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The Language of Progress

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, recurrent employment.

   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 impacts.

   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 doubt.

  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 language skills.

  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.

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