• 8 minute read

Talking to CEO: Agnes Chan

Chan, Andrew Chi-fai(陳志輝)

Give happiness back to our students, says UNICEF Ambassador and Former Singer

By China Business Knowledge @ CUHK

In this episode of Talking to CEO, hosted by Prof. Andrew Chan Chi-fai, Director of CUHK Business School’s Executive MBA Program, Agnes Chan Meiling (陳美齡) shares her journey from being a singer to becoming the voice for children, and her dream to revolutionaize Hong Kong’s Education System.

It All Began with Volunteering

Prof. Chan: We all have turning points in life. You began to volunteer early in high school. Would you say that’s your first turning point?

Agnes Chan: I think so. At Maryknoll Secondary School, we were able to volunteer. I began to get in touch with various unprivileged groups in Hong Kong and I realized the biggest problem for our children was hunger. As my family wasn’t very rich, so I thought maybe I could sing and ask my classmates to donate for children. It worked and that was how I began performing in school and recording my songs.

Prof. Chan: Going to Japan was also another turning point for you. Why did you decide to go?

Agnes Chan: At the time, I already had my own radio show. When Masaaki Hirao (平尾昌晃), a famous Japanese singer/writer came to my show, I gave him my record as a gift. After he went back to Japan, he promoted my work in Japan. Then, I suddenly got invited by an entertainment agency in Japan, asking me if I wanted to perform in Japan. The idea was exciting as I never got on an airplane or went abroad, so I accepted the offer and left Hong Kong.

Working in Japan, I was twice as busy as I was in Hong Kong. I didn’t sleep well and was constantly deprived of sleep. And I rarely had time for study or getting to know any friends. After a few years, my father told me I couldn’t go on like that and living such an unbalanced life. Initially, I planned to leave for Canada to pursue my study. Unexpectedly, however, my father passed away six months after, so I came back to Hong Kong. Being back, my mother encouraged me not to give us my singing career and so I picked it up again.

Ethiopia: A Life-Changing Experience

Prof. Chan: We know that you care about Hong Kong and the world and it has to do with your trip to Ethiopia. Can you share with us about the experience?

Agnes Chan: In 1985, I was the host of the biggest fundraising event in Japan. The theme of the event was helping the hungry children in Ethiopia. The experience has changed my life. I couldn’t possibly imagine how millions of people suffered in famine.

On the camp site, I saw with my own eyes how children died of hunger. Seeing them there, I didn’t want to eat myself but a nurse reprimanded me and said: “Do you want to get sick and I have to take care of you too? Since we’re here, we should all do our best to help these children who’re suffering.”

She is absolutely right. I’m not here to save the world but to do what I can do. If she asked me to save the world, I might go chicken feet. But I am capable of doing ‘something’, so why not do what I can? Since then, I’ve been actively visiting needy children in many places.

Becoming the Ambassador for Children

Prof. Chan: From 1998, you’ve been working with the United Nation. How did that begin?

Agnes Chan: Since hosting the programme in Japan, I started to visit children all over the world. Then, the United Nation invited me to become the ambassador and voice for children. I was touched by the invitation – there are too many children whose voices have been ignored out there.

In the first year being the ambassador, I went to Thailand to understand the issue of child prostitution and pornography. I was stunned by how serious the problem was and the fact that many children were sold by their families for money. After the trip, I began to pay attention to the problem. In 1999, I successful pushed through a law to ban child prostitution and pornography in Japan. Because of that, I also became the enemy of many.

Prof. Chan: Why would such a good law make you enemies of others?

Agnes Chan: Because it protects children under 18 years ago and forbids magazines to publish naked photos of them. However, many magazines in Japan like to publish those photos and they have fans. As a result, I was accused for being a pretentious a foreigner messing with their country’s affairs. But I was not afraid – when I thought of those young victims, they were suffering much more than me.

As time went by, I became stronger and better at negotiating with the government and helping them to improve their policies. I also learnt how to utilize the least resource to achieve the best results. And I became braver and went to places such as Iraq, the Central African Republic and the Republican of South Sudan. This year, I also went to the border of Syria. Every journey has taught me a lot and I kept all the stories of the children I met close to my heart as an encouragement, telling me not to give up.

Give Happiness Back to Our Students

Prof. Chan: In your recent book titled “50 education methods from a mother who put 3 sons into Stanford University”, you proposed giving happiness back to Hong Kong students. So how do we do that?

Agnes Chan: The first thing is to de-stress. Hong Kong parents like to chase after elite school brands and push their children to drill from an early age. This concept must be changed. Why must our children go to a famous branded school? In primary three, all students are required to take BCA. Can BCA really test the average ability of Hong Kong students? Or is it just a tool to evaluate our schools? Such assessment makes teachers very nervous about the results, so they put a lot of pressure on the students. I think we should let students take the exam anonymously and also choose whether to take it. We should not over-assess our students. We must change the system by cutting down on assessments.

Dream to Revolutionize Hong Kong’s Education System

Agnes Chan: My dream is to revolutionize the Secondary School System in Hong Kong. Currently, there is no tailor-made curriculum for students; everybody is to follow the same curriculum. We should take reference from overseas education – students only need to take a certain number of subjects to graduate, and they can choose the subjects they like, and be evaluated by the subject teachers. They are allowed to enroll in public exams such as SAT and ACT which are available a few times in a year. Higher-ability students can take it earlier than their peers while lower-ability students can take their time, and re-take it when necessary. This way, every student can follow his or her own pace.

Moreover, students should be able to choose different paths, whether academic or vocational and take the kind of examination of their choice, whether it’s SAT, ACT or IB. Some people think this kind of system is too complicated. But I don’t think so. If it can work in the U.S. and Australia, why can’t it work in Hong Kong? Is it because we think our children are not independent enough? I think our children won’t be getting more independent under the current system.

“I think the most important decision is our next decision. We should never limit ourselves.”

The Next Decision Is Your Best Decision

Prof. Chan: You have been through many challenges in your work life. What was the most important decision you made?

Agnes Chan: Someone once asked Charlie Chaplin what was his best work and he said it was the next one. Likewise, I think the most important decision is our next decision. We should never limit ourselves. Though I am a religious person, I agree with what my feng shui master once told me: we all have the same chances of luck, the only difference is in timing, that’s why there are ups and downs in life. He also said the best fung shui is when our mind is clear.

When our mind is clear, we know when to do what – run in our best condition, walk in our not-so-good condition. When others look at us and think our life is smooth and we’re lucky, that’s because we know what we are doing. Our mind can be distracted by money and relationships, but we should always try to stay cool and seek clarity. Selfish people can’t keep a clear mind because they only think about themselves not others, and therefore they will miss a lot of opportunities in life.

About Talking to CEO

Since 2002, CUHK EMBA has been running the Talking to CEO TV/radio program with Radio Television Hong Kong. Distinguished business leaders, academics and government officials have been invited to share their experiences and insights with CUHK alumni and students.

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