Gabriel Matthew Leung could have become an accomplished orchestra conductor, with his passion for music from a tender age, had it not been for his father, who once threatened to stop paying for his university education if he insisted on pursuing a degree in music.
Hong Kong’s music circle may have lost a child prodigy but that has turned out to be a gain for the city’s medical profession.
Professor Leung, now in his fourth year as dean of the 130-year-old University of Hong Kong Faculty of Medicine, takes great pleasure in both grooming medical talent and performing as a guest conductor of the HKU Union Philharmonic Orchestra. He is also a well-regarded pianist for chamber music and sits on the boards of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Asian Youth Orchestra and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.
From academia to politics
Leung’s crossover is not limited to music.
In September 2008, on his first day as undersecretary for food and health, Leung was confronted with the public uproar over the mainland scandal involving melamine-tainted baby formula. He saw through the enactment of a law barring the use of the poisonous compound and protein adulteration.
A year later, when Hong Kong confirmed the first case of influenza A (H1N1) virus amid a global swine flu pandemic, Leung had to make almost daily TV appearances to allay the public’s concern. His professionalism and demeanor helped soothe a jittery city.
In 2011 he was named director of the Chief Executive’s Office, sometimes referred to as the SAR version of the White House chief of staff. He took part in drafting then CE Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s last policy address, as well as the preparations for then Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the territory for the handover anniversary celebrations. He also oversaw the transition work for the incoming SAR administration.
In 2012 he left politics and returned to the ivory tower on the other side of the Victoria Peak to resume his teaching and research work.
A year later he was appointed the 40th dean of the HKU Faculty of Medicine, making him, at 41, the youngest ever to lead the revered medical school, founded as Hong Kong’s first institution of higher learning in 1887.
Leung’s childhood was filled with a kid’s typical phobia about doctors, pills and needles, although his asthma made him a regular patient. Becoming a doctor and a medical professor was the last thing in the little boy’s mind.
Rather, he developed an ear for music, thanks to his mother who was a music teacher at a secondary school, whose fascination for literature and philosophy also rubbed off on her son.
The world of rhythms and melodies engrossed him, despite his father’s constant reminder that art and music could never make anyone rich.
After graduation from the prestigious Wah Yan College, he applied to both the medical school and the faculty of music at the University of Western Ontario when his family emigrated to Canada. He got offers from both, but had to choose medicine after his father’s threat to cut financial support.
A career in medicine promises a well-off life while allowing a practitioner to be of great service to fellow men at the same time. With that in mind, Leung convinced himself to relegate his love for music to the background.
He majored in neurosurgery after her mother was diagnosed with brain tumor, but subsequently switched to family medicine, epidemiology and public health, less popular subjects in terms of remuneration but vital for the well-being of the masses.
Having completed family medicine residency training in Toronto, Leung earned his master’s from Harvard and research doctorate from HKU.
A clinician and a respected public health authority, Leung concurrently holds the chair of Public Health Medicine. His research defined the epidemiology of two novel viral epidemics, namely SARS-CoV in 2003 and influenza A(H7N9) in 2013.
In a research on non-communicable diseases, Leung’s team offered novel insights into the fundamental biological pathways leading to population-level origins of cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes.
Leung also directs the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control while regularly advising the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than academics
HKU’s medical school traditionally attracts the best and brightest students, such as those who ace the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination, for the obvious reason that a career in medicine is a sure ticket to the top echelons of society. But Leung wants his students to pursue medicine not just for fame and fortune, but as a vehicle to serve their fellow citizens.
Despite his administrative role in the university, and his many other commitments, Leung still gives lectures on medicine and public health to undergraduate students. He is also the master of the Chi Sun College, one of the four student residence halls in Kennedy Town, tutoring and looking after a growing student population.
To be able to enhance the grooming of compassionate, reflective and astute medical professionals, Leung initiated a reform to incorporate arts and humanities courses into the curriculum, which now includes attending concerts, movie screenings, district visits and even meditation.
He also invites his students to discussions of usually neglected subjects such as medical ethics, humanitarianism, doctor-patient relationship, palliative care for terminally-ill patients, end-of-life support as well as thanatology.
“Is a physically fit person necessarily a happy one? And, when a doctor has to make a decision at a precarious moment, his decision may have much to do with ethics and humanitarianism,” Leung said.
“I still remember a heartrending case in which a pregnant woman was killed by a falling tree on Robinson Road in 2014. Any doctor attending her must decide who to save first, the mum or the baby, a tough decision must be made in no time. And even when the baby is saved, how will his life be without his mum? And how to explain to the family devastated by the tragedy? These all require training other than just medicine but a more holistic approach to educate our students, with the help from humanities studies.”
An enrichment year has been added to the syllabus for all freshmen enrolling in the faculty’s flagship Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) since the 2016 academic year. Postgraduate students are also encouraged to study a second degree in either Master of Research in Medicine or Master of Public Health.
Overseas outreach programs to developing countries for medical aid or training of local doctors have also been beefed up, a key part of Leung’s pedagogy.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 17
Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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