For the last two months of summer in Hong Kong, our
streets and malls of Central and Causeway Bay have been
full of the hum and bustle of overseas students returning
from the four corners of the world. Over a drink or
two, they talk about the people, the music, the sports,
the shops, the clubs and other fashionable places such
as New York, London, Tokyo and Shanghai. More evident
now then ever, the Hong Kong trait of internationalism
is in the air.
In the midst of all this, it is easy to forget that
we are in fact geographically confined to a tiny island.
For a while, we can pretend that the young generation
of Hong Kong is well versed in English and the cosmopolitan
culture. Seeing these youngsters merrily spend their
pocket money on wining and dining, we cannot help but
ask ourselves why is it that the local youngsters never
stop sulking over a perceived future of doom and gloom.
Despite the fact that Hong Kong is a reasonably homogenous
society with a growing middle class, the difference
approaches to rearing our children are increasingly
apparent when some of us choose to send our children
overseas. I do not mean just the difference, which lies
in the system of formal education alone. It is perhaps
the whole mindset that we are passing onto our children.
It is perhaps that Hong Kong has remained stagnant in
some vital areas while the rest of the world had already
moved on. We should take a very hard look at what it
will take to realise the vision that Hong Kong may one
day become the New York or London of China.
On a number
of recent occasions when I spoke to our local students,
I asked them to throw away the Hong Kong map and practice
their English and Putonghua as much as they possibly
can. The harsh reality is that the new generation of
Hong Kong's work force must be trained to take on the
world rather than just the local job market.
I say this because the numbers
simply do not add up. In the last decade, the number
of universities and university graduates has grown exponentially.
The numbers of sub-degree graduates are also likely
to grow rapidly in the coming years. But one basic question
that few have asked is 'where is the demand?' or 'who
is going to offer all these new jobs?'
Hong Kong has a small and mature
economy. Economic growth can only be set at a very moderate
rate, and even that, as recent events have told us,
would still need lots of luck and hard work. Most sectors
of our economy are already dominated by only a handful
of major players efficient enough to satisfy the whole
market locally. The appetites of these operators are
getting so large that they have already shifted their
focus beyond Hong Kong borders to further their dreams
for perpetual growth. As far as traditional industries
are concerned, the signs of over capacity are evident.
I know that the Government is also
trying hard to attract new investments and tourism spending.
Hopes for new economic growth are also pinned on the
development of a logistics center, information technology
and financial services. But the truth of the matter
is that these fashionable new industries are more likely
to attract capital investments in dollars and cents
rather than in numbers of head-count in terms of stable,
Unless our well-qualified students are
trained to become a highly mobile international work
force, the growth in their numbers will continue to
add pressure on our unemployment rate and entry salary
levels. Worse still, they might even drive out, given
some more time, the higher paid middle-aged employees
who have greater financial obligations and less prospects
of finding another job. As yet, our social welfare safety
net is not designed to catch these people.
Unavoidably, it seems that before we see
the many valid long-term benefits of investing in education,
we must first address the much more imminent adverse
If the above hypothesis is true, I would
urge the administration to address the language policy
in a much more determined and urgent manner. We might
perhaps see it no longer just as a matter of educational
desirability, but a matter of future economic survival
of the next generation.
I believe that the right place to start
looking at this issue is neither the logistical problems
at home nor the many wonderful educational theories
from the library books. We must wake up quickly, first
of all, to the fast changing environment around us.
We should ask ourselves 'who do we think will still
be speaking Cantonese or any other form of local Chinese
dialect in 20 years' time?' Will Hong Kong not become
an island of this local dialect and lose our hard earned
competitive edge in linguistic skills forever?
The role and use of local Chinese dialects in
school is fast diminishing on the mainland and in other
Asian countries with a predominantly Chinese population.
Education professionals on the Mainland have used Putonghua
as the main medium of teaching for over a decade. After
some years of doubt the beneficial results are now beyond
The young generation now speaks in one language
and it is the parents in major cities who complain that
they do not even speak the local dialects at home. With
one complication out of the way, youngsters in China
are now focussed on catching up with us in their English
On the other hand, Hong Kong is still locked
in debate about the various possible options of English,
Putonghua or Cantonese. While the debate rambles on,
the standard of Hong Kong students in both English and
Chinese languages is deteriorating. I personally believe
that we are already running the risk of moving down
the wrong track, which leads to isolation rather than
greater internationalism for our future generation.
When will our Government acknowledge that excellence
in English is central to our economic aspirations and
the promotion of spoken Putonghua is also vital to our
survival? I also wonder what it takes for policy
makers to see that the disappearance of Cantonese as
the main medium of instruction can only be a matter
of time? For the sake of our children should we not
lay out a timetable for its phasing out?
Many of Hong Kong's students are academically
gifted and our education system enjoys a high international
reputation. But our young people still need the right
linguistic skills, internationally recognized qualifications
and a high degree of freedom to move and work in other
job markets before they can truly prove their worth.
I trust that the new team of ministers will lead them
with fresh mindsets and empower our youth with the right
skills in order to ensure Hong Kong's continued prosperity
for many years to come.
Credit: Eric Li is the
LegCo Accountancy Functional Constituency Representative.
For more information, refer to his website at http://www.ericli.org.