HKU-Common Purpose Leadership Development Program 2017

July 19, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

Waking up to a rooster in the morning. Four hours in traffic for a 40-min journey. Wifi speeds that require 3 hours to stream a 1-hour movie.

My first impressions of cultural immersion in Manila.

In June, I joined a month-long leadership program in Manila, co-organized by the University of Hong Kong and Common Purpose. The program was split into two sections; the first two weeks building on teamwork and leadership, along with site visits to understand social issues in the Philippines. The final two weeks included an internship to a local organization in Manila.

The first two weeks gave me many insights into leadership and communication. Plus, the site visits around Manila were very eye-opening.

Manila gave me a chance to look at different areas from the lens of a first-world country and third world-country. Some areas especially rich and posh, others in extreme states of poverty.

Our first site visit in Manila was to the slums in the Baseco area, Manila Bay. The slums were adjacent to Pasig River, once known as a popular transport route for the Spaniards. Due to industrial development, the river became very polluted. Fish masses migrated and today ecologists say the river is ‘unable to sustain life’.

The river lets off a stench on site, which can be smelt from many of the slums in the compound. Rehabilitation efforts from non-governmental organizations and the private sectors have slowly brought out improvements, yet there is a long way to go.

Trash washed off the coast of Pasig River

The locals we interviewed struggled with monthly income, given a lack of government regulations on employment and insufficient education to take up Metro Manila jobs. “Becoming a janitor requires two years of college education.” Said one of the locals, still grateful that slum kids got access to primary and secondary education for free

Many of the mothers sit and peel garlic to earn for their families, yet don’t receive much value for their work. “For 15 kg of garlic, a woman has to sit and peel for 8-10 hours. And she only receives 80 pesos.” Said one of the NGO staff giving us a tour, adding that a portion of the income is also sent back to family members in the province

80 pesos? That’s not even 15 HKD. In Hong Kong, you can’t even get a meal with that amount.

But one thing I noticed was that even though people weren’t exactly rich, they were always still happy.

Religious communities in Manila play an important role in building community spirit. The Baseco church was broken down multiple times, in events such as typhoons and floods, but residents always persisted in building it back, brick by brick.

Religious communities actively take up rehabilitation projects in the Philippines

Some of the workshops we attended gave me useful insights on communication and training, something I’ve been interested in as a future career. An effective communication tip I still remember was a smart technique used in cracking up a good conversation.

“Be into gossip. Tell your interviewee they have a nice sense of style.” said the speaker, explaining how it makes an excellent conversation starter in the context of an interview

My 2-week internship was at the Oscar M. Lopez Center, a privately-funded NGO looking at the use of science and technology to improve climate change adaption and disaster risk management efforts in the Philippines. I was given a chance to meet many inspiring leaders passionate about climate change.

Many climate change leaders shared their insights on the importance of persistence, communication and integrity in leadership

During the weekends, I’d take time off to explore sights in Manila and try out new things. In one month, I visited a trampoline park, did laser tag, went on a banana boat, tried out flying fish, went rafting, visited waterfalls and rode on a Filipino tricycle and jeepney, and had some of the best (and cheapest) falafels in the world. All for the first time.



When I have a long day, I sometimes blog about my experiences before going to bed. It’s sometimes a beautiful experience that I want to translate into words when it’s fresh in my mind.

Here’s an excerpt from my day at Laiya beach, Batangas.

“Today was an interesting day. One I never thought I’d see, not from the eyes of Joy two weeks back.

I headed off to the Batangas area of the Philippines, south of Manila to a near beach. The initial expectations were pristine beaches, coconuts and sandcastles. Yet we came to Laiya beach for water sports.

My first step into the sand was welcoming, unlike the glass chips off beer bottles back in Hong Kong. Walking towards the waters in the midst of warm sand felt relaxing, an occasional foot reflexology massage with rocks on the sand. The sea temperature neither too hot nor cold for the weather.

In line with my pledge to step out of my comfort zone, I took on Banana Boating and Fish Flying.

Banana Boating and Fish Flying are similar concepts. You are put onto inflatable boats of different shapes, attached to a speedboat in front. Holding onto the boats, your goal is to stay on these boats as long as possible.

Banana Boating is the easier route, because movements generally happen left and right, and you can clearly see the speedboat direction and project your strategy to stay on the boat longest. Flying Fish adds a vertical element, and it’s simply easier to fall in.

I took on both, proud to be one of the first few to fall in.”

Pristine beaches off the coast


Unlike Hong Kong, in Manila, you don’t worry about stepping onto glass bottles on the beach!


Flying Fish!

Towards the end of the program, one of my friends came up to me and asked “What have you learnt about yourself in the past month?”

Having gotten a “you look tanned” from almost every person I’ve been catching up with in Hong Kong, I’m so tempted to put “sunscreen doesn’t work on me” on top of my epiphany agenda. But immersed in deep conversations with myself over my true identity, I picked out few more important insights I gained.

In the past one month, I’ve learnt more about myself as a leader, and experienced different contexts to practice leadership.

As a leader, I’ve seen myself work with different groups of people in this program. It was much easier to be a leader back in high school, because not many people were eager to take up the responsibility. In addition, we all came from similar backgrounds and communication was almost never an issue.

This program was a chance to communicate with people across cultures, with different academic backgrounds and walks of life in general. One of the youngest in my team, I didn’t picture standing up as a leader as first. But I was glad I didn’t let age become a barrier and saw it as a chance to build on my leadership skills, something I’ve always been passionate about improving, anywhere I go.

I’ve always been curious about ‘inspiration’ under the category of leadership. Growing up, I would take up the role of leader in many group projects. But my teammates weren’t inspired or galvanized to do work. They did it for the grades, and only listened to me because I was good at delegating tasks based on my teammates’ strengths and weaknesses.

I admire Michelle Obama and how I wish someday I could use the power of tools like writing and public speaking to compliment leadership, and galvanize change. But being such a young leader, I don’t see how I can inspire others.

I was lucky to meet an inspiring leader in the midst of the program; a climate change leader I interviewed brought out an interesting message on inspiration in leadership.

I quote, “Inspiration is a combination of three Greek words; ‘logos’, ‘pathos’ and ‘ethos’. Three things matter in inspiration, namely, whether you deliver the right words, how you deliver those words, and whether you believe in what you say.”

In other words, someone with the right message, an aspiring delivery and that lives what he preaches will make a powerful, aspiring leader. A famous saying goes, “Be on fire with your message, people will walk 1000 miles to see you burn.”

Throughout my time as group leader, I’ve tried my best to deliver the right messages with aspiring delivery. I’ve noticed moments when my team didn’t necessarily do too well, or isn’t in the mood. Yet I’ve tried to use the right words to cheer them up, with creative ways of delivery. A good example was singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley when groupmates were exhausted.

In the context of group work, one of my core values is teamwork, and everybody getting a voice. I’ve tried to practice this through taking time to listen to everyone in the team. Despite the rush of time, I always stuck to my values of everyone getting a voice, whether it was a simple waiting for a nod of approval from every groupmate before we jumped into a group activity.

I realize I’m not in the “world leader” context to inspire others into believing in womens’ rights like Michelle Obama. People aren’t going to tweet out my words if inspired. But I do notice subtle responses of appreciation, much like the many anonymous ‘Thank You notes’ I received on the day before our internships began.

Common Purpose introduced us to a “Core and Flex” concept towards the beginning of the program, asking us what values and principles we held strong in our core. At the same, what aspects of ourselves that we adapt to differing circumstances. In other words, the flex.

I realize I have values such as vegetarianism and animal rights strong in my core, principles that I don’t let go of regardless of circumstances. But I’ve had lots of chances to expand my flex in this program. I am sometimes scared of water sports, but I took on trying out Flying Fish, with an intention of simply having a good time with friends.

More than learning about myself, I really cherish the friendships I’ve made along the way.

For me, opening up to a group of people has always been an obstacle in forming friendships. Away from home for a month, in addition to the context of Manila which required me to be with a group whenever I travelled, I was forced to spend more time with students and I opened up to a group of friends.

I am so grateful for the wonderful friendships I know I’ll cherish for life. I’m grateful to the Common Purpose team and the HKU team for organizing this program.

And Hong Kong, I’m grateful for your high-speed trains and wifi speed. I’m not going to be complaining anytime soon.