AT last, the educational establishment is beginning to wake up to the approach of 1997 and mainland rule. But it is drifting out of its sleep too slowly, as if it had a long school holiday ahead instead of the start of the new term. There are less than two years to go before Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty. Yet even now the option of making the teaching of Putonghua mandatory in all schools is only the subject of an informal proposal in a discussion paper before the Board of Education. It could become official policy if sufficient Board members think the Department of Education should pursue it. Those who argue there are too few qualified Mandarin teachers available to permit the language's inclusion as a compulsory public examination topic could still win the day.
So far, just 619 out of 1,400 primary and secondary schools offer Putonghua as an option - and another 37 schools have plans to offer China's official language as an optional subject in the new academic year. A shortage of teachers means some schools can only provide the subject once a week - which is too little to be of much use to most pupils - or not at all. Making the subject compulsory will not solve the teacher shortage; it will merely put children in schools that cannot attract staff at a further disadvantage.
Nevertheless, there is no excuse for delay. Only by setting a timetable for compulsory introduction in all schools can there be any hope of kick-starting an urgent Putonghua teacher-training programme. Hong Kong needs the language as much as it has needed English in the past. It must be able to communicate with the new rulers and should not make the mistake, as it made with the British, of believing that only an educated elite need speak their language. And unlike the British, who preferred to deal with the elite, China is unlikely to sit by and watch while the territory ignores its language. Decisions not taken voluntarily now are all too likely to be imposed two years hence.
That said, despite the shortage of teachers, most Cantonese speakers should find learning a second Chinese dialect easier than learning English. A concentration on Putonghua could all too easily be at the expense of the territory's shaky English skills.
There is nothing old-fashioned or colonialist about insisting on the importance of English to Hong Kong's future. The business community is continuously complaining of a shortage of good English speakers. The territory's importance to the mainland as a source of skills and international contact will be dramatically reduced if China's own English skills overtake ours.
Singaporeans already speak both English and Putonghua better than Hong Kong people. The two languages should be compulsory in schools and children should be encouraged to see mastery of both as the key to their future.