Sep 2014 Frederick and Christine Ma, father and daughter, are both distinguished persons in Hong Kong. The father is former Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, serving non-executive director of a listed company and holder of the honours of the Gold Bauhinia Star and Justice of Peace. The daughter is a brilliant educator, founder of a character education school of which she has been the principal for more than five years. Apart from being excellent in their own right, both of the Mas are easy-going and humorous. So, what are the parenting secrets behind the intergenerational transmission of wit and wisdom?
On the day of the interview, Frederick Ma stands at the door, and it is his daughter Christine who welcomes him in. Mr. Ma is in a pair of green socks and leather lace-up shoes, his eyes narrowing into slits as his beam widens. Like a child, he speaks with his arms akimbo, smiling: “Mommy reminded me not take off my shoes today ‘cause they were especially selected for me as a gift by my beloved daughter Christine. Don’t they look good? Come on, give your praise!” Everyone bursts out laughing and claps in approval: “Great taste!” Right away, Christine brings forward a small stool, sits on it and has her dad’s shoes thoroughly cleaned and sterilized before they both step into the small learning house dedicated to children’s character education, which has to be kept clean and hygienic at all times.
A child bathed in love
In Frederick’s words, he and his wife brought up the Ma daughters with “overflowing love”. According to him, he has never ever even yelled at the girls. “Everyone celebrates his/her birthday annually, but Christine got a birthday cake on the 23rd of every month! This ‘tradition’ was maintained for many years, proven by pictures.” Frederick recounts that his own dad was a typical stern father who was as strict as a general. Once orders were given, the children had to do as told. Although he did love his children deep down, there was no room for communication. Frederick, in Christine’s impression, is the exact opposite: a kind father. “Dad answered my requests quite easily, and he could be easily coaxed too. Comparatively, Mom was a bit stricter. She started teaching us morals when we were two or three. She taught my sister and I to respect and care for others, and also to be sympathetic.”
Frederick explains: “Many have asked why I didn’t tell off daughters at all. This is not easy to answer, but I’d say my twos girls could really behave themselves from a very young age. I’ve always believed that love and support are the most important elements in raising children. Children who grow up in love are naturally self-confident, and they won’t be too naughty. This made us love them more, and as such a virtuous circle was built.” It’s widely acknowledged that communication is essential in any admirable parent-child relationships, and Frederick cherishes frankness with his daughters. Christine says: “Basically, there’s no secret in our family. We describe Mom as the COO (Chief Operations Officer) of the family while Dad the CEO (Chief Executive Officer). Because the CEO is a busy man, we report everything to the COO and leave it to her what to tell Dad.” Each parent played a unique, complementary role in cultivating the daughters’ growth.
A character education school that fulfilled a dream
Christine tells us that one of the most frustrating experiences in her life took place when she was six years old. “The school that I studied in favoured students who were active and who took the initiative in answering questions, but I was rather quiet. My Maths was not good either. Worrying that I would fall behind, Mom went to the school to talk to the teacher to see how she could give me a hand. Sadly, that teacher told Mom that I was ‘stupid’, ‘slow’, ‘useless’ and ‘hopeless’.” At that time, this negative comment dealt a great blow to the little girl’s heart. Nonetheless, it turned out that the child who was judged to have “no future” not only completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Philosophy from the London School of Economics, but also got a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Child Development. The second pursuit was motivated by the belief that a good school and a good teacher is of paramount importance to a child.
It was totally against her dad’s expectations that Christine decided not to get into finance but preferred the educational sector. “That episode is still vivid in my memory. That day I expressed my wish to Dad in the kitchen, and I remember him saying, ‘Every trade has its master. The most important thing is you love your industry.” The father’s response was a pleasant surprise. The daughter did not have to spend any effort to convince him because she had his unconditional support and respect.
And indeed it has been unconditional support in action on the long term. Christine is deeply moved. “On finishing the educational degree, I returned to Hong Kong to teach at an ordinary school, and the pay was definitely not high. The sons and daughters of Dad’s friends were all working in professions like finance, medicine and law. But more than once Dad shared proudly in his social gatherings, ‘Christine is now a teacher and she always teaches as a volunteer too. I’d substitute for her when she’s not free.’” Christine observes his father’s whole-hearted support and feels grateful from the bottom of her heart. Did Frederick really substitute for her daughter as he said? “He really did! That was when I volunteered to teach English at a school in Yau Ma Tei. He was still the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development back then. The kids might not have recognized him, but the parents were amazed: How come the Secretary is teaching English here?”
Five years ago, Christine founded JEMS Learning House which dedicated to character education to fulfil her dream of nurturing “Junior Excellent Members of Society”. “Nowadays society is placing too way much emphasis on knowledge and grades while neglecting the importance of character education. Academic achievement is no doubt important, but a person must have good character to succeed in society, and such qualities have to be cultivated from a young age,” the daughter relates her vision and the father echoes. What touches Christine most is that her father shows support by his physical presence whenever her school has any events, whether big or small and no matter where he is meant to be at.
Life-long qualities cultivated in a subdivided flat
Some common questions about education are: Is success determined by innate qualities or cultivation after birth? What is the meaning of “education” on the path of growth? “When I was small, there was no school for character education. The environment in which we lived was already the best school. We learned interpersonal skills naturally without being taught by parents or teachers.” As a child, Frederick lived with his family in a narrow subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po, where several families shared a kitchen and a washroom, just like the majority who grew up in Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s. It was such tough experiences that taught him to respect, share, communicate and cooperate. And it is these qualities that earned him approval among the public, the media and the legislative counsellors as a Secretary.
“That was probably the training of the environment. Poverty could be an upward drive as well as a downward drag. To a person who is mentally equipped to break through obstacles, poverty can be an excellent motivation. On the contrary, self-pitying would drag one further down. I believe in education. Schools do not just teach knowledge, but also noble virtues like perseverance, optimism, positivity, patience, confidence and team spirit, which have far-reaching influences in personal growth.” Frederick’s belief ties in with Winston Churchill’s famous saying: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
Happy daughters – the father’s ultimate hope
On every Father’s Day, Christine must come up with some creative celebration ideas for her dad. One year, knowing that Frederick had dreamt of being a pilot, she let him experience flying a plane with flight simulator. The idea warmed the father’s heart. In the other way round, Frederick, too, wants his daughters to be happy dream pursuers: “My wish for them is that they’ll be good persons who contribute to society and who are pleased with what they do – of course it’ll be best if they have a perfect family and good health. Many are looking for material enjoyment, but if there has to be a choice between one’s dream and material enjoyment, we really shouldn’t have our priorities reversed. In the best scenario you earn while pursuing your dream, but even if you don’t, you are rewarded by the joy of enjoying what you do.”
Good education doesn’t necessarily come from a top school and a famed teacher. Parents are the greatest educators in the world. “Mom and Dad are my great influences. They’ve nurtured in me a lot of important values. When I have my own children, I’ll let them teach them,” says Christine with a grin. Frederick spreads his hands, agreeing, “More than willing.” When asked to give advice to young people of today, Frederick stresses the importance of language abilities and communication skills, which should be complemented with an observant eye, an analytical mind, knowledge of technology and the ability to use it flexibly.
Did Frederick and his wife prefer overseas education so that both Ma’s daughters graduated overseas? “In fact I never really ‘sent’ them overseas for education. They just happened to ‘follow’ me to study overseas.” In those days, Frederick was frequently sent to work in different places, each stay spanning years. As a result, Christine got to study in Canada, Hong Kong and the UK. It had long come to Frederick and his wife’s awareness that their daughters’ education would cost a handsome amount and so they set apart a sum as educational savings. “Surely, parents must plan ahead for their children. Back then we split our savings in two portions. Now there should be many helpful financial tools around.” Throughout the interview, love and tacit understanding can be felt between the father and daughter, which testifies to the importance of good parent-child relationships and successful parenting to the maintenance of family bonding.