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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 7:45pm
My Take
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2013, 7:10am

Where are our public intellectuals?

It's not the most promising subject but Professor Gordon Mathews' op-ed piece on our deeply flawed assessment system for local academics has been among this paper's most widely read commentaries in recent months.

Indeed, it has collected 1,000 likes on our website since it was published a week ago. It really takes skill and insight to turn such an arcane topic into a matter of common concern. And yes, it is, or should be, a matter of grave concern for the public.

At a time when Hong Kong's society, economy and government are undergoing profound and confusing changes, we need thinkers and writers who can speak with moral and intellectual authority, who understand local conditions and can analyse and explain them in a way that is profound yet helpful to the general educated public.

We naturally look to our universities for such individuals, who can play the illuminating role of public intellectuals. But we have no one who fits the bill. Sure, we have a few rent-a-quote talking heads from the universities, but you know what they will say before they say it. Professor Mathews provides an explanation for this sorry state of affairs; the Research Assessment Exercise is at least partly to blame.

The ranking exercise asks local university academics to pick their four "best" publications from the past six years to be judged by panels of experts. Judges from overseas usually don't read Chinese, and almost all judges rank publications in prestigious foreign journals more highly than in local or Asian ones. Mathews acknowledges this is less a problem in the hard sciences than in the humanities. But the result is that humanities scholars are encouraged to publish in English on topics unrelated to Hong Kong with theories that are largely irrelevant to local understanding.

I'd love to know this: where are the economists who research and debate publicly the desirable level of reserves for the government; political scientists writing about the pace of democratisation; sociologists on the wealth gap, cross-border integration and conflicts with mainlanders? It's not just a matter of researching such burning local topics but a willingness to engage and inform the public that is largely missing in our highly paid academics.


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Funny. You are right, but when you were actually faced with aan academic who has stepped forward into a public debate, what did you do? You mostly ignored his message, did not report on the content of any meaningful discussion you might have had, and instead ridiculuded him for choosing a lunch spot outside of your HK Island bubble and wrote about his munching of his Caesar salad. So how about you cast the first stone Mr Lo? Invite some insightful and opinionated academics like Prof Tai to write a guest column - Their Take.
I generally enjoy Alex Lo's brief commentary. But this column today about public intellectuals really ran off the track and inspired my first on line response. After years of watching academics and other intellectuals in Hong Kong contribute commentary to the SCMP and other papers, testify in the Legislative Council, found and organize civic groups that have taken major causes to the streets and generally take the lead in Hong Kong's public debate, all of which I have also done myself, it is rather insulting to these dedicated people for someone to pretend there are no public intellectuals in Hong Kong. Public commentary is not for everyone but I have always rather appreciated the substantial role my academic colleagues play in the Hong Kong public debate. Even the current rather controversial "occupy central" debate is lead by one of my academic colleagues at HKU and a former colleague at CUHK. I myself mixed it up as a founding member of the Article 23 and 45 Concern Groups. Perhaps views reflected in these activist exercises are too outspoken for Alex Lo's taste. But academic colleagues have stepped up on all sides of Hong Kong's intellectual and political debates from the major role colleagues at HKU and CUHK played in the SARS debate to challenging contributions over national minority rights in China to China's political economy. This academic role is something I have long appreciated about HK. I doubt public intellectuals were Gordon Mathews' target. Michael Davis, HKU
Copied from my previous posting:
While Hong Kong’s universities suffer from self-imposed restriction by the academics for their papers, more also should be said about the same that comes from Hong Kong itself as well. Since most of the university get funded by the government, professors would be foolish to speak ill or truth that is counter to government’s interests. Professor Benny Tai is the exception not the rule. Secondly, the invisible influence by the local tycoon(s) who set up chairs in university. How many times have you heard any academic to speak up on issues about the runaway urban density in Hong Kong? None? If there is no overhaul in the funding by government and undue influence by tycoons, we will not see productivity from our professors that will benefit Hong Kong’s general public. The existence of our universities unlike elsewhere is just a window-dressing. What a waste of talents and our money.


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