Learning to Serve and Serving to Learn - Face to Face with Dr. Lee George Lam, Chairman of Cyberport

One look at Dr. Lee George Lam’s extensive list of qualifications and you can tell that the Chairman of Hong Kong’s global tech hub Cyberport loves to learn.

His academic qualifications include: a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Sciences, a Master of Science in Systems Science, and a Master of Business Administration, all of which from the University of Ottawa in Canada.

He also holds a post-graduate diploma in Public Administration from Carleton University in Canada; a post-graduate diploma in English and Hong Kong Law and a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) from Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom; and a Postgraduate Certificate in Laws from the City University of Hong Kong.

Then, there’s also a Certificate in Professional Accountancy from the School of Continuing and Professional Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong; a LLM in law from the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom; a Doctor of Philosophy and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Hong Kong.

He credits his father and grandfather for inspiring him to embark on a journey of life-long learning.  

“They always stressed on the importance of education and in particular lifelong learning and that we learn in order to serve - that influenced me a lot,” says Lam.

“From that background, upbringing and spirit, I’ve been very lucky. I got a good education and full support from the family.”

Lam also credits his wife for making his academic ventures a possibility, especially when he made a “later in life decision” to study law in his 40’s.

“Very few people have that luxury, and sometimes the courage, to do it. But I was very lucky and my wife was so supportive. When I told her about it, she encouraged me to go ahead and do it. Even if you're busy working in the daytime, you know you have a comfortable environment waiting when you go home,” says Lam. 

“It’s very important to have people that have your back. With such good support and encouragement from the family, I must say that I did it with pleasure.”

Lam feels that familial support continues to be an important factor, even after one has passed the bar. 

“I think to be a good lawyer or to be of good use to the law, you need to achieve a delicate balance. One cannot be an extremist when it comes to a career and work or family and social activity. There must be a fine balance,” he advises.

Lam observes a lot of excellent law school graduates who have built a good career over the years but never got around to forming a family or support system for themselves. 

“So I see the need for balance to achieve sustainability. Only after leaving law school, did I  see this more clearly,” he says. 

His decision to study law was inspired by a genuine curiosity at how legality permeated most of his professional dealings. 

“When I was with the investment banking business at the Bank of China, I found that every transaction was law related, from contracts and regulations to products, client service and risk management. Everything touches the law,” says Lam. 

“They say accounting is the language of business. I would say the law is the language of life. It covers every aspect of our life right now including business.”

He likens an education in law to a course in understanding a game. 

“If you ask me to come out and play soccer, which I love, I’d have to at least know the rules of the game. And I have to understand fully what is a yellow card, for example. And that's the only way to do it right and to do it well. So out of this curiosity and this inner urge to do my job better, I went to study law on a part time basis,” says Lam. 

He says that because it was genuine learning, he got “not bad” results and was admitted to the PCLL program.  

After that, he practiced as a barrister for a year. Lam credits his legal training with honing his risk management abilities. 

“I think the benefit of having been trained as a lawyer is that whenever you see a situation, you see risks right away. When you go into a wedding, you imagine the complexities of a divorce, And when you go to a joint venture signing ceremony, you could easily think about the need for adequate break up clauses and the tedious process of breaking up,” Lam says, adding that such a parallel was happening in world news with Brexit. 

“You are so sensitive to risks and some people in the business sector say ‘if you want to kill a deal, bring in a lawyer’”, he jokes. 

But on a more serious note, he stressed the importance of maintaining the rule of law in Hong Kong.

“There can be no compromise with the importance of the rule of law. If we don't have this precondition, society cannot function: commerce cannot be carried out; liberty, rights, private property and so on cannot be respected,” says Lam. 

“I fully agree that by being a lawyer, you are also a key stakeholder in the legal system. Not just to uphold it, but for the betterment of others.”

Thus, he urges lawyers to go beyond the legal bubble to learn about various fields, in order to understand different topics and perspectives.   

“It's very important to know the importance of not only the law, but also the importance of law reforms and how to keep up with changing circumstances in society and in the world. After all, the law is meant to serve the people,” says Lam. 

Lam takes great pride in Hong Kong’s rule of law, believing it has the potential to help the Special Administrative Region emerge as a leader for meeting key needs in the region. 

“I think litigation should be avoided where possible. That's why I'm a big supporter of mediation and arbitration. I see a big future for Hong Kong in becoming the leading arbitration and mediation centre for international projects, be it a Belt and Road project or a Greater Bay Area project. 

“You know Hong Kong should be the best place to do so. But when litigation is not avoidable, then professional legal advice is absolutely needed in order to get it resolved. That’s why I think it’s important to invest in a good legal service.”

To be of Service 

But because of the continuing lure of banking, Lam eventually moved on to become a solicitor of the High Court. 

This was so that he could simultaneously continue his investment banking business and have the flexibility to continue with his community service. 

Community service is a topic Lam circles back to a fair bit in our conversation. Again, he traces this to his father and grandfather’s influence. 

“I was raised in a business family that was very active in community service and international affairs as well. So from a young age, I was exposed to this,” says Lam.

With that comes an emphasis to serve the broader community. 

“There’s an expectation to serve the broader community and care about the world, while also putting family first,” says Lam.

When asked about causes he is passionate about, Lam is quick and firm in his response.

“Right now, there’s no question it’s sustainability. Because we have a responsibility to not just Hong Kong but to the earth as well. Sustainability is a key issue, as it is not just about climate change, but a host of other issues as well,” says Lam. 

“So I'm very glad to see the continuing rise of impact investment for example. Also in the rising engagement of youth, green projects and the importance of making Hong Kong a green finance hub.” 

Lam is also working to make Cyberport a driving force in fostering the development of Hong Kong into a smart city. 

He cites that excitement as the driver for his involvement in various community service roles.

Currently, Lam is a member of the Hong Kong SAR Government Committee on Innovation, Technology and Re-Industrialization, the Council on Professional Conduct in Education, the Court of the City University of Hong Kong and Sir Murray MacLehose Trust Fund Investment Advisory Committee, a member of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council Belt and Road Committee and Convenor of its Digital Silk Road Working Group, President of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) Business Advisory Council and Chairman of its Task Force on Banking and Finance. 

He is also the Chairman of the Permanent Commission on Economic and Financial Issues of World Union of Small and Medium Enterprises (WUSME), Honorary Chairman – Asia Pacific of CMA Australia, Chairman of Monte Jade Science and Technology Association of Hong Kong and President of Hong Kong-ASEAN Economic Cooperation Foundation. 

Previously, he also served as a part-time member of the Central Policy Unit, and a member of the Task Force on Industry Facilitation under the Digital 21 Strategy Advisory Committee, the Assessment Panel of the Small Entrepreneur Research Assistance Programme under the Innovation and Technology Fund, the New Business Committee of the Hong Kong Financial Services Development Council and the Legal Aid Services Council.

“Both my father and my grandfather also said to not be dependent on others. At the minimum, you should be a provider and taxpayer. To go beyond that, you should be a contributor and a leader in any humble way that you can be,” says Lam. 

“So that means doing more than for myself. And that's why I keep an active community service portfolio.” 

Apart from serving on local and international public bodies, Lam has also taught at Tsinghua University, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Baptist University and the City University of Hong Kong. 

Championing the Cyber Age with Cyberport

Prior to becoming the Chairman of Cyberport, Lam’s résumé also reflects a wide breadth and diversity of experience. 

He has over 30 years of international management experience across the telecommunications/media/technology, financial services, consumer/ healthcare, infrastructure and energy/resources sectors. 

Through his time in those industries, Lam has gained extensive experience and connections in the innovation and digital technology spheres and in general management, strategy consulting, corporate governance, direct investment, investment banking and fund management.

Lam has notched up leadership roles (including Chairman, Vice Chairman, Director, CEO, COO and General Manager) with several leading multinational corporations including Hong Kong Telecom, Singapore Technologies Telemedia (Temasek Holdings), Macquarie Capital, BOC International Holdings (the Bank of China group) and Chia Tai Enterprises International Limited (CP Group). 

He is also the Non-Executive Chairman – Hong Kong and ASEAN Region and Chief Adviser to Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets Asia.

Through Cyberport, Lam has found the perfect mix to combine his multi-industry experience with his eagerness to serve. 

Lam is particularly interested in nurturing young talents and next-generation small and medium enterprises, while fostering the development of Hong Kong’s digital economy and the innovation and technology sector in his current capacity.

In its 2017/2018 financial report, Cyberport reported that GogoVan had become the tech hub’s first unicorn. Travel booking service Klook had also completed close to $60 million Series C funding, which was co-invested by investors such as Sequoia China and Goldman Sachs. 

It also had over 250 companies (now over 300) in its fintech cluster, with capabilities ranging from blockchain to cybersecurity to AI and big data.  

Lam is understandably proud about the potential Cyberport has under its wing. He is particularly excited about how Regtech/Lawtech could transform the legal industry.

“Regtech solutions could, for example, help law firms get up to date about regulatory changes more clearly, cost effectively and frequently,” he declares. 

He believes it holds a solution for lawyers dealing with big amounts of data, ensuring they can cut costs and time, increase accuracy and pick up on things they might miss by doing things manually. 

“There’s a lot of potential here and it’s going to be important for cross border transactions as well,” says Lam.

“Because the whole world now is moving into the smart economy stage of development. You can call it digital, connected or smart economy. But this is the fourth industrial revolution and a time when data is comparable to gold, oil or currencies and AI is the new software,” says Lam. 

So every sector in society, the legal profession included, has to embrace digital transformation or be disrupted.

A Place for Lawyers 

Lam intends Cyberport to be “a complete ecosystem” for bringing innovation life, from the incubation process to finding investors and accelerators. 

And he sees a place for lawyers in every step of the way. 

“I think lawyers have a big role to play apart from the lawtech and regtech areas. Lawyers can also assist with the law reform process, where relevant laws and regulations can be improved or created for a smart economy,” says Lam. 

“Financial services account for 18 percent of our GDP. If we don't embrace fintech, our core business will be disrupted. If we do fintech well, we not only protect our core business but we can also build up the new economy with the right talents, products and framework.” 

Another thing Lam would like to see is more varied professions in the same room. 

“I would like to see Hong Kong lawyers become more actively involved with tech companies and be more start-up friendly. Most lawyers really like to work with established clients for good and obvious reasons. But start-ups are the ones who truly need the legal talents,” says Lam.

This could go in any direction, from help with intellectual property protection to advising on IPOs, joint ventures and investments. 

He urges lawyers to not discriminate against the smaller firms.  

“Many of them are bona fide companies that can grow and develop very well over time. And they need legal advice. And something can always be worked out on a win-win basis, says Lam, who sees this as a way to get promising companies on board as lifelong clients too. 

He also urges lawyers themselves to also get entrepreneurial, citing Cyberport’s Creative Micro Fund as a good way to get started. 

“If you have a good idea, our Micro Fund could provide a cheque of HKD100,000 for you to turn it into a business plan. I encourage and would like to see some crazy-but-good ideas from those in the legal profession,” says Lam.

Ultimately, seeing the big picture and recognizing where one could add value comes back to Lam’s core theme of serving the broader community.

“If we do things the right way, we can help our young people in the SMEs and help our economy develop further and diversify. We need to engage the public more, from the district councils to the accounting profession,” says Lam, who feels it all feeds into the collective space we share.

And that includes himself.

“Nowadays, working on game changers like fintech is a perfect transformation for me as well.