Solving global problems

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 2006, 12:00am

STUDENTS SAY IT IS the most fun you can have in a suit, but the fancy clothes are just part of an elaborate two-day diplomatic role play that tests their knowledge of world affairs and sharpens their debating skills.

The suit, of course, is the easy part of the Hong Kong Model United Nations (HKMUN), which marked its 18th anniversary this year. The knowledge and the skill come a little harder.

Late last month the West Island School auditorium was transformed into a mock UN General Assembly in which more than 200 student-diplomats from 19 different Hong Kong secondary schools did their best to solve some of the most intractable problems our world faces today: poverty, human rights abuses, failed states and nuclear proliferation. The session also involved an 'emergency' scenario in which anger over Israeli treatment of the Palestinians conflates with outrage over recently published cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed to spark a spate of violence that culminates in mass hostage taking.

With a rainbow of national flags suspended above the proceedings, the sessions ran from 9am to 4.30pm each day. Students from six local and 13 international or English Schools Foundation schools took part. A high-powered delegation from the University of Hong Kong was also present, often adding a heightened eloquence and passion to the debates.

Although not without comic relief, the atmosphere in the auditorium was generally as serious as the issues addressed, and the rules of order highly formalised. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, played by Daniella Mak of Island School, repeatedly admonished delegates to rise above the UN's reputation as a 'toothless talk shop', while the president of the General Assembly - Ashwin Bhat of Sha Tin College - presided over the simulation with a firm voice and an even firmer wooden gavel.

No delegate was allowed speak unless recognised by the president, and any delegate who spoke longer than their allotted time, which usually ranged from 30 seconds to four minutes, was cut off by a bang of the gavel. Students learned quickly not to mince words.

The aim of every delegate at the HKMUN - and at any of the more than 500 Model United Nations that take place around the world each year - is a faithful representation of their assigned country's position on the issues taken up in the simulation. For Elizabeth Fong Ka-ki of Diocesan Girls' School, this meant not only researching the politics of her country, Indonesia, but also learning a little of her 'native' language.

As the conference opened, she gave a welcoming speech in Indonesian. The HKMUN, she said, represented an 'opportunity to learn about diplomacy and politics in action. Also, MUN gives us the excuse to act important and influential - it's a great feeling'.

For the chief organiser of the event since its inception - Chris Forse, now head of parent and student services at the ESF - the HKMUN is a 'labour of love' that has been requited by the consistent excellence in the performance of the students who take part. This year's simulation was marked by superb speech-making, he said, but it stood out in his memory for the impressive level of research that made such speeches possible.

Karine Chan Ka-wing of Heep Yunn School, who represented Japan, summed up the dual challenge of the HKMUN this way: 'We have to do a lot of research to know more about the issues. And we have to be bold enough to speak and answer challenging questions posed by the other delegates.'

'It is very demanding,' added her schoolmate and fellow delegate, Katherine Law Kar-yee.

Many observers of this year's HKMUN felt that the nuclear debate was the high point. It saw the Iranian delegation, Elizabeth Shen Zhiren and Thomas Jackson, of Island School, hold the floor for 30 minutes under persistent attack over their controversial nuclear programme from, among others, Israel (represented by King George V School) and the United States (role-played by Li Po Chun United World College). St Joseph's College, newcomers this year to the HKMUN, also jumped into the fray.

In the end, the nimble Iranian delegates gave as good as they got, but they nevertheless failed to prevent the passage of a resolution that would severely cramp any ambitions their country might have to develop nuclear weapons.

Other highlights of the conference included HKU's vigorous defence of China's human rights record, with Albert Ma Yuk-ting arguing that the 'collective good is more important than the individual' and then drawing applause from the gallery with his concluding line: 'Today China stands tall, saying that we are proud.'

The human rights debate was also characterised by repeated denunciations of 'western hypocrisy' from the Zimbabwean delegation, played with enthusiasm by students from German Swiss International School.

In the failed-states debate, German Swiss's Bryan Kam Tsun-hon even coined a new phrase that is unlikely to be picked up by the Bush administration in the near future, calling America and its allies an 'axis of western evil'.

Besides the dressed-up delegates and their verbal repartee, there is another aspect of the HKMUN that one cannot help but notice.

The mix of local and international students drawn to the event creates an unusual social dynamic that is no mere simulation. E-mail addresses and telephone numbers are exchanged. Friendships are made.

Teacher Moira James, the MUN adviser at St Paul's Co-educational College, said: 'The coming together of more than 200 students from 13 international schools and six local schools results in a mini-MUN of its own.'

On the educational value of the HKMUN, she added: 'Nobody would accuse today's students of being passive learners if they were to witness an MUN debate at its height.'

Another teacher-adviser, Leslie Yip Wai-yun, of Diocesan Girls' School, offered this advice to teachers and students considering getting involved: 'Of course, it's a good idea. But it is true that there is a learning curve.

'For inexperienced participants, it probably takes one or two years for the teacher-advisers and students to find out what is going on before they can enjoy the activity.' Again, the suit is the easy part.