President Ir Aaron Bok: ‘Building majestic visions of Hong Kong for change’
Ir Aaron Bok Kwok-ming, the President of The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers for Session 2022/2023, has a lifelong passion for engineering throughout his 37 years of service in the HKSAR Government. Throughout these years, he is dedicated to shaping the landscape of Hong Kong’s engineering industry by leveraging his own rich experience.
Ir Aaron Bok Kwok-ming, President of the HKIE for Session 2022/2023)
Picturing a majestic vision
Serving in the engineering industry since graduating from The University of Hong Kong (HKU) in 1983, Ir Bok’s journey in engineering was set in motion by a picture printed by the HKIE.
Growing up in a sublet flat within a three-nil building, Ir Bok’s family was far from wealthy. His memories include his tailor dad’s workspace, into which he would squeeze for some sleep, and his yearly summer job, for which he would clean windows while standing in a gondola that hung at the height of some 30 floors. From an early age, he has always strived for personal excellence and a chance to change his own fate through hard-earned knowledge acquisition. Intergenerational poverty, though there was no such term in those days, was his chief opponent at the time.
Ir Bok says, “Back in those early days, I studied in a secondary school overlooking a majestic view of HKU, where I set my goals to further my studies.” The year he enrolled there for his tertiary education coincided with the launch of HKU Faculty of Dentistry. He was drawn by the field’s vast potential market and the lucrative income that comes with becoming a dentist. However, a picture changed the course of his life.
That picture was a computer simulation of the Tsing Ma Bridge printed in Hong Kong Engineer, the HKIE journal. The bridge would be the world's longest dual-purpose suspension bridge for railways and vehicles, which declared its magnificence with its engineering ingenuity.
The photo image that changed Ir Bok’s life career
“I was mesmerised by the majestic project,” he recalls, “and wished to be a part of it. I found something that I could see myself doing for the next 30 years or so.” It was around this time that he discovered his unbridled passion for engineering and began to form a vision for serving society with highly practical and quality day-to-day architecture.
During his 37 years of service in the government, Ir Bok has worked across multiple government departments. These include the Water Supplies Department, the Transport Department, the Highways Department, the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) and the Development Bureau. He has extensive experience in traffic and transport planning, New Town development, policy formulation, major reclamations, plus planning, design and project management of major infrastructure projects.
His major projects include the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, the Central-Wan Chai Bypass and Island Eastern Corridor Link, Tuen Mun Road Improvement, Central Kowloon Route, Tolo Highway/Fanling Highway Widening, Route 8, Shenzhen Western Corridor, Lung Mei Artificial Beach, Lung Kwu Tan Reclamation and Tuen Mun West Replanning. He was also engaged in management of fill banks, over 80 public housing site projects and the construction of over 3,500 quarantine units that were instrumental in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Before retiring in January 2021, he was the Head of the Civil Engineering Office of CEDD.
Two ‘impossible’ missions
With more than 30 years of experience under his belt, Ir Bok has participated in countless projects of all sizes. “The two most memorable ones,” he says, “are the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge (HZMB) and the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre.”
The HZMB is a difficult and unique project in that it was jointly financed, implemented and managed by the Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macao governments. From the planning and design to the funding application and construction on to the official opening and operation, Ir Bok immersed himself the entire time in the experience, with no other thought than to build a Green bridge for the community. It was during his involvement in the project – where he project-managed the bridge’s construction – that he developed his Three 3 philosophy1 with his team.
“Situated at the Pearl River Estuary and having a section that is adjacent to the Hong Kong International Airport, the HZMB was all but a mission impossible, due to its colossal scale and complexity in structural, hydraulic, geographical, ecological and environmental aspects, besides many others,” he recalls.
Among various other initiatives that were taken to tackle the risk, Ir Bok and his team created the first ever fully non-dredge reclamation plan of its kind in Hong Kong; used 180 m-long viaduct sections (what was at the time the longest spans), which, forming the bridge, pass over a navigation channel and the headland of Lantau; built the unprecedented land-based boundary crossing facilities, one of them being the iconic, soothing Passenger Clearance Building (PCB), which grants direct public access – all for environmental and customer-friendly reasons. The completed bridge could save commuters almost 160 km of mileage and 3 hours of journey time. “But we also need to minimise the project’s demand and impact on Earth resources and the marine ecology during construction,” he adds. In the Hong Kong Section, the non-dredge scheme alone saved about 22 Mm3’s worth of dredging and roughly half of the original backfilling materials needed.
The artificial island of the Hong Kong Port of the HZMB
Qingzhou Channel Bridge of the HZMB
Iconic roof of the Passenger Clearance Building, Hong Kong Port, the HZMB
The other memorable project was the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre. Soon after the 2020 Chinese New Year, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep the world, Ir Bok was tasked with another impossible mission: viz., to build 1,500 quarantine units2 on undeveloped land in the shortest possible time. Starting from scratch, it was a project that would usually take one year, but Ir Bok managed to accomplish the mission’s first phase in only two months.
“At unprecedented speed – within the first ten days – we went through all the designs, got quotations from contractors, got approval for land acquisition and tree felling, gained legal advice, budget and a lot more, satisfied all the statutory and administrative requirements,” he recalls. “We were racing against time and a pandemic.”
Finishing in less than a quarter of the normal construction period, Ir Bok described the working conditions as 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
To succeed in these projects, Ir Bok kept faith in his philosophy–to look ahead and avoid potential risk from the very start. From the beginning, he encouraged his team to conduct risk assessments. This included assessing not only problems that could occur in the near future, but also possible risks that might expose themselves in half years’ time or the subsequent two to three years. He emphasised the importance of taking immediate action to reduce or even avoid risks.
One team, one goal
Ir Bok also strongly believes in the philosophy of ‘One team, one goal’. Taking the HZMB and the quarantine facility projects as examples, Ir Bok stresses he is grateful that all the units worked together and brainstormed potential threats.“With each individual thinking ahead and applying the Three Attitudes of No Workers Mentality, Collaborating, and Embracing and Enjoying Challenges, we could work together to perform miracles.”
“My vision of what ‘one team one goal’ means is a real-life interpretation of the‘Spirit Bomb 元氣彈’ in the well-loved Japanese cartoon, Dragon Ball,” he adds. “In Dragon Ball, Son Goku gathers energy from all the creatures in the universe to create a powerful bomb, an act which resembles any project in the engineering industry where teamwork and team spirit are required to succeed.”
What touched Ir Bok the most occurred during the third wave of COVID-19 in July 2020 - nearly all his team members that participated in building the first two phases of the Penny Bay’s Quarantine Centre took the initiative to help build the new phases. Striving to contribute to society despite some dissenting voices, they must have believed that it was more of a blessing to give than to receive.
The Penny’s Bay Quarantine Camp
YMC of the Institution visiting the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Camp
Formalising the road map for Session 2022/2023
Immediate Past President Ir Edwin K F Chung had taken the bold step of rolling out the Time to Change Roadmap3 in rising to the unprecedented challenges faced by the HKIE. Thanks to this daring initiative of Ir Chung’s, in Session 2022/2023 the HKIE is able to commit itself to a higher degree of proactiveness in problem-solving and nurturing a culture of change. Ir Bok believes that the process of change is a long journey, involving extensive planning and refinements along the way. With their clear vision of how to make conspicuous changes in the HKIE, therefore, Ir Bok and the Vice Presidents are all ready, heart and soul, to enforce the 5-year roadmap set out by Ir Chung.
The roadmap consists of five key components, which, in brief, are:
- Pursuing digitalisation – Offer digital tools or solutions that align with the changing digital landscape and trends, upgrade current system architecture for more efficient daily operations, and ensure high-level security for confidential or sensitive information and data. Plans will include revamping the HKIE website, digitalising the membership application process, introducing a mobile application and reviewing social media strategies to promote institutional news and events.
- Enhancing services to members – Increase members’ satisfaction and membership value by improving value-added services, enhancing information delivery to members, as well as encouraging exchange among members that would establish in them an enriched sense of cohesion and belonging.
- Boosting professionalism – Uplift the professional status of the HKIE and engineers in society at large through intellectual exchange, policy advocacy initiatives, and explorations of further collaborative opportunities for training and development. In particular, the HKIE intends to assist in the performance of public and private works projects by facilitating policy review, top-notch intellectual exchange and professional advocacies to the government, public and major clients. By being always ready to offer quality and high-level advice, the Institution will strengthen engineers’ professional image in the public eye.
- Facilitating innovation – Foster a culture of innovation amongst members, and inspire engineers to bring their ideas to bear in real life through applications of innovative approaches or technologies with an aim to increase productivity, efficiency and project delivery outcomes. With the establishment of the Enginpreneurs (EP) Hub, it is hoped that the HKIE will contribute further to the sustainable development of society and drive further economic growth, in particular the development of Hong Kong into a new innovation & technology hub.
- Undertaking governance review – Revamp the HKIE’s governance to adapt more effectively to changing demands and new circumstances. It is now an opportune time to review our governance including our structure, constitutions, administrative framework and so on.
Proud to be Engineers
While we will proceed in Session 2022/2023 with the various initiatives under the “Time To Change” Roadmap, greater emphasis will be placed on rendering the Institution more visible and improving the image of the profession and our members, especially by foregrounding our professionalism. With a membership of over 33,000, the HKIE has, Ir Bok believes, a ‘Spirit Bomb’ of its own ready to be used. That is to say, it has members aplenty who could help boost its image as apt ambassadors–provided, of course, that they are also proud of being engineers and feel respected as such. It is thus the Institution’s deepest wish to cultivate aspiring engineers and provide the tools that they need to grow into proud professionals. In return, it is hoped, they become the sine qua non of the profession’s growth and perpetuation. Ir Bok appeals to all members to pitch in and participate in this important mission for the engineering profession. His slogan for the year is:
We are Proud to be Engineers! We will:
- deliver our services to community professionally and with heartiness and diligence;
- tell good engineering stories; and
- nurture talented successors
In the coming years, Ir Bok aims to act on the above resolves by the following four means:
- Fostering visibility – To uphold the public image of the engineering profession, propagate knowledge about and the latest advancements in engineering, and highlight the accomplishments and contributions of engineers to the public.
- Contributing to the society with a long-term vision – To offer insights on specific, especially high-level, issues relating to engineering, thus boosting the HKIE image.
- Nurturing future competent engineers – To arouse the younger generations’ interest in choosing engineering as their lifelong career and support them to acquire knowledge of the field.
- Increasing recognition of professional status – To promote the professional status and recognition of the HKIE membership.
Helping to develop young engineers
Ir Bok shares a particular challenge with engineers and the engineering industry at large: he is aware that the Government, in order to meet public demands, is planning to push on vigorously with infrastructure, as well as land and housing development, with a much faster pace than it has done up to now. It is also planning to transform Hong Kong into a new innovation & technology (I&T) hub, as a new pillar of economy growth. On the surface, all these would combine to usher in a golden era for the engineering industry; true as that may be, these opportunities also pose a big challenge to those in the field, for it is becoming clearer that the engineering industry lacks young professionals. “Engineering is not as attractive a profession to young people as it used to be in my time, because of its pre-established associations with long working hours and huge workload.”
Ir Bok takes off with a group of energetic future successors
Therefore, bringing in young professionals who could succeed the previous generation will be one of our key tasks in Session 2022/2023. One of the year’s highlights, therefore, will be to engage with parents, teachers and students, thereby informing them about the exciting career opportunities that engineering offer and instilling into students a genuine interest in STEM,” he notes. “To do so, we will introduce new educational initiatives, paying visits, for instance, to primary schools and secondary schools to introduce the engineering profession to students.”
“To me, being an engineer is not only about having a rewarding income, but also about contributing actively to our community members’ quality of life and even the stability and prosperity of mankind,” he adds. “For, as the famous engineer Theodore Von Karman once said,‘Scientists discover the world that exists; Engineers create the world that never was4!’”
Breaking the vicious cycle
Ir Bok also highlights the existence of a certain vicious cycle in the engineering industry. “Nowadays, there is stiff market competition in the industry, which results in low tender bids in public works,” Ir Bok says. “Bids that are significantly low could affect the projects negatively and bring about quality, health and safety issues that are to the disadvantage of the government as well as the public. They could lead to poor working conditions for engineering professionals, especially the younger ones.”
In his attempt to break the vicious cycle, Ir Bok led a group of young professionals to compile two research reports on augmenting engineering manpower to cope with the foreseeable surge in demand and procurement policy review for works contracts and consultancy contracts. The reports were submitted to the Government, which, so far, has accepted two recommendations found in them: one aims to discourage unreasonably low bids by enhancing the fee diving control mechanism on consultancy; the other suggests setting consultants’ reference staff rates for additional services. More efforts on this front, especially on works contracts, will be exercised in trying to build an environment that would allow for better work-life balance within the engineering community, especially the younger engineers. “I wish,” Ir Bok says, “to entreat all the consultants and contractors to submit reasonable bids. With more experienced engineers, there will be greater motivation for creativity and innovation, thereby improving productivity and reducing the total costs.”
Leading a balanced life
Contributing to society is the key reason Ir Bok became an engineer, and it remains the focus of his life after retirement.“Aiming to serve the youth community, and as a board member of directors of several primary and secondary schools, I love talking to students and helping them pave their own way for the future,” he says. “It is also a dream of mine to establish schools in places in poverty, as I believe that only knowledge can change one’s fate.”
Ir Bok cycling in Mongolia
Ir Bok cycling in Latvia
To cope with his massive responsibilities, Ir Bok loves to indulge in the immersive fun of cycling to restore balance in his hectic life with the unparalleled beauty of nature. Like the physicist Albert Einstein, Ir Bok believes: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving forward5”. On his own, too, Ir Bok has thought up quite a few lessons in life wisdom while cycling across the mountains. “Just give me a call and I can share them with you in the happy hours!”
“Staying healthy is another focus of mine. I find it particularly invigorating to ride up the mountain and breathe in some fresh air,” he says. “In 2015, when I participated in a cycling trip around Taiwan, the oldest rider in the group was 72. My target for now is to be still able to ride around Taiwan at the age of 72.”
- Ir Bok advocates his self-invented project management philosophy called “Three in One, Three Zeros and Three Attitudes”
- Another 2,000 units were built at the onset of the 3rd wave in July
- The road map was launched in June 2022. Copy of the report can be found at here
- Quote from Theodore Von Karman
- Quote from Albert Einstein