Dr. Moses Cheng, chairman of the Insurance Authority shares his insights from a 43-year legal career that took him from summer intern to senior partner at P.C. Woo & Co, and also talks about his passion for public service, which shines through to this day.
With a bubbly attitude and a penchant for occasional jokes, Dr. Moses Cheng remains passionate about public service and singing following his retirement from a long career as a solicitor in Hong Kong.
Cheng is now the chairman of the Insurance Authority (IA), the regulatory body of the insurance industry. He says the position allows him to follow his passion for public service, one that started with the constant preaching by his family to help people in need.
“Coming from a Christian family, I wanted to go into a career that can help people,” he says.
With an Anglican priest for a grandfather, Cheng has been influenced by Christian values since childhood. He attended two Christian schools, and credits St. Paul’s Co-Education College for helping to propell his budding career.
“I took the A-level exam and then I matriculated, but my grades were not good enough to study social work, which I originally intended to study. I think it was God’s plan that I didn’t get into social work, and I found out that I can equally help people as a lawyer,” Cheng says.
In 1969, the University of Hong Kong launched its full-time law degree course. Cheng was part of the first class, and the first batch of law graduates four years later.
In the summer of 1972, Cheng made it into P.C. Woo & Co., a law firm in Central, as an intern after being referred by the firm’s senior partner, who went to the same church as he did. He then went on to obtain his PCLL while working part-time at the firm. Cheng started practicing as a full-time solicitor at P.C. Woo & Co. in 1975 and stayed at the firm for his entire career. From 1994 to 2016, he was the senior partner of the firm.
“Of course, during those years, headhunters tried to approach me, asking me to consider other firms, but I always knew this was the firm for me,” he says.
Diving into Company Law
In his first 15 years of practice, Cheng found being a litigator challenging. P.C. Woo & Co. at the time only had four partners and two associates, so he had to do everything from research and paperwork to preparation for trials.
Cheng recalls being at three places in a single day.
“I was at a chamber hearing at the Supreme Court in the morning, and then I was at a substantial hearing in a district court case right after. And then I went to another chamber hearing after lunchtime.”
He says he was never good at being a conveyancing lawyer and finally found his calling when he ventured into intellectual property law (IP). Many local manufacturers were then involved in OEM work and producing their own products at the time but had no knowledge about infringing on the IP rights of foreign corporations, so they got sued and he defended them.
Many of these manufacturers became his long-term clients.
“I defended a lot of those manufacturers, who later became clients in my corporate/commercial practice. When they eventually developed their own designs and their own brands, I helped them grow their business and raise capital. That’s how I gradually went into corporate practice, including capital markets, M&A and so on,” Cheng says.
As a result of this “logical development”, Cheng became exposed to the working of the stock market. Later, he was appointed member and chairman of the Listing Committee of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong between 1996 and 2006. He then held a position as an independent non-executive director at the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited for six years until 2012.
When Cheng is asked about the biggest difference between the early days of practicing company law and today, he mentions the prospectus in IPO.
“We were never required to draft the prospectus, which is a document for investors to understand the scope of the business and consider if they should invest in the company,” Cheng says.
“It used to be pretty much a promotional document, but these days it’s closer to a legal one, in line with the American practice. The document saves your neck if trouble happens.”
Tips for Success
Cheng is eager to share tips on how to be a good lawyer.
“What distinguishes a good lawyer from an ordinary one is the observance of the highest ethical standards and never compromises when it comes to integrity.” he says.
It is also important to care, for two reasons.
“You need to be extremely careful in doing your work. Clients come to you with their problems, so you have to exercise the highest level of care in solving them,” he says.
Also, “you need to demonstrate a caring attitude by spending more time and listening to the clients patiently; and being able to convey to them that their problems are understood and will be looked after by you,” Cheng adds.
Even with that, the success of a legal career takes a long time to build. Cheng says newbies need to work their way up step by step.
“I think experience in applying the law to solve problems is gained through the years. The long years of practice enable you to continuously better equip yourself.”
He also emphasizes the importance of constant learning as new laws came out often. Practitioners have to learn, unlearn and relearn all the time. Cheng himself was exposed to different kinds of practices and different types of law after he started going into public service.
With a sparkle in his eyes, Cheng talks about being appointed by former Hong Kong Governor David Wilson to be a Legislative Council member from 1991 to 1995.
“I learnt a lot about the political system of Hong Kong, how the government is run, and it widened my network. It also helped develop my career,” he says.
Yet, after his term, he chose not to go into politics and stand for election because it was not his real passion. But it did not stop him from gaining exposure in other projects. Cheng was appointed a China-Appointed Attesting Officer, helping Hong Kong citizens and corporations attest documents from Hong Kong for use in the mainland.
On top of that, from 2003 and for about 10 years he served on various committeees of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which was a kind of organization Cheng had written about in his university dissertation.
“One of the conclusions that I drew in my studies is that we need an independent agency to be given the power to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. When ICAC was established [in 1974], I was overjoyed,” Cheng says.
Cheng was also given opportunities to serve in the education sector. He was appointed the chairman of the Board of Education in 1996, and a year later he became the chairman of the Council and Court of Hong Kong Baptist University. After finishing his term at the Board of Education in 2002, he was appointed to serve as a member and then as the chairman of the Education Commission from 2009 to 2015.
“I think education is a very important investment. It’s a very rewarding and satisfying experience,” he says.
In P.C. Woo & Co., lawyers are encouraged to serve and discharge their civic responsibility.
“We encourage each of our staff to serve the community one way or the other. They can either offer pro bono services or become members of advisory bodies, or they can participate in serving NGOs, church or religious organizations,” says Cheng.
In 1997, he established the Hong Kong Institute of Directors, an organization that promotes good corporate governance by providing professional development and training for directors. P.C. Woo & Co. also acts as its legal advisor. Cheng now remains as its honorary president and chairman emeritus.
Currently, he is a member of the Aviation Development and Three-runway System Advisory Committee.
“I contributed my ideas and legal training to the discussions of the various challenges and issues, but I am also learning about how air traffic is being managed and controlled; and how we build and develop the third runway,” says Cheng
One of the highlights of Cheng’s life in public service was his appointment as Chairman of the IA, the city’s first and only independent regulatory body for the insurance industry. In December 2015, Cheng, along with seven other members, officially came on board as the council members of the then Provisional Independent Insurance Authority.
Cheng says IA has two statutory duties: Regulating practitioners and promoting the sustainable development of the industry.
“Before the IA, the insurance industry was predominantly self-regulated with licensing of insurance companies undertaken by the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance. But that [is] not how it was done in much of the world these days,” he says.
He cites three major challenges that he encountered in his first year at the IA.
“It was not easy to get everyone to work as one team, and so this was our focus in the first year. Another challenge was starting our dialogue with the mainland regulators so that we could be supportive of each other and collaborate as well. The third thing was to convince the industry that we were there to serve them.”
In July last year, the government wrapped up the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, the internal predecessor of the IA, and Cheng started to take over its responsibilities of overseeing more than 160 insurance companies. In December 2017, the IA moved its headquarters to Wong Chuk Hang.
In Hong Kong, there are 160 authorized insurers. Total gross premiums of the industry in 2017 amounted to $489.6 billion, representing an increase of 9.1% over 2016. Between June and December last year, the IA received a total of 648 complaints, with the largest number related to misrepresentation of information.
Cheng says in June next year, the IA will start to work towards licensing, for the first time, 100,000 intermediaries, including agents and brokers.
“We will support insurance practitioners to be like professional people such as lawyers – they will be required to update themselves by undertaking a minimum number of hours of continuing professional development programme.”
“These will be compulsory. The aim is to upgrade the standard of the insurance practitioners as well as promote the confidence and trust of the consumers in the whole industry. We believe that’s the more effective way of protecting the interests of the policyholders.”
As the market has seen more mainland investment into Hong Kong insurance firms, Cheng suggests setting up insurance service centers in the Greater Bay Area to build a connection between the two.
“We are very excited about the forthcoming Greater Bay Area policies and we hope that its development will be a pilot for Hong Kong to play a greater role in China. Hopefully, every Hong Konger will share the vision and contribute to make sure the Greater Bay Area will benefit ourselves as well as the overall development of China,” he says.
Advice on Public Service
Cheng’s efforts in public service have been recognized by both the British and Hong Kong governments. He received the Order of the British Empire in 1997 and was awarded with a Gold Bauhinia Star in 2003 and the Grand Bauhinia Medal in 2016 by the SAR government.
Cheng believes that helping others doesn’t mean you have to stop looking after your personal interests. With this in mind, he founded the NGO Opera Hong Kong, where Cheng combines his loves for singing and public service.
“Use your expertise and identify what your interests are. I love singing and that’s fun. That’s how I pursue my interests and help people at the same time,” he says.
As long as time is managed well, Cheng says people can do their job well and actively serving the community.
“People these days tend to spend most... of their day on their career and nothing else. For a short period of time, you won’t feel it. But 10, 15 years into it, you will start thinking: what am I doing every single day of my life? What’s the purpose? What’s the meaning of this life?
“Manage your time well. If you can do that properly, you will be able to pursue your career and your interests, while at the same time looking after your family and serving the community,” he says.
To Cheng, money can’t compare to the joy he sees on people’s faces.
“When I go and help people, the smile on their faces is much more valuable than dollars,” he says.
“You can only live in one flat. You can only drive one car.”
“Share your love with other people. It’s part of my life. I am not doing something very unusual. A lot of people think I am contributing too much time to serve the community, but I believe everyone should do that,” Cheng notes.
“If you think about it, one of the key factors of Hong Kong’s success in the past is people’s participation and contribution in developing Hong Kong. It makes the city what we are today,” he adds. “So carve out some time to contribute to the community. I think it’s how the city will flourish and preserve Hong Kong as the ideal place we call home.”
If there were a time machine, Cheng would go back to the point where his two daughters were still young.
“In my young days, I spent a lot of time away from home, and the children grew up very quickly. The time you spend with them as adults and as children are not the same.”
He also regrets not spending more time with his wife, whom he “is most grateful to.”
“I would not be able to do a lot of things without her supporting me and looking after our family,“ he says.
As a lawyer, he wishes he could have gone on sabbatical and pursued a period of further education overseas. Local firms, however, do not offer this system.
“I would really like to see the world and how people do things differently. I would also want to be educated by academics who can stimulate my thoughts in the ways I approach my legal practice,” he says.
And all this matches his motto in life: “Work hard. Pursue your interests. Help those in need. Serve the community. Be good to your family.”