Bill Gates, his children and Confucian filial piety

December 08, 2017 08:00
Bill Gates said in an interview with a British TV station last year that his three children are proud of his decision to give away their inheritance. Photo: Reuters

Whenever people ask me to name the person I admire most, I always reply without hesitation: Bill Gates. Of course, there are many men and women in history that I admire but Gates is top on my list of people still living. I admire former US President Barack Obama, but as a politician and gifted orator. Gates is in a different class, together with Warren Buffett.

I had the pleasure of briefly chatting with Gates during a media event at Microsoft headquarters years ago when I lived in Seattle. During my time in Seattle I covered many IT conferences as well as Microsoft media events. One particular conference remains stuck in my mind after all these years. Gates was a speaker, along with the bosses of several other well-known IT corporations.

The conference topic was the digital divide that separated Africa from the developed world. All the other corporate bosses pledged to donate computers to African countries to help bridge the digital divide. When it was Gates’ turn to speak, he politely ridiculed the other bosses, asking what good it is to give people computers when they don’t even have electricity, roofs over their heads, and enough food to live.

His point was that it made no sense to put the cart before the horse. Gates told his audience the first priority should be to improve the livelihoods of these people, ease poverty, and eradicate diseases. Computers can come later. I sat in the audience nodding in agreement. He was such a breath of fresh air.

Gates was still fresh in his journey to become the world's greatest philanthropist when he shared that thinking with his audience. As co-founder of Microsoft, he spent his younger years amassing a dizzying fortune. Now, regularly cited as the world’s richest man, he and his wife Melinda have pledged to give away almost all of their untold wealth to make the world a better place by eradicating disease and poverty.

Gates said in an interview with a British TV station last year that his three children are proud of his decision to give away their inheritance. This is what he said: “Our kids will receive a great education and some money so they are never going to be poorly off but they'll go out and have their own career.”

Surely, there aren’t many children in this world who don’t mind their parents giving away over US$80 billion to fight poverty while leaving them only enough to live a comfortable life. I have several wealthy friends who are suing their siblings over large inheritances left by their late parents. One friend even sued his own mother and brother to claim the family fortune.

As a journalist, I meet people from all walks of life at various functions. Recently, I was introduced to Lu Lo Kai-shui by a friend at a function. I know practically nothing about him although his elder brother Vincent Lo Hong-sui is frequently in the news. Lu Lo is the youngest son of Great Eagle founder Lo Ying-shek. I had followed with some interest media reports of the Lo family feud because it’s so much like a TV drama.

Sadly, such real-life feuds are all too common a story, especially in Asia, of siblings fighting each other over a vast family fortune. When I read media reports of the Lo family feud, what affected me most was that the mother of the nine siblings, Lo To Lee-kwan, now aged 98, has to suffer the pain of seeing her children fighting over her late husband’s hard-earned money. It made me think of my own late mother. It always pained her to see my siblings and I argue heatedly even over minor things.

As a journalist, I am naturally nosey about issues that make the news. During my brief chat with Lu Lo over a glass of wine with two mutual friends, I politely asked him about the family feud. Throughout our chat he lamented the loss of filial piety. It’s a Confucian value that fewer and fewer young Hong Kong people seem to embrace nowadays. As I listened to him espouse the virtue of filial piety, Gates and his three children sprang to mind.

Filial piety is the virtue of respecting one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. It’s more an Asian value than a Western one. Quite possibly, Gates’s three children have never heard of it. Yet they clearly showed filial piety when they said they were proud of their parents donating virtually all of the family fortune to help the world’s poorest. It showed they respected their parents’ decision even though it meant they would get very little of the more than US$80 billion.

When my mother passed away in my Seattle home, my siblings and I all insisted on paying for the funeral expenses even though none of us are wealthy. It was an expression of filial piety. Contrast that with a wealthy Hong Kong friend of mine whose mother passed away several years ago. The family fortune was frozen due to legal battles among the siblings. My friend had to borrow money for the funeral expenses.

I have met only two of the nine Lo siblings. I know very little of the family except that their late father founded Great Eagle, and Vincent Lo, whom I have never met, heads Shui On. According to media reports, Lu Lo has taken his mother’s side against several of his siblings involving a lawsuit over a multi-million dollar family charity trust. When I asked him why, he repeated that filial piety and charity meant a lot to him.

Great Eagle has a long history as a well-known Hong Kong conglomerate. When I first read about the Lo family feud, I wondered what ordinary Hong Kong people thought about local billionaires who feuded with brothers and sisters over family fortunes. I often tell friends who aspire to be rich that they can’t take it with them, which means they can’t take their wealth with them to the grave.

Bill Gates knows he can’t take his vast fortune with him to his grave. He has chosen the noble cause of using it to make the world a better place. His school-age children have shown filial piety by respecting their father’s decision. If Western school-age children can show filial piety, why can’t the Asian grown-ups in the Lo family feud?

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.