Equal Opportunities Commission

Education system ignores needs of ethnic minorities

Moses Mui says Hong Kong's lack of an education policy that is fair and open to non-Chinese families demonstrates prejudice that's unbecoming in an international city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 11:17am

Where do ethnic minority students fit in under the government's moral and national education curriculum? There were many uncertainties surrounding the government's now-suspended plan to make the subject compulsory in our schools, and this was one.

Parts of the subject are aimed at encouraging a Chinese identity and sense of belonging, yet how would that be taught to students who identify themselves as Pakistani Hongkongers or Indian Hongkongers? There was never a satisfactory answer. Obviously, the government was not being particularly culturally sensitive when drawing up the policy.

According to the Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong's ethnic non-Chinese population grew 32 per cent from 2001 to 2011, and the proportion rose from 5 per cent to 6.4 per cent. There are around 30,000 ethnic minority (South or Southeast Asian) full-time students in Hong Kong, but many of them are not informed about what is happening in the education system, as most school notices are in Chinese and some ethnic minority parents have difficulties communicating with teachers in Cantonese or English.

Research conducted by the Council of Social Service in 2010 found that 60 per cent of ethnic minority parents were unfamiliar with the local education system. This was not through lack of interest in their children's well-being. Indeed, the research found that most of the ethnic minority parents were very concerned about and involved in their children's education - just as much as local Chinese parents. The lack of information was due to the language barrier, more than 74 per cent of ethnic minority parents reported.

Even though the Education Bureau is now providing seminars on the school allocation system for ethnic minority parents, the scale and coverage is insufficient and the result has been ineffective.

Many non-Chinese-speaking secondary students do not know that Chinese language is a prerequisite to enter local universities. They are sometimes encouraged to choose French instead of Chinese in designated schools, but that will not help them enter a local university or find a decent job here.

Moreover, it is difficult for non-Chinese-speaking students to learn Chinese if their parents cannot speak or write the language. Students in designated schools where ethnic minority students are the majority do not even get much chance to practise Chinese with the local Chinese students. Without extra support in learning Chinese, they have little or no hope of getting the qualifications required for local tertiary education. As a result of this, only 0.9 per cent of tertiary students come from our ethnic minority population. Most of the rest, regardless of academic potential, are condemned to blue-collar work, even if their families have been in Hong Kong for generations.

Poor Chinese-language skills therefore contribute to cross-generational poverty. It is a vicious cycle in which inadequate help in Chinese leads to students falling behind, even dropping out at the urging of mainstream schools.

Since education is the only chance for them to survive in our competitive society, the government should strengthen support for non-Chinese-speaking students. These students must have some form of subsidised and accredited, multi-level Chinese examination system. And there should be more outreach at kindergartens and primary level to help ethnic minority parents understand the local education system.

Although officials call Hong Kong international and diversified, our society on the whole is not so friendly or respectful to ethnic minorities and their religions. For example, a Muslim Indian teacher was sacked by a school simply because she wore a headscarf; banks have refused to let people from ethnic minorities open accounts owing to their nationalities; we have heard of students not being allowed to study physics because of earlier bad results for other non-Chinese-speaking students. The Equal Opportunities Commission has not always been able to help with such cases because the Race Discrimination Ordinance does not cover discrimination by religion or nationality.

Prejudice and discrimination not only damage our reputation as an international city, but lead to social differentiation, loss of potential talent and social problems, including drug use and crime.

With its ultimate goal of building an inclusive and harmonious society, the government should take the lead by reviewing its education policy to ensure genuinely equal opportunities in education for everyone, regardless of ethnic background.

Moses Mui is chief officer of family and community service at the Hong Kong Council of Social Service