Bulletin: I guess the first question has to be: why are you leaving the Chamber?
Shirley Yuen: Deciding to leave the Chamber was a difficult decision, because it is such a dynamic and influential organization. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to work for – and learn from – some of the best business minds in Hong Kong.
I have served five gifted chairmen, not least Dr Aron Harilela. He has worked incredibly hard for members with strategic foresight during the past two years, which have without doubt been some of the most challenging times in Hong Kong’s history. After eight solid years heading this important business organization, I felt the time was right to move on.
B: But why are you leaving now?
SY: I actually made up my mind to step down a long time ago and informed the Chairman last May, just after the Annual General Meeting, that I wished to leave by the end of 2019. I’ve already stayed on three months longer than my original timetable to help while my replacement was secured.
It was a very tough decision to leave my colleagues. I have a truly dedicated and fantastic team for which I will forever be grateful. We have fought through so much together, but all good things must come to an end.
B: What were the biggest challenges that you had to tackle?
SY: The last nine months have been very tough with the social upheaval impacting businesses, polarizing society, and now we are combating an unknown and deadly coronavirus. All of these will create further financial and psychological damage that will take a very long time to recover from.
At the Chamber, we had to think long and hard on lines of action that the Government should take, while maintaining our political neutrality. Luckily, we have a very diverse membership with people coming from just about every business sector, as well as a wide variety of cultural, political and religious backgrounds. This diversity is one of our greatest strengths, because it allows us to look at issues from every angle and thrash out informed recommendations on improving the business environment.
But just as the political unrest polarized Hong Kong, it also created very divergent views within the Chamber and made it extremely challenging for the Chairman and the General Committee to steer the ship.
B: Do you think it will be increasingly difficult to reach a consensus among members?
SY: Admittedly, some of the positions and recommendations that we make may not always be what some people want to hear. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we face pressure from all quarters. What is crucial, however, is that the Chamber tries its utmost to remain apolitical and maintain its intellectual honesty. Every statement that we make goes through a thorough consultation process, and through collective wisdom, debate, and give and take, we have managed to develop statements that the Chamber leadership can stand by.
Having to deal with very entrenched positions and disparate values will be the new normal, and I don’t think this will get any easier going forward. I am nevertheless still confident that the Chamber’s unique position can play a part in helping to address mistrust and heal society.
B: What is your personal view on the social discontent?
SY: Personally, I think Hong Kong is a different place now than it was before the protests – whether for better or worse remains to be seen. To be absolutely frank, it is so disheartening almost to the point of despair to witness this man-made disaster snowballing out of all proportion.
Comparisons between Hong Kong and Singapore – and even Macao – are unflattering, but we are where we are. We should channel all of our energy towards fighting the epidemic and healing this troubled and divided society. This is a shared responsibility. Every one of us has a role to play.
B: Do you see any way out of the existing stalemate?
SY: As the Government itself has repeatedly admitted, the social discontent we are going through is a reflection of some deep-rooted problems in Hong Kong. These are not confined to economic and livelihood issues, but also related to governance considerations and confidence in the One Country Two Systems concept. Perhaps an incremental approach to carrying out an informed and community-wide discussion on what will or should happen in 2047 is one way of addressing the current conflict and people’s worries, particularly among the younger generation.
Hong Kong has always proven itself to be very resilient. Each difficulty only serves to harden our mettle, so no one should ever underestimate Hongkongers. I have no doubt that we will emerge stronger and leaner after the current crisis.
B: What are the accomplishments that you are proudest of during your time at the Chamber?
SY: It is hard for me to put my finger on any single achievement. I guess I brought to the table passion for my job and a strong belief in transparency, through which I was able to bring the team closer together with a greater sense of purpose. As a leader, you just can’t do everything; your job is to set direction and inspire your team to work towards a common goal.
At the Secretariat we all work very hard with a single objective: to do things that set HKGCC apart from similar organizations in Hong Kong, and which will also help our members. Not only do we want to maintain the Chamber as the leading business organization, our benchmark is that we must always be head and shoulders above our counterparts!
To do that we must change with the times. This is easier said than done – especially with a 158-year-old establishment – but you have to constantly innovate if you want to stay ahead of the curve. I believe we have done that well. From policy advocacy to having a social media/internet savvy mindset to forming the Young Executives Club – which has become one of our most active groups – to completely modernising our headquarters, the Chamber has always embraced change and new ways of doing things.
B: You put a great deal of emphasis on advocacy, what are some of the highlights?
SY: Policy advocacy is our bread and butter. And it is also one of the key areas where we stand out because the Chamber has the resources, the stamina and the fortitude to speak up on behalf of the business community. Moreover, we win our arguments based on hard facts and data. “The voice of business” is never an empty slogan!
For example, we convinced the Government to introduce a two-tiered profits tax, which was an enormous help for smaller enterprises. It also helped Hong Kong stay competitive globally in the all-important area of tax policy. We also lobbied the Government on behalf of SMEs’ interests on many issues, including MPF offsetting and standard working hours, as well as relief measures to help businesses weather the economic downturn.
Environment-related issues are beginning to take on greater prominence – and urgency – as the impact of climate change looms large, which is why we should be proud of the work that we have done in championing environmental stewardship amongst members over the years. Our long-running commitment to promoting environmental consciousness and sustainability in Hong Kong runs the gamut of sectors including real estate, infrastructure, finance, transport and power generation. We are pleased to see these ideas becoming more mainstream and widespread.
B: What is the Chamber doing to help members get through the coronavirus outbreak?
SY: The first order of business is to do all we can to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Achieving this is the first step towards recovery. We have already urged members to provide staff with flexible work arrangements and adopt the Government’s recommendations to minimize the risk of spreading the virus.
Some members have shared with us the challenges they are going through during these dark days. These included everything from where they can gather information about how to cope with the virus to getting emergency funding and diversifying into new markets.
Besides articles in this issue of The Bulletin featuring valuable information to help members overcome the various challenges during these exceptional times, we have also set up a “Coronavirus Business Help Corner” on our website to share more information. Members can find useful articles on setting up a home office, HR, legal and cashflow issues, among others, and it is being constantly updated.
We will discuss other suggestions from members among the Chamber’s leadership and committees to work on additional proposals. We will all need to put our heads together to help each other get through these difficult times and bounce back strongly as we have done in the past.
B: What other priorities is the Chamber working on at the moment?
SY: Advocating for a compulsory Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) mechanism remains a key priority for the Chamber. This process should weigh the pros and cons of any proposed intervention and quantify the costs and benefits of each option to the different stakeholders, the economy, and society in general. This would help promote transparency in policy making and prevent missteps that, as we have seen, can have enormous consequences.
Second, further enriching our relations with the Mainland and to bring more Mainland companies into our membership. This will put us in a stronger position to help members explore opportunities emerging from the Belt and Road initiative, and more recently the Greater Bay Area development plan. Our business missions to cities in the Mainland are tremendously popular with members and have helped them build relationships with government officials and businesspeople in the Mainland. Given the growing number and role that Mainland companies play in Hong Kong and beyond, we think there is still a need to bring more into our membership.
Third, it is important that we continue to expand our engagement with Hong Kong’s youngsters. Our Business-School Partnership Programme, which has been running for 19 years, has been very useful in providing high-school students with firsthand experience of the business world. At the same time, it also provides a useful platform to help member companies better understand students’ career aspirations.
Along these lines, we are also looking to expand the HKGCC Business Case Competition for university students. The first competition that we organized last year attracted almost 1,000 students, which was a fantastic number. Those youngsters were simply inspirational and gave us confidence that Hong Kong’s future business environment will be in good hands.
B: What do you plan to do next?
SY: After 20 years as a Government Administrative Officer and another eight years as the CEO of the Chamber, I think I have acquired a good handle on business, policy and politics. I am sure I am here to serve Hong Kong, my home, regardless of what the future holds. For the time being I am just looking forward to enjoying a break and spending more quality time with my family.