Sir Murray MacLehose, the Unexpected Father of Modern Hong Kong

When urban planner Peter Cookson-Smith began working on a plan to transform Tai Po into a suburban new town in the late 1970s, he found inspiration in an unexpected source: Sir Murray MacLehose, Hong Kong’s 25th colonial governor.

While other new towns ended up with a dreary sprawl of concrete and fenced-off roadways, Tai Po has become one of Hong Kong’s most pleasant neighbourhoods, with landscaped riverside promenades, verdant public gathering spaces, and close connections to surrounding villages. It seems MacLehose deserves at least some of the credit.

“He was a keen hill walker,” explains Cookson-Smith. “He would go walking over the Pat Sin hills over the weekend and he would literally phone us on Monday morning [with ideas].”

It’s rare for a chief executive to become so intimately involved with the minutiae of a neighbourhood development. But that is one of the things that set MacLehose apart from many of the other men that have served at the top of Hong Kong’s government. Before he arrived, quite a few of Hong Kong’s governors had been dispassionate administrators. And in recent years, chief executives have been accused of putting the interests of Beijing or local oligarchs above those of ordinary citizens – former CE Donald Tsang even ended up behind bars for colluding with tycoons.

By contrast, MacLehose seemed earnestly committed to making this city a better place. As the longest-serving governor in Hong Kong’s history, he was a true reformer, one whose policies shaped the city we know today. The MTR, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, district councils, country parks, labour tribunals, public health care, universal education, public housing, arts and cultural facilities, even Chinese as an official language – all of these were introduced or greatly expanded under MacLehose’s administration. In a sense, this gangly Scotsman was the unlikely father of modern-day Hong Kong.

Born in Glasgow in 1917, MacLehose was sent to England for school, and he eventually made his way into the British foreign service. Despite his upper-crust Oxford education, MacLehose retained a Scottish disdain for ostentation, and when he was installed as Hong Kong leader in 1971, he avoided wearing the formal dress usually required of governors. Appointed by a Labour Party government, his politics leaned decidedly to the left, which made him amenable to reformers who had been pushing for changes. “It was only when MacLehose came to Hong Kong that we began to see real change,” says retired politician Hilton Cheong-Leen.

He cut a distinctive figure when he arrived in Hong Kong. “MacLehose was a big man, 6 foot 4 in his socks and exuded authority,” recalls journalist Richard Harris in the South China Morning Post. “Within the civil service he was irreverently known as Big Mac or Jock the Sock – but never to his face.” (“Jock” was a common nickname for Scotsmen, and “sock” was a play on the “hose” in the governor’s surname.) Harris is glowing in his assessment of MacLehose. “He revolutionised social policies for the ordinary Hongkonger – battling the objections of the factory owners, the property developers of today,” he writes.

maclehoseMacLehose arrived at just the right time. Hong Kong’s refugee crisis had put a strain on all of its resources. Streets were filthy, corruption and crime were rampant, thousands of people were mired in poverty and the government’s laissez-faire economic policies left industrial workers open to abuse. The 1967 riots made it clear to everyone that something needed to change.

“The riot was a blessing in disguise,” adds City University political scientist Ray Yep, who spoke last year with University of Hong Kong sociologist Lui Tai-lok on RTHK podcast The Big Idea. “It provided momentum to tell every stakeholder in Hong Kong that something needed to be done.”

After the riots, MacLehose’s predecessor, David Trench, had established an eight-hour day and six-day workweek, six years of compulsory schooling and a system of district offices charged with neighbourhood concerns. MacLehose knew things needed to be taken much further even before he arrived. In now-declassified communications between MacLehose and colonial officials, he expressed his concern that “most of the people in Hong Kong would not trust the colonial government, so you had to build confidence,” says Lui.

MacLehose began his tenure by cleaning up the streets of rubbish and crime. It made a big difference: until then, says Lui, “being mugged was a part of everyday life.” The changes were helped along by a savvy marketing campaign – anyone who grew up in the 1970s will remember Lap Sap Chung, the litterbug mascot that gently tut-tutted whenever someone failed to put their waste in the appropriate place.

Other reforms took aim at deeper problems. Public housing shifted focus from resettling squatters to providing accommodations to low-wage workers. Even as Hong Kong’s government struggled with a deficit, MacLehose kept up social spending, leading to a new generation of public hospitals, public housing and public transit.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption was one of the most significant initiatives of the MacLehose era. By the early 1970s, many of Hong Kong’s institutions were rotten through and through. Policemen shook down shopowners for bribes; even doctors needed to be paid off before they would treat patients. One infamous police superintendent, Peter Godber, amassed a fortune of HK$4.3 million from kickbacks and bribes before fleeing to the UK. The ICAC was created in 1974 and invested with special powers to investigate and arrest those suspected of corruption. (Thanks to the ICAC, Godber was arrested and extradited back to Hong Kong, where he served four years in prison.)

All of this was done with an eye to Hong Kong’s future. Ever the diplomat, MacLehose realised that a prosperous, functional Hong Kong would give it an edge over mainland China and Taiwan. Make a population healthy, wealthy and happy, and it will reward you with stability. It also had the effect of creating a distinct Hong Kong identity. “Around the mid-70s, people started changing,” says Lui. People took more pride in their language and culture. Whereas most Hong Kong pop music and movies had been in English or Mandarin, in the 1970s, “Cantonese pop songs popped up, Cantonese dramas were on TV. The sense of stability and prosperity really formed around this time.”

But there were limits to what MacLehose could — or wanted — to do. When policemen staged a protest against the ICAC in 1977, MacLehose consented to an amnesty that absolved them of past corruption. And while MacLehose introduced elected district councils, he resisted calls for full popular representation in the Legislative Council, because he feared it would give a platform to the Communists and Nationalists that had warred for so long. “If you talk about democratisation, what was achieved by Sir Murray MacLehose was less than what most people imagine,” says Lui. “That’s the problem of the colonial government – on one side they want to encourage that kind of civic spirit, but they also want to contain it, because you don’t want it to turn into a sense of citizenship.”

Still, MacLehose’s reforms were robust enough to give Hongkongers pride of place. The lingering effects of his policies can still be felt today, even in Hongkongers’ conception of themselves. Yep says this era fostered a Hong Kong identity that was “somewhere between being a British subject, of Chinese ethnicity, and attachment to something local. In a way it’s quite inclusive and flexible.”

MacLehose served four successive terms in office before he finally departed in 1982. None of his successors have achieved quite as much during their time in office. Today, the most tangible nod to his accomplishments is the MacLehose Trail, a 100-kilometre hiking route that winds through many of Hong Kong’s country parks, which MacLehose worked to establish. Back in the 1970s, MacLehose would have been alone on many of the trails, but hiking is now a popular pastime for a broad swath of Hongkongers taking advantage of the pristine natural areas just a short journey form their highrise homes. 

And yet awareness of MacLehose’s legacy seems to be fading into history. “Many people of a certain age — at least 50, especially those over 60 — are still praising MacLehose,” says local historian Ko Tim-keung. But that isn’t true for younger generations. “I don’t think they have any interest in MacLehose, even those politically active ones,” says Ko. “They have not experienced rampant corruption, [shoddy] living conditions in the resettlement blocks or living as a hillside squatter, working over 10 hours a day in factory, an arrogant government and officials, no elections.”

Some would say that description sounds a lot like the Hong Kong of 2017, a city where thousands of people live in squalid subdivided flats, where low-paying office jobs demand long hours of overtime, and where chief executives are not known for their keen interest in quality of life issues. It begs the question: will there be a MacLehose for today’s generation?

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