Turbulent Priest

One of the best books I ever read in school in the days when I could still manage French was Jean Anouilh’s Becket. It tells the story of English king Henry II’s relationship with Thomas a Becket.

Basically they were drinking buddies maintaining a dissolute lifestyle while in the background the monarchy was having a major row with the church. When the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, Henry spots his chance and appoints Thomas to the position thinking that his friend will fix things and everything will be well. However as we all know from history, Thomas starts to take his new job seriously, defends the church’s interests, and ends up falling out with the king.

In a burst of temper, the king wonders out loud whether anyone can rid him of this turbulent priest, four loyal soldiers go off and kill Thomas at the altar of the cathedral. The king realises he has killed his best friend which he regrets for the rest of his life. ("Oh mon Thomas!")

What caused the change in Thomas’ behaviour, and turned the rake into a devout churchman? It was his philosophy to "Bien faire ce que j’ai a faire" – to do well that which I have to do. When it was his job to be a friend, he drank and womanised, but when his role changed, so did he.

It is through the prism of Anouilh’s interpretation that I view the proposed appointment of Arthur Li to the post of chairman of the Hong Kong University Council, an unpaid position in the gift of the chief executive. Students, staff and alumni have worked themselves into a frenzy of opposition on a variety of grounds: Li’s objection to the appointment of a popular professor, Johannes Chan, as Pro Vice Chancellor; his abrasive personality; perhaps above all, his known strong advocacy of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and his major role in building up its status. The fear starting to be articulated is that he is hostile to HKU and is being sent in to undermine the institution in some way to the benefit of CUHK.

I think his opponents need to pause for a moment and take stock. There is no question that HKU has some important issues that need to be addressed. The Medical Faculty’s hospital in Shenzhen continues to bleed substantial losses, rumoured to exceed $10 million per month, with the cumulative shortfall now said to be approaching half a billion; the economic slowdown makes attracting donations more difficult; the ruckus over Chan’s non appointment needs to be quelled by the identification of a high profile candidate with an impeccable academic and administrative record.

All these problems would best be dealt with by a strong personality with a clear sense of direction and the unequivocal backing of the chief executive. There is a need for consensus building, sure, and this may not be Arthur’s strong point, but it has to be on a sound basis not some sort of airy fairy wishful thinking. As for Li the saboteur, well I just don’t see it in the man. On the contrary, if he is given the job, I think he will throw himself into it with all his energy and seek the very best outcome for HKU. After all, his reputation will be on the line. Paradoxically, there are already murmurings from CUHK of disloyalty because they understand Li’s personality will oblige him to strengthen the competition to his old school.

I expect chief executive Leung Chun Ying to wait a while for tempers to cool, and then to offer the council chairman job to Arthur. He would be crazy to accept – who needs months or even years of abuse and hard work, all without pay -- but I think he will anyway. And if he is given the chance – and he deserves to be given a chance – I expect he will do a good job. He will do well that which he has to do, because that is the kind of person he is.

So I’ll give him just one piece of advice: don’t linger in any cathedrals.