Professor Ng Ching-fai Professor Ng Ching-fai
Professor Ng Ching-fai

Doctor of Science, honoris causa (2020)

Defining Professor Ng Ching-fai is not easy. An accolade bestowed by the International Institute of Management describes him as “a renowned expert in heterogeneous catalysis and membrane science and technology”. Aberystwyth University, where Professor Ng was once a Nuffield Research Fellow, has lauded his work in the eradication of poverty in underprivileged regions of China. A former Chief Secretary for Administration labels him a “true pioneer” in the development of higher education in Hong Kong and the region. And a celebrity website, which promises to tell us about his height, weight, wealth and shoe size, is only really certain about one thing: “Ng Ching-fai is best known as a Politician.”

In adducing which of these claims is true, let us examine Professor Ng’s career. He graduated in Chemical Engineering from the University of Melbourne, completing his PhD at the University of British Columbia. Following his post-doctoral fellowship in California, he joined the University of Hong Kong in 1970. Moving to Hong Kong Baptist College (HKBC) in 1985 as Head of the Department of Chemistry and later Dean of Science, he played a key role in the transition of HKBC to university status in 1994. In 2001 he assumed the Presidency and Vice-Chancellorship of HKBU, a position he held for nine years.

Over broadly the same time frame, Professor Ng assumed an extraordinary range of public responsibilities, only some of which can be mentioned here.  In 1997 he became a member of the HKSAR Legislative Council and a Deputy to the PRC National People's Congress. He served on the Council of Advisors on Innovation and Technology, on the ICAC Complaints Committee, on the HKSAR Election Committee, and was for five years Director of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation. On Establishment Day in 2005 he was awarded the Gold Bauhinia Star, the highest of three classes of the Order of the Bauhinia Star, for his remarkable work in higher education and public services.

And remember also that Professor Ng’s drive and enthusiasm was infusing those around him. He had the magnetism to attract remarkable talents to the University, among them Bambi Hu, Liu Jiming, Fang Kai Tai, Zhang Jianhua, Jonathan Wong, and Cai Zongwei, to name a few. Many who served in the Faculty of Science under Dean Ng, would assume leading university administrative positions — Professor Rick Wong became the Vice-President (Research and Development) at HKBU and Professor Tang Tao is now the President of the United International College in Zhuhai. Further, Professor Ng has been adroit, throughout his career, at persuading key people to embark on ground-breaking projects, and at securing funding to facilitate such developments. His skills in these respects were, as one observer put it, “almost magical.”

Professor Ng’s encouragement pushed forward the formation of HKBU’s first Chinese Medicine programme in 1998; the one and only programme in Pharmacy in Chinese Medicine in 2001; the first BA/BEd double degree programme in 2005; Hong Kong’s first Academy of Visual Arts in 2004; and the territory’s first and only Academy of Film in 2009. All these achievements in the public, political and higher education arenas would have been superlative for even one career. But by 2005 an even greater genius was about to blossom. The creation of the Beijing Normal University — Hong Kong Baptist University United International College (UIC) at Zhuhai in 2005 owes its essence and inspiration to one man, and one man alone — Professor C F Ng, its Founding President until 2019.

The UIC was the first full-scale cooperation in higher education between Mainland China and Hong Kong. Under the leadership of Professor Ng Ching-fai, the UIC grew from a first admission of 274 freshmen to an internationally renowned liberal arts institution, today offering a full suite of undergraduate and graduate programmes to more than 6,000 students across four broad divisions. In 2017 the UIC completed its migration to a new high-technology campus of spectacular beauty, constructed at remarkable speed and to the most detailed specifications. Professor Ng spared no effort in bringing the UIC dream to reality. One observer recalls that, upon calling Professor Ng’s office, he was told the President was out selecting carpets for one of the new units in the institution. President Roland Chin has described the way Professor Ng Ching-fai was able to inspire and promote the completion of the new campus as “a miracle.”

Throughout his career, Professor Ng has been a tireless champion of culture and the arts. His passion for the HKBU Symphony Orchestra is recalled by Professor Johnny Poon, who describes him as “a modern day patron of the arts; a fervent supporter of Music at HKBU. Music, at its heart, is about connection and community building. Professor Ng’s vision of a civil society with music for everyone has given us a fresh impetus to thrive and grow with a renewed sense of mission and purpose.” At the UIC, which is an English medium institution, Professor Ng insisted on a strong emphasis on Chinese Culture, creating the Division of Culture and Creativity as a means of signalling that Music and the Arts are integral to any liberal arts curriculum and central to the cultivation of creative, informed and well-rounded graduates.

Some years ago, in his celebration of Professor Ng’s achievements, Sir John Meurig Thomas of Aberystwyth University in Wales reminded his audience that “the world has benefitted enormously from the achievements of the Chinese” and that the “extraordinary vitality and resourcefulness” of Hong Kong’s people was admirably reflected and exemplified by Professor C F Ng. He is a man of the highest integrity who demonstrates natural leadership qualities and has earned the respect of all who know him. It is not easy to quantify his many achievements across the different roles of his career. Perhaps, in speaking of those achievements, we should think not of one career but of many careers, and each of them executed to extraordinary levels of excellence and detail.

To answer our original challenge of defining Professor Ng Ching-fai, we may say this: yes, he is a superlative educator and humanist; yes, he excels in public and political service; and yes, he is a scholar of the highest order. But more than this, he is an inspiration to the men and women around him to do better, try harder, reach higher. Amiable, accessible, highly informed, and forever energised, Professor C F Ng is a model of conduct, creativity, and compassion. He is what Sir Francis Bacon, the great English Sinophile of the early 17th century, might have called a Renaissance man — a person of remarkable talents who combines many capabilities into a single life and, most importantly, is moved to determined action by the needs of his society and of the people around him.