Doctor of Business Administration, honoris causa (2019)
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius offers this advice: ‘To thine own self be true’. In other words, be faithful to your own judgement, integrity, and personality. Throughout his long and distinguished career, which is hardly over yet, Dr Cheng Yan-kee has been true to himself.
Here is a man who has practised as a distinguished consulting civil and structural engineer across three continents, who is Director of HK Cheng & Partners, who already holds an honorary doctorate, who has served on town planning boards, hospital and housing authorities, youth and anti corruption commissions. Yet, when asked how it was he came to be awarded the Bronze Bauhinia Star, he replied modestly: ‘I’m not really sure’. He remembers his time as the Chairman of the ICAC Corruption Prevention Advisory Committee not as a great honour, though of course it was, but as an opportunity to learn. Dr Cheng is above all a man who wants to learn about the world around him, and wants to make a contribution to that world. Until fairly recently, he made a point of reading a range of international newspapers every morning. He speaks English with a pristine West London accent; and, I’m told, his Chinese is equally magnificent.
Such a person is more valuable than gold in the complex world of higher education. It was HKBU’s good fortune when Dr Cheng was appointed as a Council member in 1999, Deputy Chairman of the Council and Court from 2007, and then Chairman of both bodies from 2013 to 2018. He served for 19 years as Chairman of the Campus Development Committee and his talents were brought to bear on a rich vein of the University’s growth, first with the Hong Kong Baptist University Campus, and then with the Shek Mun Campus. His strategic acumen and astute engineering eye were everywhere apparent in the establishment and construction of the United International College at Zhuhai. A leading player in the UIC project observed that the new campus could not have been built without the support of Dr Cheng. His work culminated more recently with the hostel and creative hub complex (HABC), soon to be a model of its kind and a testament to the University’s liberal arts ethos.
Aside from this, as an HKBU Council member, and eventually Council Chairman, Dr Cheng’s service spanned some of the university’s most exciting curricular developments: Hong Kong’s one and only Bachelor of Pharmacy (Hons) in Chinese Medicine programme; the first BA/BEd double degree (Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in English Language & Literature and Bachelor of Education (Hons) in English Language Teaching); the singular Academy of Visual Arts and the one and only Academy of Film. His role in the evolution of the 2018 Institutional Strategic Plan was both seminal and profound. His sensitivity to words and the precisions of meaning helped turn a good plan into a great one.
Dr Cheng has also been involved in several major capital projects committees: the Hong Kong Housing Authority Building Committee; the Hospital Authority Capital Works Committee which he initiated in 2012; and, more recently, the Mass Transit Railway Corporation Capital Works Committee. Whatever role he assumes, Dr Cheng has always been quick to praise the work of others. He adheres strongly to the dictum that “Good governance requires good people.” And he will go to extraordinary lengths to find the right people for the right job.
During his professional life, Dr Cheng has made many close friends. Trained at the highly regarded Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, he came from an engineering family background and in 2013 was elected the first non-British President in the 105-year history of the Institution of Structural Engineers. The Institution has 27,000 members operating over more than 100 countries. Dr Cheng spent half a year travelling and fulfilling his Presidential role and had gained an extraordinary insight into the inner mechanisms of the Institution by the time he came to give his Presidential Inaugural Address. That Address spoke of stewardship and values, and why such should be cherished. Professor David Nethercot, then Head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College London, characterised the speech as ‘outstanding’ and observed that ‘crafting an address of this kind is deceptively complex’.
The many friends he has made at HKBU speak of Dr Cheng with unfailing admiration. One describes him as an approachable leader who allows space for different viewpoints to emerge. Those who know his work in community affairs, have lauded him as a very cultured and multi-dimensional personality. He has the gift, another observed, to make people seem at ease and thereby to bring the very best out of them.
Some have reached for Chinese proverbs to capture Dr Cheng, the man: He has the capability to lift something very heavy as if it is something much lighter. Another Chinese proverb was suggested—one that runs, loosely, along these lines: If you’re really wise you look foolish. Of course, there is nothing actually foolish about Dr Cheng. The real spirit of that proverb is profound: a wise person does not flout his or her learning but leads others to make discoveries for themselves. That is a tremendous talent because it builds confidence and participation.
All this could make you think that Dr Cheng is of a serious disposition. Certainly, he has his serious moments. But he is also a man who unfailingly greets you with a smile, who enjoys fine food and wine, and a funny story. One colleague spoke affectionately of an occasion when, following the end of a formal dinner, Dr Cheng invited him to share a drink and carry on the conversation. Of a pleasant and easy manner, he just loves being with people.
During his time as Chair of an ICAC Advisory Committee, Dr Cheng was made a Justice of the Peace. William Shakespeare, who had several clashes with the law, did not like Justices of the Peace. But had Shakespeare known Justice of the Peace Cheng, he would have changed his opinion, for in Justice Cheng he would have recognised a true Renaissance Man—a humanist of consummate integrity who excels across many fields, who is gifted and convivial, and who continues to make a real difference to the lives of the people around him.