Hungry for reform
The kitchen and bedside of Jose Coutinho's Taipa apartment are stacked with bottles of mineral water, his only source of nutrition. The former Portuguese teacher and harsh critic of Macau's education system has already been on hunger strike for three weeks.
Commenting on Portuguese language education in Macau, he said: 'It is a system that teaches students it's okay to lie and cheat. I refuse to participate in such a system.'
At a peak of prosperity, it is very difficult for Macau to swallow criticism of any kind at present. Every other week, plans are announced for gigantic casino projects, yet no operator will admit that their profit margins will eventually fall.
After six quarters of double-digit growth, Macau's gross domestic product growth fell to 8.5 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Instead of warning of an economic slowdown, the territory's largest Chinese-language daily, the Macao Daily News, euphemistically reported the statistics as 'a return to normalcy'.
The same refusal to resolve Macau's inadequacies applies to education. Mr Coutinho taught advanced Portuguese classes at the Luis Gonzaga Gomes Luso-Chinese Secondary School in the academic years 2000-2001 and 2003-2004. He was sacked in March, after his repeated proposals for change were ignored, he claims.
He said that 95 per cent of students in the school graduate without being able to pronounce or speak basic Portuguese. 'The vast majority can't even spell a single word,' he wrote in a letter to Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah on June 9.
At the government-funded Luso-Chinese schools in Macau, Portuguese classes are mandatory. During the 2000-2001 year, secondary-three students at Macau's schools had to pass every subject to advance to the next grade. Mr Coutinho claims that teachers coached students for their Portuguese exams by giving them the questions beforehand.
After his repeated requests for change were ignored, a frustrated Mr Coutinho ran a car into the People's Liberation Army barracks on May 25 in the hope of being sent to jail, where he would begin a hunger strike. When he was released the following day after paying a 5,000-pataca penalty, he started his protest at home. With no response from Mr Ho, he continues his hunger strike.
Rita Botelho dos Santos, a prominent member of the Macanese community - people of mixed Portuguese and Chinese heritage - said she believes the language will become more important in Macau in the coming years. 'Macau needs more young professionals who can forge communications between China and the Portuguese-speaking countries,' she said.