Obituary: Sir John Bremridge
Saturday 14 May 1994
JOHN BREMRIDGE, the former head of Swire's in Hong Kong, was Financial Secretary to the Hong Kong Government from 1981 to 1986 and his monument is his successful stabilisation of the Hong Kong economy during the critical negotiations with China between 1982 and 1984. His decisive act was the linking of the Hong Kong currency to the US dollar in October 1983, at what was then thought to be an arbitrary rate. The 'peg', which was an instant success, has remained the basis of Hong Kong's financial policy.
Born in South Africa of British parents and educated in England, Bremridge joined the Army in 1943, immediately on his 18th birthday, following the death of his father in the RAF. After the Second World War, Bremridge read Law at Oxford before joining Swire and Sons in 1949 as a management cadet in Hong Kong.
His career with Swire's began with their shipping business, with spells from Hong Kong in Japan and Australia. He was later concerned with the early days of Cathay Pacific Airways and became the Chairman of Swire's in Hong Kong in 1973.
His period in charge was the time of the rapid expansion of the Hong Kong economy under the governorship of Sir Murray MacLehose and the opening of the China economy under Deng Xiaoping. MacLehose appointed Bremridge to the Legislative Council in 1974 and to his Executive Council in 1977. Bremridge also served on a variety of public bodies and advisory committees which are the basis of Hong Kong's consensus democracy.
Leaving Swire's in 1981, he accepted Maclehose's unique request to a businessman to join the Administration as Financial Secretary. His first budget marked the optimistic conclusion of the MacLehose decade. Hong Kong enjoyed a growth rate of 11 per cent and a large budget surplus, and Bremridge sharply reduced taxes in his first budget in 1982.
Sir Edward Youde succeeded MacLehose as Governor in May 1982 in preparation for the negotiations with China. Unfortunately the Hong Kong economy immediately suffered its biggest post-war reverse. The United States, Hong Kong's largest market, entered a sharp recession. Domestically, the overblown Hong Kong property market collapsed. These economic reverses were then compounded by the political uncertainty of the China negotiations. Bremridge was faced with a collapse in government revenue, an unexpected budget deficit, rising inflation and a rapidly weakening currency.
Admitting previous miscalculations, he cut government expenditure and sharply increased taxes. His stringent policy restored the customary surplus and reduced the government take of the gross national product to well below 20 per cent. His answer to the collapse of the currency was the link with the American dollar on 15 October 1983. Whether the link would work was doubted in many quarters including, at first, Margaret Thatcher, who was concerned about the possible effects on Britain's reserves. But its success was immediate. Hong Kong's interest rate was reduced by the end of October, the Hang Seng stockmarket index resumed its upward path and the strong dollar removed inflation.
Bremridge spent the next two years cleaning up the fall-out from this marked depression. Failing banks were rescued and a basic change in banking regulation introduced. Scandals arising from collapsed companies were dealt with and company law was revised. The unification of the stock exchanges was achieved, Bremridge's final public duty being the opening of the first day's trading in 1986 of the new international exchange.
Bremridge always had an eye to the bigger picture. He worked closely with Youde with whom he had a strong personal bond. He opened the public debate on where the Hong Kong economy was going with the rise of China and privately mused on the role of the Hong Kong Administration in the twilight period of transition.
By weathering this crucial period, Bremridge laid much of the foundation for Hong Kong's present prosperity. His personal tragedy was the injuries from a fall in 1987 which cut short what would have been an equally successful third career in commerce after Hong Kong. He is survived by his wife, Jacqueline, to whom he owed much in often smoothing over the rough edges caused from time to time by his candid approach. They had two sons and two daughters, the sons following their father's example with commercial careers in the Far East.
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