supporting NGOs to explore the feasibility of constructing pre-fabricated modular housing on idle sites. In September, the government also announced plans to work with the HKCSS to launch legalized subdivided flats for those on the public housing wait- ing list and living in poor conditions.
“I was told that one of the main reasons why the landlords refuse to let units out is because they don’t want to deal with undesirable tenants but NGOs came in and said they will take care of that. They will select the right tenants, for example single-parent families, and help them find jobs, so it’s not just about a tenancy agreement.
“We talked about it all through this year. I never thought it would ever be put into the policy address, but it was. This is an interim solution to deal with the housing gap and this marginalized group of people, and it is the result of businesses, NGOs, professionals and so on identifying the solution.”
The main problem, he adds, is the lack of ideas, not funding, which is where the corporate sector should come in. “Ideas are more powerful than money,” he says. “That’s why I encourage business and professionals to come forward, because they have the best ideas in the world but they might not be able to identify where the problems are, but social workers can. So if social workers can identify where the problems are, where the gaps are, businesses and professionals can come up with the solutions.”
Seeing the problems first-hand is an important step to coming up with actionable solutions, Chan stresses. “I have visited many subdivided homes in very dilapidated living conditions, and the many people I took with me were appalled. I’m sure they are aware from reading a newspaper, but seeing it themselves is different. Those types of experiences are so powerful,” he says.
When it comes to CPAs, it doesn’t take much to get them helping NGOs and volunteering their time, Chan observes. “Many accountants are very active on their own in helping NGOs and in serving on their boards. They are very willing to serve. Secondly, and increasingly, NGOs themselves need to beef up their governance. Today, whether you are a business or non-profit organization, I think consumers or donors have their certain expectation of transparency,” he says. “More NGOs than ever have diverse income streams (e.g. public fundraising, public and private funders, social enterprise initiatives, programme income etc.), as well as more complicated structures (e.g subsidiaries such as social enterprises, self-financing services). CPAs’ professional financial knowledge is without a doubt useful for the agencies’ accountable and transparent financial governance.”
The social service world is not immune to technology advancements. As Chan points out, while human interaction naturally remains critical in social work, technology can address issues that humans cannot. The council has been promoting “gerontechnology” – a new research area that aims to help meet the needs of an aging population through technology and reduce the workload of care workers – through, for example, workshops that empower young people to creatively develop innovative smart living ideas and solutions through understanding the needs of the elderly.
Next year, according to Chan, the council will cooperate with the China Merchants Charitable Foundation, Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, and elderly service units and community groups in different districts to stage a territory-wide roadshow featuring a selection of good “gerontechnology” products.
He recalls the assistive robotics he saw at a recent exhibition in Tokyo. “If you try to transfer a bedridden patient from the bed to the wheelchair, it takes a long time and it takes two people. With a robotic arm, which I saw for myself, it only needs one person to operate and it took less than five minutes,” he says. “I think these types of tools will help a lot because increasingly we have fewer care workers. Japan is in the forefront because their problem is far more imminent than Hong Kong’s and China’s, so there’s a lot of take-home experiences.”
“I think what inspires me to do what I do is this place I call home. I’m also looking out for my two sons because they were born and raised here.”
Chan believes that Hong Kong also has the talent capable of producing innovative solutions that can positively change lives, citing a local inventor who recently developed a stair-climbing wheelchair. However, he points out that the city is falling behind on taking advantage of the business opportunities in this area. “Hong Kong is not quite there yet compared with Japan, but I think more and more Hong Kong companies are now realizing that this is not just a social issue, it’s also big business. So we need to mobilize them to come forward. They are more used to thinking out of the box. You can’t ask the government to think out of the box. We can come up with sustainable solutions to avoid making losses.”
Bridging the divide
Chan has been a non-official member of the Executive Council (ExCo), Hong Kong’s highest policy-making body, twice. Firstly between 2004 and 2009 and secondly since 2012. This year he was appointed Convenor of the Non-Official Members of ExCo. He says his experience at HKCSS was instrumental in him holding important positions in public service. He has also chaired the Antiquities Advisory Board, the Advisory Committee on Revi- talization of Historic Buildings, and the Hong Kong Council for Sustainable Development.
“The council has given me a very powerful mandate, because for the last 15 years I have always been in the position of bringing people from all sides together, and with the track record that I had, the government then appoint me to other things.” he says.
On the revitalization of historic buildings committee, which advises the Hong Kong government on proposals for uses for heritage sites, Chan’s challenge was to unite conservationists and developers. “In a place like Hong Kong, how do you strike a balance? With sustainable development, again that was green sustainability versus development. It all started because I had this track record of fostering trust. Without their trust, I can’t get these people from different sectors to be in the same room, and there would be no chance of a solution.”
Chan’s heavy involvement in public affairs reflects his love for Hong Kong – and his love for his sons. “I think what inspires me to do what I do is this place I call home. I’m also looking out for my two sons because they were born and raised here. In years to come, I’m sure my boys will have to make a decision about whether or not they want to stay here. So I hope I can continue to create a harmonious society for Hong Kong, so that they will want to stay here,” he says. “I hope I can play a part in shaping Hong Kong into a place where, despite how divided we are, it’s still a livable city – a city where everyone takes part in helping out.”
Two years after joining the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, Bernard Charnwut Chan helped create the “Caring Company” scheme in 2002 which build strategic partnerships among businesses and non-profit organizations to cultivate corporate social responsibility. In 2017, 3,478 companies and organizations were awarded the Caring Company logo or Caring Organization logo, an indication that they recognize the importance of CSR.